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Women in the Arts: Meet Dr. Reba Wissner, CSU's New Public Musicologist

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

Written by Carrie Beth Wallace

Reba Wissner. Image courtesy of the artist.

Q: How did you get into being a musicologist?

A: So, I grew up in New York City. Have you seen the movie Fame? That's the high school I went to. Trust me though, it is nothing like the movie. Nobody dances on the tables. (laughing) Essentially, it was like a conservatory environment but in a public high school. While I was there, I had to take a music history class and I fell in love with it. I thought I wanted to be a music theorist, and went to Hunter College thinking I wanted to be a music teacher.

At the time, Hunter didn't have an undergrad degree in music yet so I decided to be general music major. Then, somehow along the way I found I also liked Italian and decided, well if I wanna be a music historian, wouldn't it be cool to focus on Italian music? I wound up becoming a double major in music and Italian. Then, I went to graduate school where I studied 17th century opera in Venice.

Q: Really? That's interesting.

A: Yeah, it was really cool. But at some point, I went back to wanting to do something slightly different. I couldn't stand looking at my dissertation anymore. I had always loved science fiction television and grew up practically raised on the Twilight Zone.

I decided to start doing work on music in the Twilight Zone. That's what my first book was on. So now I don't touch 17th Century Opera anymore unless I'm really teaching it.

Q: This is a really fascinating path you've been on. What happened after your book?

A: Well, I spent nine years as an adjunct professor, which was an absolutely awful experience for many years. I was teaching at four schools at once in two states. I was commuting between New Jersey and New York.

It was bad. My last semester before I got this job, I was teaching eight classes.

Q: How?

A: Barely. I'm not sure. It was in so many different locations all of the time and it was exhausting. Four classes in one location, two in another, and then two more elsewhere. I did that for eight years and was about to give up and move into a career in faculty development, but then I got this job in Columbus that I am really excited about. It lets me teach, work with faculty development, and continue to do the things I love.

Q: What made you go into public musicology?

A: Having that nine years after I got my degree gave ma a lot of time to think about what I was going to do with my life. Like many students, I really was completely unprepared when I graduated. When you have a PhD in music history, one of two things happens: either you're considered overqualified, or someone in the industry is afraid to hire you because they think you'll get a professor job and then you'll leave the first chance you get.

Job searches can be so challenging, so I started thinking about the skills that I had and what I could do with them longterm. One of the places I used to teach was Westminster Choir College and they offered a graduate program in American and Public musicology. I loved it. I thought about maybe starting a graduate certificate in public musicology. but then one of my colleagues here, Shellie DeBruyn, said, "Well, why don't you think about maybe doing something like that for undergrads?"

Q: What did you say?

A: I thought about it for awhile, and realized that undergrads are probably the ones who need these skills the most. They're the ones who might think that they're going into an orchestra or the US Army Choir... but then they realize they're not auditioning or just how hard the job market is right now because of the pandemic.

So, now if I'm a student and I've got this four year degree in music. What am I gonna do with it?

Q: Right. These are all very important and common questions.

A: I wanted to offer students a class where they could think about the skills that they had as musicians and how that can transfer into something else. I pitched the program in September of 2021. Okay. It got approved in November of 2021. It just started this semester and we've gone from zero students to 29 students.

Q: Wonderful. Are you finding the students see the value of this new program as well?

Yes. Two of those students are not even music majors. One used to be a music major, but she's now a communications major because she wants to go into entertainment law. Another student was a music major at her previous university, but transferred here as a history student because she wants to go into archives.

Q: This is really wonderful. Who is the program open to? A: The program is open to music majors and minors but it's also open to anyone who has previously been a music student either here or elsewhere. This is because I want them to have those core skills. They have to know music well enough to be able to talk about it intelligently. It seems obvious to musicians, but the skills you learn in a music program build a vernacular that not everyone has. In order to study musicology, you need the skills and to speak the language. It's technically an undergraduate program right now, but we do have a graduate student taking the course as well. We're hoping to expand to offer it to more students in the future.

Q: Are you seeing success within the program?

A: Yes. Some of them have already had internships or have been offered internships. We have some really cool things happening. This semester, the students are going to be writing a score preface for a publisher in Germany that's gonna be published. We are working with that publisher to kind of get access to 22 scores so that each student will have their own published piece in their portfolio.

Q: Wow. So they're building a body of work they'll walk out the door with? What else are they learning how to do?

A: Anything and everything I can get them experience in the field doing. We're working on an exhibit for the Columbus Museum.

Q: You are?

A: Yes, the students are gonna mount it in the Fall of '24. We will be one the first exhibits after they reopen from their major renovation.. The students are working with Rebecca Bush (Columbus Museum's Director of Education) to learn how exhibits are build from the ground up. The exhibit is on Black music in Columbus. The students will be responsible for the research, the exhibition catalog, and everything else that goes along with taking musical information or music history and putting into a public space like a museum.

My goal is that when they finish the two year program, they have experience working in all kinds of fields within the Public Musicology realm. They'll have written concert previews, press releases for arts organizations, they'll have worked with social issues within music, they'll work with educational initiatives within the community, etc. They need to see how and why their skills can translate beyond the practice room.

Q: This is incredible. Why the wide array of projects?

A: I want my students to get as much experience doing different things as possible. I know what it's like to go to work and be in a place where you would rather poke yourself in the eye with a hot rod than go in the next day because you're so miserable. So I tell them, if you're not enjoying the projects we're doing in class, I'd rather you figure that out now. Because this is what it takes in the real world to succeed. Musicians have to be able to be versatile. You might think, "Oh, I really want to go into arts administration but then you do some stuff with arts administration and realize it's not for you.

Let's figure that out together now. On the contrary, if they find something they really love, it can be an eye-opening experience that leads them to the next right thing for them after graduation.

Q: You mentioned internships. How do those play into the program?

A: I'm trying to get them some internships so that they can try different things. They're also a great way to make connections. I want to help them build their resumes and teach them skills that are not often taught in the studio because there's no time.

This is why a public musicology certificate is valuable. It tells anyone you interview with next that you have adaptable skills outside of the practice room that you've taken the time to hone in a different way. It takes your resume to a whole new level in the field.

Q: This is wonderful, Reba. CSU and your students are lucky to have you. I can tell you're passionate about this and it's going to make the impact of the program that much greater.

So, what does it mean to you to be a woman in the arts?

Well, I think that as women, we tend to be more nurturing. Therefore we tend to be, as the kids say, "extra" in the sense that we tend to do more than we need to. We kind of have to hustle for artistic survival. I think that because of that, as a woman in the arts, it's really easy to get burned out doing what you love.

As women, that's a danger we need to face and we don't face it often enough. I'm single, I have two dogs. No children. But there are people who have children and families and spouses, and they have to deal with caregiving. Luckily my parents are healthy. They live across they street from me.

Although I don't have as much right now in terms of caregiving responsibilities for my parents, many women do. And when you combine trying to get your career off the ground and keep it going, or in my case, trying to run a program and make tenure, and still do what you love? It's really easy for creative women to get burned out. I feel like women feel that more than men, and it's something I really try to address when I can.

Q: How do you feel like your work is navigating that and combating these things? Do you address these things with your students?

A: I do. I tell my students first and foremost that they come first. There are some professors, where you could be bleeding out in the middle of the classroom floor and they'll say no extensions. I'm not that person. I want you to take care of yourself and learn how do it now. Don't wait until you're out in the full pressures of the professional world. Learn this within the confines of academia while you can.

On all of my course websites, I have a little module that has an image of an empty coffee cup. It says, "Remember you can't pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first."

I tell them, if you feel like guilty about emailing me to ask for an extension or anything, click on that module and remember that I'm supportive of you taking care of you.

This is a problem inherent in musicians, too. So many students are trying to get perfection. It's hours in the practice room, which is again, why so many musicians have performance injuries or mental health issues. Burnout is real.

So, I want them to know that at least my space is a supportive space. It's my hope that in doing that, my colleagues and I are teaching these students, young people, graduate students, to also create safe spaces where they find themselves in the future. This is how we actually make a difference in people's lives, and as a woman in the arts, this is an aspect of my work that is very important to me. ◾️

Learn more about Columbus State University's Public Musicology Program here!


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