If you happened to wander by a UVic lecture theatre where Priest was teaching his "History of the Blues" course last semester, you might have heard the instructor trading tuneful "Hi-de-hi-de-ho's" with his students. If you actually walked into the lecture hall, you might find a student who had never picked up a guitar before playing the blues. Priest believes in what he calls an "experiential" approach to teaching. He doesn't lecture, at least not in the usual sense of the word. Instead he plays and comments on records and films, brings in guest speakers and musicians, and facilitates class discussion and active participation.
This unorthodox approach to post-secondary education seems to work for the students. Many of them, including myself, have come out of Priest's class with a feeling that they have gained a unique insight into the subject being taught. Last semester I was one of 60 students who took "Crossroads: The Origins and History of the Blues," a course offered through the UVic Music department. For me, Priest's blues course was a welcome respite from the more conventional rigours of other classes. Most courses focus on the printed word, whereas Priest's creative use of visual images, sound and class interaction gave his blues course a qualitative edge.
Priest also teaches a course entitled "Electric Gypsy: The Life and Music of Jimi Hendrix," the first-ever university course devoted to the legendary rock guitarist. Last summer, it was the most sought-after course at UVic. The popular music messenger teaches the Hendrix course again this summer, and will also be unveiling a new course entitled "The History of Rock 'n Roll."
Blazing new trails is nothing new for Priest, a doctoral candidate in musical composition at UVic. The 44-year-old composer's works for solo and chamber ensemble, full orchestra and multimedia have been performed worldwide. Priest also leads Marzena North, an interdisciplinary arts ensemble in Victoria. "Marzena" is Polish for dream, reflecting the two years Priest spent in that country, studying under classical composer Witold Lutoslawski. In February, 1995, Marzena North staged a tribute to the late Frank Zappa and in March of 1996 presented "Bold as Love -- A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix."
Not everyone in the Music Department shares Priest's enthusiasm for popular music: the popularity of the Hendrix course is a thorn in some faculty member's sides. One colleague told Priest, "Well, even if it is a sandbox course, I guess it's good that it brings in students." Other professors won't even look the long-haired, rumpled Priest in the eye when they pass in the hall. The Director of the Music Department, Michael Longton, has, however, been supportive of Priest's teaching choices.
Longton is quick to point out that popular music represents a tiny portion of the curriculum. "To have offerings in popular music has never been a real priority, but I don't think there's been any resistance to it either. I haven't heard of any. It's nice to be able to cover another side of the discipline."
When Priest approached Longton about teaching a for-credit course on Jimi Hendrix, he immediately got the green light. "Popular music is here," Longton explains. "It has a history. It has actually not much of a theory. It does have a clear and very intimate connection with the sociological and social issues that are contemporary with it. So it tends to be studied in a different way than you 'study' art music. Popular music is inevitably tied much more to the social currents of its own time."
UVic has offered a theory of jazz course in the past, but Longton places jazz in a different category than blues or rock: "We have had jazz offerings for many years, but jazz is a different thing. Jazz is hardly popular in the same sense. It's seen as a self-contained art form." Ironically, the Hendrix course is being taught this year under the name of "Topics in the History of Jazz."
Longston is not only supportive of Priest's endeavours; he has even participated in one of Priest's recent creative projects. The Director wrote a string quartet piece for Marzena North's Hendrix tribute, which Longton describes as a deconstruction or free variation of "Purple Haze."
Priest states that he has a missionary-like zeal for the subjects he teaches. Their currency is what makes them relevant: "So much of what we have grown up with in school is distanced in the past, to the degree that it doesn't have any real immediate resonance." He continues: "So here [in his courses], we're not only studying our general environment, be it in the airwaves, on TV, or in the literature of the time, it also gives us a better understanding of how and why these things are the way they are. It makes us more intelligent as consumers, and also gives us more insight, understanding and tools to effect any kind of changes."
Paul Bowes, a third-year anthropology student at UVic, completed Priest's blues course. Bowes agrees that popular culture deserves to be studied at a university level: "Popular music has as much validity as anything else. It's an expression of a culture, which is totally overlooked in general academia. It's given no importance, when really there's a lot of history involved in it."
The UVic student also believes that studying blues music has raised his awareness of how western society functions: "Studying the black slave-deriven culture that spawned this incredible music, which has then been appropriated by white people gives you a whole new insight into media, the music industry, the politics and capitalism involved in the system."
Bowes knew little about the blues when he first entered Priest's classroom. Now, however, after studying the music created by poor blacks in the southern United States, Bowes states that "a blues song is just as valid as any symphony or major orchestration. A blues song conveys feeling, meaning, and passion, and it has its context as well."
A first-year student who also took the blues course last semester, Lucky Budd, agrees that Priest has something unique to offer. "These are issues that actually mean something to a bunch of students," he emphasizes. "There's a demand for this type of course. A lot of the music that gets taught in the schools is mathematical." Budd indicates that Priest's experiential teaching approach has worked well for him: "With a topic like the blues, the whole point is to experience what [the blues] is. Bob's a great prof. He treats you like an equal." Budd also comments on the value to him of the blues course: "I haven't ever gotten more out of a course than this one in all my years of schooling. Period."
Bowes also sees Priest's teaching style as student-friendly: "I've never had a class that's been so class-oriented, instead of being oriented to the teacher. Ninety per cent of the profs I've had here in three years just go up and read the lecture. They don't give you anything of themselves; they're not giving you any energy, whereas Bob gets up there and makes a fool of himself for you. Just to get the point across."
Michael Longton has not seen his doctoral student teach, but he doubts that Priest's approach is unusual in the Music Department: "There are a lot of different ways of dealing even with more traditional music. I think we all try to do more than simply stand up in front of people and talk."
Bob Priest's blues course, which began with students listening to different versions of Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues," ended in a less than typical fashion. After class, Priest and some of his students strolled over to the graduate centre lounge for an impromptu blues jam. A band composed of students plugged in their guitars, set up their drums, and played some of the songs they had learned about in class. The Blues feeling was in evidence as the mic got passed around, and we all got our mojos working.
[Photography by Adrian Chamberlain, except second photo, by Gary McKinstry. Photographs courtesy Bob Priest.]
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