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“I am most thankful for all the students I have the pleasure of working with, whom I not only teach but also learn from.” Professor Adam Kielman, Assistant Professor of the Department of Music, begins the interview humbly. “I have no magic secret for success. I am still working hard to improve my teaching, and I think that’s a lifelong process for all of us.” This humility and a love of learning are factors in why he thrives as a teacher and mentor to his students: for his achievements and commitment, he was recognized in 2021 with the Vice-Chancellor’s Exemplary Teaching Award.

Music Beyond Sound

As a saxophonist and an ethnomusicologist, Professor Kielman believes that teaching music goes beyond sound and musical techniques. He sees music as an essential part of life that intertwines with our experiences, emotions, cultures and societies. “Learning and researching about music opens up all sorts of new perspectives, not just on music as an aesthetic practice, but about the dimensions of culture that music is a part of,” said the professor. “Music is a way of thinking about much broader processes. It’s about cultural and social formations.”

With this in mind, he pushes students to

think critically and creatively about music while developing globally-oriented understandings of the diverse ways expressive culture is fundamental to the experience of being human.

In his course Jazz Appreciation: Jazz, American Culture, and Global Contexts, he teaches students to understand the genre by introducing major jazz musicians and works, and how to listen to and appreciate it through discussion of musical examples. At the same time, he inspires students to examine jazz in relation to issues including race, ethnicity, political consciousness, globalization, and economics. “It’s a way of thinking about how music intersects with complicated histories, and in the context of recent years—the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-Asian hate crimes and so on—this is a way to start conversations that we need to be having.”

Thinking Beyond Cultural Assumptions

“I cannot listen to a lecture for two hours and 45 minutes,” said Professor Kielman with a smile as he discussed his approach to teaching. He’s found long lectures to be one of the most common factors affecting students’ motivation and interest in learning. “I often break the class into groups and then introduce some activities. People are much more motivated to engage with the materials when they have a task and a goal.” He once asked students to design a system of musical notation from the ground up. It pushed students to think outside the box—beyond Western staff notation that marks the pitch, duration and intensity of notes—and discover how diverse cultural perspectives offer different ways to write down and conceptualize musical sounds.

The ethnomusicologist emphasized the importance of guiding his students to think creatively beyond cultural assumptions, and to find different ways to open their minds and broaden their perspectives. “I ask questions that push people outside of their usual ways of thinking,” he said. “I begin an introductory music course by asking students, What is music? It reveals the cultural assumptions in our minds, and is a good way of drawing people in by getting them to revisit their own ways of thinking.”


An Open Mind and Love of Learning

“I'm suspicious of the idea that there is good and bad taste in music. If music is meaningful and important to someone, then it's good music.” Being broad-minded, Professor Kielman is always excited to learn something new from his students, with postgraduate students he advises working on topics ranging from Hong Kong indie music to hip-hop in Mainland China.

His open-mindedness and curiosity have a lot to do with his background and experience.

“I don't come from a Western classical music background,” he recalled. “I never expected to work in ethnomusicology.” He came to Guangzhou by chance after getting his bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies at Columbia University, and started off by doing sound production for an IT outsourcing company. Driven by his passion for music, he played jazz at various venues and worked full-time as a musician around Guangzhou for several years before realizing how his undergraduate major connected with his passion. He returned to the US to further his education.

Kielman recently published a monograph, Sonic Mobilities: Producing Worlds in Southern China, which “takes a deep dive into Guangzhou’s music scene through two bands whose music expresses ties to their rural homelands and small-town roots while also forging new cosmopolitan musical connections.”

When asked about the attributes that a teacher must have, he answered,

Creativity, being a good listener, and being adaptable and flexible. The most important thing is to love learning itself, and to have the passion to pass that on.

It is no wonder that these are the exact characteristics of a successful jazz musician—creativity, adaptability, the ability to really listen to other players, and a talent for improvising. The humble ethnomusicologist truly demonstrates these valuable traits.