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Prof. Lee Willingham

Professor Lee Willingham Makes Space for Community Music

“It’s a great privilege to work with students,” says Lee Willingham, professor of music education; director, Laurier Centre for Music in the Community; coordinator, music education; coordinator, Master of Arts in Community Music. “Every time I teach a class or meet with a student or work with students, it’s a tremendous pleasure. I don’t take it for granted.”

After more than 40 years of teaching secondary and post-secondary education, these days Willingham is most passionate about the Community Music program he is helping to grow within the Faculty of Music at Laurier.

“A Community Music program like ours opens up a wider space for musicians that want to grow their musical creativity and skill to work within community, to use music to enhance lives at the grassroots,” say Willingham. “Their professional interests lie beyond straight performance or teaching or therapy, and their musical interests' range beyond classical. We make space for all types of music from pop to spoken word to rock to world to hip-hop to experimental.”

“Right now, most formal music training happens in classrooms, studios or conservatories, yet probably 99 per cent of musicians don’t occupy those traditional spaces,” he says. “So, Community Music is a field that privileges teaching, sharing and collaborating on music-making outside these institutional settings. Community Music speaks to individuals and communities, no matter where they are.”

The Community Music movement originated in the United Kingdom during the post-industrial years of mass unemployment of the 1970s and 80s. Community activists began to look for ways to help the many youth lacking care and purpose and/or experiencing engagement with the judicial system. 'Community Music Workers' were hired to engage with these youth through drum circles, music festivals, jam sessions and more. The idea was so successful it spread around the globe.

Laurier’s Community Music program collaborates with universities in Ireland, England, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and Australia who are developing continuing generations of Community Music Workers to engage with all sectors of society.

In 2004, Willingham came to Laurier as coordinator in music education. After 10 years with the faculty, including many years as choral director lifting up student and alumni choral talent, he spearheaded the establishment of a Master of Arts in Community Music.

“This degree was an opportunity for those who wanted to do more research and in-depth study on Community Music,” says Willingham. “It was open to those in the middle of their career and allowed for transfer credit based on lived experiences.”

The program is very popular, with registrations always maxed out, and is offered full-time and part-time. Its main research and practice themes include accessibility and inclusion, diversity and intergenerational learning. Informal and non-formal pedagogies are privileged (not just formal instruction), as well as activism (addressing social concerns and issues) and health and well-being (music-making for better quality of life).

In 2016, the faculty launched a Bachelor of Arts in Community Music, making Laurier the only university to offer a BA and MA in this trail-blazing field. Willingham’s current passion project is working with the faculty to bring in a PhD in Community Music by 2022 – another exciting first for the university.

“I find myself always a little bit on the edge, not in the centre, in many ways,” says Willingham of the way he teaches, thinks about and develops music education. “Community Music is a totally innovative program at the university level, so I always find myself with these great possibilities. Being able to help Laurier offer all three programs – BA, MA and PhD – that would be the capstone of my career.”

“The innovations I helped bring about have created spaces for students to do things that normally they wouldn’t have a chance to do,” he says. “That, I feel, is my most significant contribution to this community.”

Yet they aren’t his only contributions. As an Our Laurier (staff and faculty) donor, Lee supports an endowed award in the name of his twin daughters, who were one year old when Willingham joined the Laurier community. At that time, Willingham noticed that there were many awards for music performers, composers and therapists, but less for educators. Incentivized by a government of Ontario matching program and realizing that he could provide a significant award for what he describes as “a couple coffees a day off his paycheque,” he set up the Leah & Nora Award in Music Education, for upper year, full-time students pursuing a Bachelor of Music, demonstrating average academic achievement, leadership in music education and financial need.

It has been his great pleasure to meet the recipients of this award; it's another opportunity to do what he loves best: getting to know and support youth. And more often than you’d expect, the recipients are his students (Willingham does not select the recipients himself), making the relationship even more meaningful.

“Some awards fill a financial need when students really are struggling to pay,” says Willingham. “But just as importantly, they are an affirmation of excellence and achievement, of leadership and passion.”

For Willingham, students need this recognition as much as they need spaces to be creative and engaged citizens. This approach sees the student as a whole person: creative, expansive and connected beyond the university. This philosophy is deeply rooted in Willingham’s teaching, mentorship and advocacy and support for Community Music. It is also rooted within former Dean of Music Glen Carruthers’ vision for Making Space for Music, the fundraising campaign which will renovate the existing architecture of the Music Faculty to create spaces that encourage authentic creation, easeful collaboration and wider community relationships.

Laurier Music students are more than ready for a music-making space like this. Willingham, in working with students, sees “this open, inquisitive appetite for growing, learning and exploring.”

“You think you’ve seen it all after 40 years,” he says. “You haven’t. Every daisy is different, every student brings something neat and new.”

Willingham had to sign off our interview at this point. He’s still teaching online, but now he has “the great pleasure of in-office hours” and is looking forward to meeting with the students who come to see him.

“It’s time to get to know them, why they are at Laurier, their history, their aspirations,” says Willingham. You can hear in his voice how much these students, and their education, mean to him. “The key to success is the strength of the relationships with the people you work with. It’s the relationships that matter most.”

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