Here is idea that is suited for all people, regardless of musical talent: conduct original research about your favorite song, artist, genre, era, concert venue, etc. Try to learn something that no one (or next to no one) knows about, then share it with the world.
This post is part 1 of a three-part series. In part 2, I will discuss the benefits of conducting original research. In part 3, I will repost a paper I published based on this experience.
Part 1 – My Experience with Historical Research
I had to write a senior thesis before I could graduate high school. Perhaps you or your children had a similar requirement. There were only few options that we were allowed to pursue. One of them involved sending the final paper to a scholarship competition hosted by the local historical society. The other options didn’t have any payout, so, I pursued the scholarship.
The rules of the competition have faded from my memory over the years, but the gist of was this: applicants had to do original firsthand research about an event, person, or place in Wayne County, New York.
I’m willing to bet that you’ve never been to Wayne County. It’s a rural county along the southern shore of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. It’s a sleepy place with lots of apple farms and a nuclear plant. There’s not a whole lot more than that though, or so I thought at the time. Like many of my classmates, I found the place dull, and I couldn’t wait to leave for college. I was turned off to the idea about writing about it because I couldn’t conceive that anything interesting had ever happened there, but maybe I could win that scholarship. What could I possibly learn that was unknown about a place so boring?
Luckily, someone had put together a list of potential topics for students to consider. I’m not sure if it was the county Historian, or maybe it was my English teacher who wrote the list. I guess it doesn’t matter much either way, because I suppose I owe both of then a debt of gratitude.
One item on the list caught my attention: composers of Wayne County. For sure this had to be an error. Clearly it was meant to say composters of Wayne County. I was sure that no one of musical significance could have ever come from Wayne County. It was much more likely that with so many farms around, there had to be rotting piles of apples somewhere that could be used to fertilize the soil. Luckily, my English teacher was not as convinced as I was, so she encouraged me to join the field trip to the County Historian office so I could find out for myself.
So, I agreed to go check it out. If nothing else, it would be a welcome day of respite from the monotony of the classroom. So, I went along, still in disbelief. When we arrived, a clerk gave us all a brief orientation of facilities. I pulled out the list, and I grilled her about the composer suggestion. I’m sure my voice was drenched in the tone of the arrogance of youth. She blew my mind when she explained that Wayne County actually had a significant music scene in the 1800s.
That world was long gone, and it didn’t sound anything like the place where I lived. I couldn’t reconcile the idea of Wayne County being a relevant cultural hub with the farm county that it was in the 1990s. I had to know more. I was hooked and I had my topic for my paper. Lucky for me, the Historian’s office and my teacher were willing to teach me the skills to find and analyze various types of sources.
I should mention, these were the days before the internet. Back then if you wanted to research something you usually started at a library and looked for a book on the topic. That could usually get you far, but this essay contest had to be original research. That meant I had to write about something that wasn’t already documented in a book. In other words, I had to use other resources like government records, newspaper articles, and any real-world artifacts I could find. In my case, I was lucky to find old playbills and programs from concerts that occurred more than a century before I was born.
These kinds of documents take up lots of space, so historians used to take photos of them on microfiche film. Then you’d have to sift through drawers of microfiche, insert the film into a machine and view it through this telescope looking machine. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with this technology, this post isn’t really about that. I just want to point out how the world we live in changes over time, and this in turn, influences the way experience and learn about the world. By writing this paper, I gained a much greater understanding of the place where I lived more than 100 years before I was born, and the technologies used to preserve it. The internet has simplified much of this process, but there are still plenty of real-world artifacts out there to consider, so I wanted to highlight this as possibility, just to be sure you’re aware that you’re not limited to tapping on your computer keys. This activity can be much more rewarding and fun than that!
I was unfocused as I sifted through dozens of newspaper articles before I noticed a trend of articles about a particular composer who lived in Wayne County in the 1800s. Eventually, I came across playbills from a performer with the same last name, and articles about an internationally known music school also run by someone with the same last name. I consulted with genealogy records and confirmed that they were all members of the same family. Once I made this connection I kept digging and found that they were succusses both locally and globally. Eventually, I was able to recreate a rough historical account of their professional lives. I wrote it down then sent it to my English teacher and the Historical Society. Long story short, I got the credit I needed to graduate, and I won a scholarship to help pay for college. The article was published into a book with other scholarship winners from that year.
Now that would have been wonderful if that was where the story ended, but there is still icing left to put on this cake. Years later, I received a letter from a woman claiming to be a descendant of the family I wrote about. She discovered the article I had written while doing genealogical research about her family at the Historical Society. She told me of an old violin, which had been handed down for generations in her family. She thought there was a chance that it could have been played the same ancestors that I wrote about. Her granddaughter was using it to take lessons.
That was the first time anyone had ever read anything I’ve written that wasn’t my mother or a teacher. Someone I never met found my paper, learned something about her family history and was enriched by the experience. I put something in the world that mattered to somebody and that made me proud. You can do that too.
In my estimation there are about four people in the world who read that paper: my teacher, the person who chose the scholarship winner, the descendant of the family, and me. Let me summarize some of the effects of this work: the publication, the scholarship, fulfillment of my graduation requirement, the contribution to a reader’s understanding of her family history. That’s with a readership of four people. Think of all the potential impacts you could have by posting your own original research on the internet. Sound enticing? Get to work.