Meet Our New Faculty: Rethinking Sound with Music's Fritz Schenker | St. Lawrence University

Meet Our New Faculty: Rethinking Sound with Music's Fritz Schenker

For Assistant Professor of Music Fritz Schenker, to study music is to understand the global exchange of ideas through diverse perspectives. He strives to help his students reframe their assumptions about different sounds to unlock new cultural knowledge. 

“I want my students to understand that the way that we perceive things is not universal,” he says. “A classic example is listening to a song and saying, ‘this sounds sad.’ I want my students to go from thinking ‘this sounds sad so everybody will hear this as sad’  to ‘I hear this as sad, but somebody else might hear it a different way’.”

Through courses like “Musics of the World,” “Musics of the Transpacifics,” and “Global Jazz,” Schenker hopes to prompt his students to engage in a deeper level of critical reflection on the forces that shape perceptions of music, its origins, and its history.

“Their last step is to acknowledge ‘the reason why I think that everybody thinks this might be sad is the result of longstanding historical structures of inequality and imperialism,’” he says. “These larger structural forces inform the ways we think about the world. I think music can be a really interesting way for students to uncover how what seems natural in the way we hear things is actually part of [something much larger], like racial formation or the legacies of colonialism.”

As an ethnomusicologist, Schenker studies how people make and share music. His work explores these forces at work in colonized parts of Asia, with a focus on the spread of jazz music as a result of the colonial relationship between the United States and the Philippines.

“A lot of my work follows migrant Filipino musicians who were traveling on cruise ships and playing in hotel bands all along the coast of Asia, wherever there were white Europeans and Americans who were looking for something to do. They would hire Filipino musicians to play for them and that was kind of the start of the jazz scene in colonial Asia,” he explains. 

Schenker, a jazz pianist himself, joined the St. Lawrence community as a post-doctoral fellow in 2017 and became an assistant professor in the fall of 2020. He believes one of the best parts of teaching at St. Lawrence is his students’ appetite for new ideas and perspectives.

“They seem so willing to try new things,” he says. “In any given class, most of the students are not music majors, which is really exciting because we get lots of different viewpoints.”

This was especially true for “Music and Race”--a course he had the opportunity to teach for the first time during the spring 2021 semester. 

“All of my graduate training and my own work is really interested in the ways in which race is performed and imagined, especially as it moves around the world, so I've always wanted to teach a music and race class.”

Though Schenker didn’t know what to expect when the course appeared in the University catalog, it immediately filled up. He was even able to offer a few extra spots to students on a waitlist.

“I was really excited about the interests and different backgrounds that people were willing to bring into the class because it’s not always the easiest topic to talk about. That is one of the most beneficial things about discussing race through the lens of music,” says Schenker. “I use it as an entryway to talk about bigger issues.” 

Schenker’s course also gave students the tools to have conversations about current events, including a string of shootings in Atlanta in March 2021 that claimed the lives of eight people, six of whom were women of Chinese or Korean descent. 

“We started off by talking about performances of Asian-ness in popular music in the early 1900s and making connections to how seemingly stereotypical performances from that time can actually translate and be directly connected to much more serious, violent acts that are still around today,” he says.

 

In every one of his classes, Schenker aims to equip students of any major or career interest with the skills they’ll need to be engaged global citizens and thoughtful communicators after they leave St. Lawrence.

“Every class that I teach focuses on how to construct an argument, how to be persuasive and clear in your writing,” he says. “I also try to make my classes fun, but use that excitement to discuss other things that are relevant to basically anything else that they're doing in their academic career or in their lives.”