“I love it when different parts of life intersect in unexpected ways!” says Phillip Bimstein, a composer, former mayor of Springdale, Utah, and an associate instructor in the Honors College, where he teaches a course called Composing a Community. And that’s exactly what happened to him recently. It started at the Sundance festival.
“With the excellent films in its World Cinema competition, the Sundance Film Festival always gives me cultural insights that I would not be able to gain otherwise,” he says. He saw powerful films from Egypt, Afghanistan, Serbia, China, and Indonesia. “How does that intersect with my course?” he asks.
Here’s an example. On Monday, Jan. 28, just days after seeing the Sundance films, six individuals from the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program were in Salt Lake City as guests of the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy. As part of Bimstein’s class, this day held at the Hinckley Institute of Politics, the visitors took part in an informal discussion about their work. They spoke about their experiences engaging youth in civic participation within their countries, and several of them had used music and the arts in their efforts.
“My course explores the relationships between music, dialogue, and community, so we heard about music’s community-building roles in our guests’ home countries,” he added. One man from Egypt, who was at Tahrir Square two years ago when the uprising began, showed a You Tube video of people singing his country’s song of freedom, Sout Al Horeya (Listen to it here) providing a great example of how music is being used to bring change to communities—not just in Egypt—but in countries around the world.
FYI News had an opportunity to ask Phillip Bimstein a few questions.
FYI NEWS: What inspired you to teach this class?
PHILLIP BIMSTEIN: When I was mayor, a public hearing often unfolded before me in the form of a classical sonata—with exposition, development, and recapitulation of themes. I became increasingly fascinated by other parallels between musical and dialogical processes and skills. So I researched and mined musicology, sociology, and political science to design this course and explore these analogies further with my very bright students.
FYI: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
BIMSTEIN: I love the engagement of discussion, the spark of insights from students, and the improvisation of their ideas as they play off each other’s “melodies.” I am nourished by this vibrant community of learning. And nothing beats the joy of reading a stunningly good paper (which I am happy to report I get every semester)!
I believe in the Navajo legend of the coyote, or songdog, who emerged from a hole in the ground and sang the world into existence. My goal as teacher is to spark that feeling and develop that capability in my students, helping them to become conscious and intentional co-creators—songdogs—singing our selves and our communities into existence.
FYI: What kind of response to the course are you getting from your students?
BIMSTEIN: Though the course is highly multi-disciplinary and takes leaps now and then, most of my students like it and some really go to new places. Many have written me kind notes at the end of the semester, and several from each year have stayed in touch. I am very happy to hear about their future academic successes.
FYI: What are you learning from teaching this course? Where is it taking you?
BIMSTEIN: I certainly learn more about music and dialogue through the ears and minds of my students. But I also learn how young people think and relate today, and that teaches me more about the world than I could learn in any other way. I love the academic community—there is no place I would rather be.
FYI: How did you first become engaged with music?
BIMSTEIN: By sitting underneath my mother’s piano when I was 5 years old, listening to her play Liszt. Later as a teen when I sang folk songs at sock hops, and then, like Bob Dylan, went electric. Next I went uptown and studied theory and composition at the conservatory, but I’ve gravitated back and forth between folk, rock, punk, classical and experimental all my life.
FYI: What are you currently reading?
BIMSTEIN: On my bedside table: The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon Wood, New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garrett Keizer, and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. In my iPad: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
FYI: Who has inspired you in your life?
BIMSTEIN: Ann Darling (who taught me “Teaching College Communication”) and her inspiration, Parker Palmer, by their heart-driven approach to teaching; my father, LeRoy, by his salesmanship and magic; my mother, Helenka, by her creativity and joy; and my partner Charlotte Bell, by her music and mindfulness.
Phillip Bimstein has taught the Composing a Community course for the past four years during spring semester. He also co-teaches, with Vicky Newman and Norman Foster, the Honors Think Tank on Alzheimer’s Disease and Aging.