Kari Veblen’s love for music is evident the minute you step into her office, which has been adorned with drums, flutes, ocarinas and colourful percussion instruments from the world over.
“Music does not make a living,” the Don Wright Faculty of Music professor says. “It makes a life.”
Having begun her career as an elementary school teacher in Wisconsin, Veblen decided to return to university, where she studied music and education. “I started teaching music in the lab school during my master’s, and that’s where I found myself,” she says.
“When I finished my degree, my grandfather asked if I’d like a graduation present – maybe earrings or a car,” she adds. “I said ‘No, I’d rather a plane ticket.” Veblen used her grandfather’s gift to travel to Bali and Java to study gamelan music. This desire to see the world has played an important role in helping her better understand the importance of music to societies around the globe.
Veblen’s interests and heritage then led her to Ireland for her doctoral work, where she began an ethnographic study of Irish music transmission practices, tracing the many ways in which traditional music continues to be passed on. What began as a year in Ireland has become what she now considers a 50-year research project. It has also led to her most recent work, which examines how Irish and Celtic diasporic musics are taught and learned in cyberspace.
“Music is a touchstone that helps people understand and connect with each other and their pasts, and with other cultures,” Veblen notes. “It is also not only a part of our biological design, but essential to our neurobiological systems, tapping into cognitive and emotional human capacities.”
“It is our first way of knowing about the world, as research shows that babies in the womb listen and respond to music,” she adds.
In essence, understanding music helps us learn about ourselves. “I explore cultural capital and cultural knowledge through case studies of music teaching and learning in community-based settings,” Veblen says. These insights have directed some of her current research, which helps understand how music is taught in schools – and its relationship with other curricular disciplines – and the practices, customs and strategies of formal, informal and non-formal musics.
“There is a growing body of research that documents community contexts of musical transmission,” she says. “While each situation is unique, recurring themes emerge and many ‘informal music sessions’ would not be considered so random.”
To this day, Veblen continues to be fascinated by disparate global musical cultures, and ongoing travel to China, South Africa, India, Uruguay and elsewhere helps her understand and appreciate the enormous musical talents of people who learn music informally.
Given the global nature of her work, Veblen shares another similarity – aside from an obvious passion for music – with those she studies: “By their very nature, musicians are travellers.”