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Graduate Student Profile - Gina Fatone (Ethnomusicology)

Gina Fatone Gina Fatone's dissertation was born in a classroom at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she was taking a course called, "Indian Music on Western Instruments." Her instructor, an expert in Indian flute, required the students to learn how to sing part of an Indian raga. Then, "once you had it firmly in your vocal memory, you had to play it for the class on your instrument," Gina says.

With some trepidation, she sat down in front of the harpsichord, expecting to hunt and peck on the keyboard as she tried to find the notes for the song in her head. Instead, "there was this stunning, almost automatic transfer of what I had learned vocally to my hands. It was like I was watching my hands play what I had sung in a relatively automatic way."

Gina's conclusion: "It appeared that singing had burned the melody into my memory in a way that was translatable to my trained hands almost immediately." Deeply impressed by the experience, Gina decided that some day she wanted to investigate this phenomenon.

That day has come. Gina is completing fieldwork and will soon begin writing her dissertation on the cross-domain learning process that appears to be built on a special relationship between vocal expression and motor skills.

To Western minds, this may recall the charismatic charlatan Professor Harold Hill of The Music Man, who told his young students they could learn to play band instruments by singing the same tune together, over and over and over. But other traditions look more benignly on Hill's strategy. In China, Japan, and Korea, singing has played an important role in learning musical instruments for some time.

Then there's canntaireachd, a traditional way of using sung notes to learn the classical Scottish bagpipe repertoire called piobaireachd. As part of her fieldwork, Gina travels into the hills behind Santa Cruz, where a fellow who lives in a cabin without electricity is teaching her this system. Gina has learned a series of vocables, (non-lexical syllables similar to the Western classical "do", "re", "mi") that signify specific notes or note groups. Each of those vocables becomes associated with a specific hand position on the bagpipes, so learning to sing is, in a sense, learning to play. Last summer, on a grant from the Canadian government, she studied how the canntaireachd tradition is maintained in the Scottish stronghold of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Gina hopes to bring to her writing an insider's perspective of how learning music can cross the bridge from vocal to motor expression, and she'll work with others who have experienced this. She's also planning to draw from various disciplines and approaches to the topic: indigenous cultural philosophies regarding the power of the human voice, theories of memory and emotion, neurophysiology, and evolutionary theory, which speculates that manual language may have been a precursor to vocal language development. Aware that scientific explication about what happens inside the brain during this voice-to-hand learning is outside her academic turf, Gina hopes to share her findings with empirical researchers to evoke their interest in this cognitive process.

Skipping directly from the New England Conservatory classroom to her dissertation work leapfrogs over more than a decade of work. During that time, Gina acquired an M.M. in harpsichord performance at the New England Conservatory and an M.A. in music at UC Santa Cruz, where she studied Indonesian music and learned to play and teach gamelan, an orchestra composed of bronze percussion instruments. She also spent a year in doctoral studies at the University of Hawaii before concluding that UCLA was the unique place where the resources for world music and psychology of music would permit her to pursue her study of the voice-hand connection.

After arriving here in 1997, it took Gina some time to find the right mentors to advise her about the project. Looking across the traditional boundaries of departments and schools, Gina gradually assembled a supportive team of mentors, including Helen Rees, assistant professor of ethnomusicology, and Frank Heuser, associate professor of music education in the Department of Music.

Besides being an accomplished musician in Western and Balinese genres, "Gina is a very creative thinker," says Professor Rees. "She reaches across disciplinary boundaries in novel ways . . . to produce a genuinely original and minutely researched piece of work." Professor Heuser adds that Gina "has the kind of mind that takes pieces of information that usually don't connect and finds a way to connect them."

As if her dissertation topic weren't enough evidence of the latter skill, Gina has written an article for ECHO, the Department of Musicology's online journal, titled: "We Thank the Technology Goddess for Giving Us the Ability to Rave: Gamelan, techno-primitivism, and the San Francisco Rave Scene." In it, she takes an ethnographic look at raves (usually underground gatherings where ecstatic group dance to loud music is featured) and their appropriation of gamelan performance.

As Professor Heuser sees it, Gina's unusual combination of interests can create practical hurdles. "We always say we want students to think outside the box," he says, "but when we find one who does think outside the box, we can't find ways to fund them."

For Gina, that hurdle has been crossed with a Canadian Studies Grant and a Dissertation Year Fellowship, obtained with help from Professors Rees and Heuser. "Without their absolutely unfailing advocacy and genuine interest in my work," Gina says, "I might well have yelled uncle quite some time ago. I can't overstate how important this level of true mentorship is."

Published in Winter 2002, Graduate Quarterly