Africa in Our Lives: Will Porter

The trombone has brought Will Porter from his hometown in Fleet, England to brass bands in Tanzania, a classical youth orchestra in Mozambique, and now to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Will is pursuing his DMA in trombone performance and working as the events coordinator for the African Studies Program. Learn more about his story in his Africa in Our Lives profile, and be sure to check out the conference he is planning this April, Honoring Ancestors in Africa and Beyond: Arts and Actions.

“I have often found myself in situations where playing an instrument has helped me overcome language barriers by jumping straight into creating music and just having fun.” -Will Porter (Submitted photo)

Field of study: Music Performance, Trombone
Hometown: Fleet, Hampshire (England)

What brought you to Madison?

After five years working as a trombonist in a symphony orchestra, I wanted a new challenge and had become increasingly interested in working in academia, so I looked to the US to pursue my doctorate. I knew that I wanted my research to go beyond the scope of just music and the trombone, so I was attracted to UW-Madison for the strength of its diversity in research areas, and the huge wealth of resources that such a large university offers.

What are the most-thumbed books on your bookshelf?

The Use of the Self, by F.M. Alexander, and Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs, compiled by Bruce Nelson – Alexander was the founder of the Alexander Technique, and Jacobs was the former principal tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I refer to both books almost daily, as I continue to find more efficiency in moving, breathing and playing trombone. Also, Catify to Satisfy, by Jackson Galaxy – I live in constant worry that I’m not providing enough for my cats.

What sparked your interest in Africa?

I grew up playing in brass bands in England, and through these roots I developed a fascination with the history of brass bands in Africa, and that in turn led me to working with brass bands in Tanzania during my Master’s studies. Through my work with music education and outreach projects, I became interested in the El Sistema music program in Venezuela; my interest was piqued further when I discovered a similar project being developed in Mozambique, and I started to form ideas for another research project, which eventually became the focus for my doctoral research.

How did you first hear about/get involved with the Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS) and the African Studies Program?

I was extremely grateful to receive summer fieldwork fellowships from both IRIS and African Studies, to support my research in Mozambique. Upon returning to Madison, I applied for a graduate assistant position with IRIS, and am now very happy to be events coordinator for African Studies planning the annual symposium, Honoring Ancestors in Africa and Beyond: Arts and Actions (registration now open!). I work with some wonderful colleagues, and meet some fascinating people.

What inspired you to study the relationship between classical music education and social development?

I’ve always enjoyed education and outreach work, and first got involved in a musical context when I worked for the BBC Opera North Orchestra as an educational performing artist – it was a great introduction and I was able to participate in some really creative projects. Later, I was accepted to the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Foyle Future Firsts program, which gave me the opportunity to work regularly with their Education and Outreach Department, and I really enjoyed my experiences working in disadvantaged schools in London. Working creatively with children was a lot of fun and really rewarding, but I increasingly found myself wondering if I was really making a difference in their lives beyond helping them to enjoy learning through music. There are a growing number of music outreach programs claiming that music education can do so much more than just provide a chance to have fun and be creative, and the validity of those claims and our ability to qualify them interests me, and that’s the point of departure from where my research begins.

Porter teaching trombone and trumpet in Maputo. (Submitted photo)

Tell us about your current research.

My doctoral research examines the relationship between classical-music education and social development, and I spent the last year completing my dissertation fieldwork research in Mozambique. My research focuses on the Xiquitsi (“Shi-KEET-see”) Project in Maputo, an emergent classical-music education and outreach project inspired by the El Sistema orchestral training program in Venezuela. The project provides free musical training for young Mozambicans and aims to introduce the first classical youth orchestra to Mozambique. My methodology incorporates observation, interviews, and active participation as a trombone performer and brass pedagogue. My research explores whether music literacy initiatives can be effectively used to contribute to social change, in terms of the benefits it can offer young people seeking social and economic advancement through learning a musical instrument.

What is one of your most vivid memories from your fieldwork in Mozambique?

The thing I miss the most now that I’m back in the US is all the amazing wildlife. As a young boy I used to love digging around in the garden for creepy crawlies but, being an English garden, I seldom discovered anything more interesting than slugs, and I always dreamed of finding the more exciting insects I saw on TV documentaries. In my garden in Mozambique there were black mambas, spiders the size of my hand, scorpions, chameleons, and all kinds of other lizards, snakes, spiders and insects – it was so much fun seeing what I could find, always allied (and occasionally protected!) by my two equally curious little kittens, Fugi and Gari.

Trumpet and trombone students in Pebane. (Submitted photo)

What insights can music offer to understanding different parts of the world?

The big cliché is that music is a universal language, which while being a highly romantic notion, is probably not true. There certainly is a truth to the idea of music being an effective communicational tool though. I have often found myself in situations where playing an instrument has helped me overcome language barriers by jumping straight into creating music and just having fun. More interesting to me though, is what you can learn through teaching music, like teaching improvisation, for example. If you tell a child in the United States they can play anything they want, then they will typically play anything they want, and you then continue by slowly introducing rules and guidelines. There are other places in the world where you might tell a child to play anything they want, and they don’t understand the concept, so you have to start at the other end of the spectrum by instead taking away parameters one by one. Trying to understand how people hear and learn music and respond to changing parameters can lead to some really interesting questions and cultural insights. Of course, the other big part of music is listening – learning how to listen better, how to listen more deeply, how to listen differently, how to listen more empathetically, more critically, and so on – and we can learn so much when we learn to listen well.

What advice would you give students who are interested in studying Africa?

Come visit us in African Studies! There are some incredible staff and faculty, with knowledge and access to a vast range of resources, and there are always a host of fantastic events going on, so come and let yourself be inspired.

What would you like to do after you finish your dissertation?

I came to UW-Madison with the goal of eventually teaching trombone at a US university, and I began my doctoral studies expecting to really focus and specialize my skills and interests. However, over the last few years my experiences and horizons have actually broadened, and while my main aim is still to teach trombone, I’ve additionally become more interested in developing cross-discipline classes, designing and implementing outreach projects, and I also have a growing interest in working in academia at the institutional level. Before any of that though, I’ll probably make a cup of tea and binge-watch Blue Planet II.