Ellen Bakulina joins Schulich Faculty

Accomplished educator and scholar Ellen Bakulina will share her expertise in music theory in our department of Music Research

Dr. Ellen Bakulina joins the Schulich Faculty as Associate Professor of Music Theory in the Department of Music Research.   

Prof. Bakulina is a world-class researcher and experienced pedagogue in music theory and musicianship. Specializing in tonal music, she has taught a broad range of graduate and undergraduate courses. Her research integrates Russian and North American musical perspectives in music theory. She has a distinguished scholarly record, having published articles in leading journals and presented papers at international conferences. Her current book project examines the piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninov. 

In leading up to the fall semester, we spoke with Prof. Bakulina — who is also a pianist and avid choral singer — over email and learned how a sense of belonging led her to where she is now, what makes music theory unique as a discipline, and why it’s important to go beyond music.

What are you most looking forward to in your new position at the Schulich School of Music?  
I am the most excited about being able to bring my experience, all the things I’ve learned throughout the years, to my beloved university. I have two music theory degrees from McGill (BMus and MA) and being able to teach at a school that I have known from a student perspective is a very special opportunity. Also, I’m super happy to be coming back to Montreal. It’s such a special and culturally unique place with endless opportunities for students and professionals in music. And relocating here has allowed me to be reunited with my family.   

Is there a moment that led you on the path to where you are now — one that changed your course or confirmed it?  
What helped me become a music scholar and teacher, and especially to persist on this path, is not so much a specific moment, but rather a sense of belonging with a community of musicians and thinkers. I have always found these communities—first in Russia, then in North America—remarkably stimulating, inspiring, and supportive. I find music theory unique as a discipline because it synthesizes so deeply the artistic with the intellectual, the historical with the analytical, and the social with the abstract. When I started my first music degree in Moscow at age 15 and first encountered music scholars, I was fascinated by them, and I continue being fascinated throughout all the changes that take place in my field, and throughout all my geographical moves—Montreal, New York, New Haven, and Texas.   

If I had to speak of specific moments that have inspired me, it would be teaching moments; moments when something sparked a student’s understanding, or suddenly made sense to them, or helped them find a new path or passion. For example, I once led a theory club meeting where I introduced to the students Edward T. Cone’s wonderful little book, Musical Form and Musical Performance, and one of the students later confessed that the book had transformed their thinking about music and set them on a new research course. Another one was when a student realized that (some) figured bass symbols and the chord inversion symbols denoted the same thing, and they were very excited! Moments like this make me feel that my work has meaning, and I know I could never give up what I’m doing.  

What are some elements that are important to your teaching philosophy?  
I like having my students participate in class work. It can be talking, singing, playing, conducting, writing on the board, or some combination of these (but primarily talking… I love in-class analytical debates!). Class meetings where students only listen make me suspicious.   

If faced with obstacles or uncertainty, how do you keep moving forward?  
I write. It keeps me grounded and provides continuity in my life. A slow progression of ideas within a research project, or from one project to another—or, frankly, from one historical era to another—really helps me when things are difficult or unclear. If life is too unstable and doesn’t let me focus on writing, then I read. And when I need to make an important decision, I take time to think about it while reading or writing, and this helps me listen to myself and the universe, and find an answer.  

What is currently exciting to you about your field? 
The most exciting aspect of my field right now is the growing diversity of music, genres, traditions, and composers represented; the growing openness to various ideas and to studying various forms of music making and ideas.   

What do you hope students leave Schulich (or your class specifically) knowing?  
A thorough training in a limited number of skill areas AND at the same time willingness to explore new ideas/approaches/types of musical engagement. To me, one doesn’t make much sense without the other. In my analysis classes, I like to have my students learn a few closely related terms or concepts (how many depends on the scope of the class) and then encourage them to experiment, like applying these concepts to a different style or composer.  

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?  
Don’t be afraid. You have way more strength and endurance than you can even imagine.  

What do you believe is a key feature in enabling the best kind of music-making and music-learning experience?  
Going beyond music. Having a life beyond the practice room and the classroom; trying new things and not being afraid of difficulties (if it proves to be too difficult and makes you unhappy, you can always give up, there is no shame in that). Then come back to a piece of music, and you’ll see that it has acquired a different meaning and depth, and there is something new that you can bring to your audience. (But also, don’t forget to practice!)   

What is one of the most valuable things you have learned through your studies?   
That studies never end. 

What is something someone might be surprised to find on your playlist?  
Music for the Celtic harp (also an actual 15-string harp in my living room). Music for Native American flutes. Russian rock.  

Is there a composer / genre / single piece of music that never fails to transport you?   
Brahms concertos and symphonies (the First Piano Concerto has helped me through the most difficult times), Rachmaninov’s sacred music, and all things Bach.  

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