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Music Sabbatical Strengthens International Ties

Prof’s Research Takes Him to Australia, Norway

Alex Ruthmann of UMass Lowell photo by Anne Ruthmann
Asst. Prof. Alex Ruthmann is bringing his research from an international sabbatical back to the classroom. Photo by Anne Ruthmann.

By Julia Gavin

The term “sabbatical” often makes people think of rest, relaxation and time away from work. But for educators like Asst. Prof. Alex Ruthmann of the music department, it’s a time to teach, get deeper into research and work with colleagues on exciting projects. Even if those colleagues are in Australia.

Over his nine-month sabbatical, Ruthmann, along with his wife, Anne, visited five countries, worked at more than eight educational institutions and made connections that will benefit his students and last a lifetime. 

"My sabbatical was an excellent opportunity to meet music and technology educators in other countries and to see how they teach, how they wrestle these subjects,” says Ruthmann, who taught classes, advised students, led community classes and researched several projects during the trip, which was funded partially by University and personal grants. “It was also an opportunity to focus on my research and bring back methods and ideas to benefit our students.”

Ruthmann’s trip began in Australia where he spent five months as a visiting fellow at the Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University and as a visiting faculty member at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. When not in the classroom at the Conservatorium, Ruthmann worked on a book of interactive Scratch music projects with co-author Prof. Andrew Brown. 

“This was a great opportunity to work together and test projects with kids and community members,” Ruthmann says of the book, which builds on research at UMass Lowell and uses the Scratch software to help people learn and create music.  

At the University of Queensland, Ruthmann worked with Dr. Julie Ballantyne to research how music teachers using technology in the classroom view themselves as teachers, musicians and technologists and how their views impact their curriculum. He also led workshops on using new media in the music classroom to help teachers connect with tech-savvy students. 

The sabbatical also took Ruthmann to Madrid to meet with doctoral music students, Norway to consult on an ongoing music education project, Dublin for workshops and to lay the ground work for a music student exchange program, Greece for music education conferences, London to share his research and Amsterdam as an artist-in-residence at the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM). 

“STEIM brings together composers, artists and engineers to develop new electronic musical instruments and compositions,” says Ruthmann of the renowned research center. “Being a part of their innovation in creative digital music has been a dream of mine.” 

Bringing the World Back to Lowell 

After the sabbatical’s end and a few weeks in Belgium, Germany and Iceland to squeeze in a bit of summer vacation, the Ruthmanns were back on campus getting ready for students in classes and the Eames Honors House where Alex is faculty-in-residence. His students and colleagues are already seeing the benefits of his international research and teaching experiences.  

Throughout the trip, Ruthmann stayed connected with his colleagues and classes in Lowell by Skyping home and bringing them along for the international experience. Now that he’s back in Lowell, Ruthmann is strengthening those connections by having colleagues across the world interact with his students through the same platform, and by bringing his research into the classroom.  

“Having my students see how people are teaching and learning in other countries helps them have a global perspective as musicians, educators and people,” says Ruthmann. “Both the University and my colleagues in the music and honors programs have been very supportive of the experience and made it easy to come back and get right back to teaching.”

Scratch Composing Video