Music Issue: Viewing himself as more than a teacher

By Alexa Zulak
April 18, 2013

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Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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James Grier has a passion for music you can feel. The shelves of his small Talbot College office are lined with CDs and books as an aging boom box sits on a corner shelf waiting to be used. He does not own an MP3 player.

When Grier speaks about his research and musical interests, his voice gets louder, his hands start to move and a smile doesn’t leave his face. “I’ve always loved music,” he said. 

The Toronto-born academic has been a tenured professor in the Music Research and Composition department of the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western since 1999 – but he’s hesitant to call what he does teaching.


“I am a facilitator. I am a conduit. I hope I am a little bit of a mirror – that ideas can bounce off me,” Grier said. “If I teach them anything, I’m teaching them how to teach themselves.”

And it was thanks to an elementary school teacher that Grier’s own interest in music was sparked at an early age. “I’m a real product of the Ontario school system,” he said.

One of his first musical memories was being taught the fundamentals of musical notation by an itinerant music teacher in elementary school. His parents later bought a piano and he began taking lessons from a woman in his neighbourhood. But the piano didn’t stay Grier’s instrument of choice for long.

He picked up the flute in his Grade Nine music class and never looked back.

The first album he ever purchased was Charlie Drake’s My Boomerang Won’t Come Back, but The Byrd’s Fifth Dimension has been on the heaviest rotation during his life. Ask and he’ll refuse to pick a favourite Beatle, even a favourite Beatles’ song. “Why would I have to choose?” he laughed.

Grier later began his bachelor of music in composition at the University of Toronto, where the flute served as his major performing instrument. However, after completing his degree in 1975, Grier veered away from the practical side of music studies, into the study of classics.

He returned to the University of Toronto and received his BA in Latin literature in 1977.

“I was quite seduced by the Middle Ages,” he said.

Grier continued his studies at the U of T and received his MA and PhD in Medieval Studies.

“Medieval music seemed to require an interesting combination of various strengths that I developed over the years,” Grier said. “I was interested in musical studies, I was interested in Latin literature, I was interested in the liturgy, ecclesiastical history, as well as the music and the music tied a lot of these things together.”

Today, Grier is a well-published music scholar with three books and numerous articles to his name. His current research is focused on music literacy and how singers in the 10th and 11th centuries were able to translate written notes into the correct sound.

While Grier said most of his research will be speculative, as “there are no 10th- or 11th-century singers left to interview,” he’s hopeful it will open the door for other scholars.

Grier also hopes his research will work to disprove the assumption that reading music is similar to reading text. But in the end, it really is all about the music.

“I’m very passionate about music. I like, in my own modest way, making music. I like talking about music. I like sharing music with other people. And I hope that’s a major part of my job.”


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