Joseph Sheehan expands musical journey at Duquesne

Courtesy of Michael Wright | Professor Joseph Sheehan teaching his sons piano at Luciano Pavarotti's house in Cremona, Italy.

Capri Scarcelli | A&E editor

Oct. 20, 2022

For Joseph Sheehan, Duquesne alumnus and theory professor in the Mary Pappert School of Music, music is “a gift that nurtures the sense of inspiration.” Following this “artistic philosophy,” Sheehan believes that teachers and students alike must “cooperate, work together to solve problems, and give students the confident mindset to believe in solutions.”

Because of his positive experiences with former teachers, Sheehan said, “I always remember what great teachers can provide, what gifts I’ve been given and how striving to be that for someone else is so important to me,”

“I want to pass that torch so that students who love music can use music to provide value.”

What is most valuable, of course, is a teacher like Sheehan who puts his students’ passion and perspective before his own, expanding their view on performance and beyond.

Teaching musicianship, African music, songwriting and the Adaptive Ensemble, Sheehan provides an assortment of classes for students to meet their required skill-building courses, as well as some that offer a broader, multimodal and multi-cultural perspective. Such skills include music theory knowledge, engaging in diverse repertoire, student-led writing and production of songs while also imagining and assembling concerts from scratch.

Focusing pedagogy toward student needs and perspectives, Sheehan said that he tries to provide resources that are relevant to his students, “aiming to expand and inspire.”

“The musical hierarchical teaching model deprives creativity and individual agency,” he said. “The student perspective is often lost when teachers only teach what they know, so I’m trying to challenge students to take control of things themselves and to have their own ideas or artistic philosophies that they can explore and find, and build that out.”

Expanding and challenging his own perspective of musical pedagogy, Sheehan took time away from Duquesne to travel abroad for a broader scope of music around the world.

Spending seven months in Ghana studying Sub-Saharan African music in 2008, Sheehan sought for a stronger connection to styles beyond westernized works that he could incorporate in his research and teachings.

“I really went as a naive foreigner with no sophisticated understanding of the music there, but I simply went to learn and grow as much as I could,” Sheehan said. “I went and lived with a family I had a connection with, a Ghanaian student [whose family hosted me], and studied folk music, dance, lessons from various musicians and performances where I played with some groups that were very welcoming. I was very curious, and so I think people picked up on that so I gained some respect and trust from the musicians there. These musical environments opened my mind to the ways in which music can help see the world and see how wide-ranging we are.”

Earning a grant from Duquesne to return to Ghana, and subsequently leading two Study Abroad opportunities there, Sheehan helped bolster Study Abroad in the music school – where at one point, the strict curriculum could not make traveling possible.

“A lot of music students don’t have the ability to move around credits for some of the degrees, so study abroad is really not possible for them,” Sheehan said. “We wanted to offer [students] a program where they could gain that perspective of experiencing another culture, growing from that and having connections, hearing music from wherever they go.”

Thus came Musica Roma in 2018 and 2022: a Maymester where students explore the roots of Italian culture through classical, contemporary and folk music through various concertos, pop concerts, museums, operas, meet-and-greets and more.

Designing the curriculum for his Maymester course, The Artistic Imagination of Italian Music, students would design a research project that would dive into Italy’s impact on musical professional development. Executing their research, students interviewed professionals in the field, researching classical form and seeing how Italy’s historical foundation contributes to what we know music as today.

Accompanied on the 2022 Maymester trip were his wife, Xing, and his two sons, Kai (age seven) and Leo (age four). Joining the musical exploration abroad, Kai and Leo began to learn piano, just as Sheehan did years ago by his own mother — who was a pianist and choral director herself.

Exposed to music and academia at a very young age, Sheehan found a love for performance, especially in jazz. Though he always thought he’d only minor in music, he now performs about 50 times a year, dabbling in “the jazz community, hip-hop, pop, RnB/Soul, world music and more. Sheehan is a professional composer and pianist, writing music for different ensembles and singing when time allows. However, he said that he can play many instruments “at the basic level.”

Starting his own band in 2012, global folk and jazz group “Kinetic” can be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music and more, with an upcoming show Nov. 19. Sheehan’s group put out two albums, including a record in 2021 that brought about a small regional tour.

Always speaking of others before himself, Sheehan said he is constantly “astonished and impressed” by his colleagues and students alike. Yet, many musicians affiliated with the School of Music attribute their on-going success and passion for performance to Sheehan’s classes.

Associate Dean Rachel Whitcomb said: “[Dr.] Sheehan epitomizes the ‘do as I do’ idea of teaching and leadership. He shares his musicianship with his students. He seeks to learn from others on campus and across the world. He immerses himself in musical cultures and experiences abroad with his students, and his work with international musicians informs his life as a composer.

Attending his performances is an interactive experience, and his audiences are transformed into music-making communities. We are so lucky to learn from and work with Dr. Sheehan.”

Junior music major Nicole Buckland shared similar gratitude for Sheehan, thanking him for the positive experiences she had in his class.

“[Dr.] Sheehan, although I only had him for one semester, made a lasting impression on me of the capabilities of the faculty here at Duquesne,” Buckland said. “He always came in extremely positive and ready to explore something new, and we as students always left incredibly enthusiastic about what we had learned in class. You can tell he wanted us to succeed.”