As a student, Derek Shapiro read music from a big, black folio.

At 18 by 20 inches, it was the kind you’d have to cram into your backpack to make it fit. The corners would be bent and the pages would be worn by the end of the year. The folio has since evolved, said Shapiro, director of bands and assistant professor of music at the School of Performing Arts in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design. Its contents, though, are in need of catching up.

For decades, music textbook publishers have relied on music available in the public domain for études — short compositions used to teach performing and conducting techniques. Most of the music that has circulated in the public domain, however, was composed by the same batch of people: dead, white men of European descent, such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler. 

Composers of color and women-identifying composers are making music that students need to see, said Shapiro and his colleague, Jonathan Caldwell, director of bands and assistant professor of conducting at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Last year, Caldwell and Shapiro came up with a way to help students access those works: They could create an open-access music textbook featuring études from living, historically excluded composers.

In collaboration with the Open Education Initiative in the University Libraries, Shapiro and Caldwell developed “Original Études for the Developing Conductor.” These études were commissioned from and composed by 25 living composers, the majority of whom are women-identifying composers or composers of color. Featured works include Chen Yi’s “Ban,” a piece that pulls its pitch material from folk music in northern China; a tumbao by Ivette Herryman Rodríguez, drawing from the Cuban genres of son and salsa; and Susan Botti’s “Vespers (Walking in Beauty),” inspired by movement in nature.

Shapiro and Caldwell teamed with Anita Walz, assistant director of open education and scholarly communication librarian at University Libraries, and Kindred Grey, open educational resource and graphic design specialist, to produce the textbook with the goal of giving conducting students and others a free, digital-first learning resource. The project was supported by funding from the Collaborative Research Grant and the Open Education Initiative of Virginia Tech’s University Libraries as well as the Libraries’ Textbook Affordability Program Grants program of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Through the Open Education Initiative, Walz and Grey have worked with Virginia Tech faculty members to develop freely available learning materials in wide-ranging subjects, including earth science, theatre, aerospace engineering, and gardening. These resources help fill niche gaps that the bigger textbook publishers don’t cover, but the major undercurrent to the initiative and Walz and Grey’s work is giving students free learning resources, Walz said. 

“Doing what we can to enable students to be successful is really the heart of what it means to be a land-grant institution, to exemplify the mission of the university, to the Ut Prosim mentality,” Walz said, referring to Virginia Tech's motto meaning "That I May Serve."

There are open-access music theory and appreciation textbooks out there, Caldwell said, but virtually none for performance, which puts financial strain on students. 

“You’re asking them to buy a textbook and a baton, so all of that together, even on the cheap side, is probably around 80 bucks,” he said. “What can we do to help students not have to pay for another textbook?”

The team of four also knew that creating a textbook that would serve today’s music students meant enabling them to easily navigate the resource with the phones, laptops, and tablets they now use, to jump between sections of the textbook. During class, Shapiro and Caldwell’s conducting students move between conducting at the front of the room and performing specific parts in an ensemble. They need to be able to toggle back and forth between the parts they play and the scores they conduct, Shapiro said, which students tend to do on one of their devices.

As the textbook’s graphic designer, Grey built the means for jumping around into the book’s PDFs, with links and QR codes at the bottom of every page, enabling the user to move between transposed parts for their instrument, the table of contents, and the book’s main landing page. QR codes also take students to YouTube, where they can listen to each étude. For Shapiro, these details for digital navigability feel disruptive to the music publishing industry on the whole. 

“I haven’t seen a textbook with this model, up to this point,” Shapiro said. “We suspect we’re going to see some copycats. We hope so, because this is the way it actually should be.”

Shapiro and Caldwell have yet to see their students use the textbook, which was published in late spring and will be part of their conducting classes this fall. But they’ve found its early reception overwhelming, with 3,000 digital downloads from 38 countries in the two months after its release. “In my head, if we had 500, we would be lucky,” Shapiro said.

The project is a finalist for this year’s Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers Impact Award. Shapiro and Caldwell credit Walz and Grey for the recognition and for their project management and “painstaking” design work. 

“If we had tried to do this on our own, it would have been impossible,” Caldwell said. “The book has an ISBN number. It has a Library of Congress cataloging code. That’s awesome. If Derek and I tried to do it on our own, it would’ve just been a collection of PDFs. Anita and Kindred made it into an actual book.”

The University Libraries' Open Education Initiative is actively seeking projects for spring and summer. Learn more about authoring and publishing freely available textbooks and other open educational resources.

Digital music play bar, graphic element