Ph.D. student strings together modern American guitar history

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Ana Beltran | The Daily Wildcat

 Kathy Acosta Zavala is a PhD musicology candidate . Recently, Zavala traveled to London to speak a the International Women and/in Musical Leadership Conference, about her dissertation research.  

On March 7, Kathy Acosta Zavala stood in front of peers from around the world at the Senate House in London at the International Women and/in Musical Leadership Conference to present research she had done for her dissertation. 

Acosta Zavala is a PhD musicology candidate and guitarist at the University of Arizona’s Fred Fox School of Music. The paper she presented in London was titled “Vahdah Olcott-Bickford and the Development of the Modern American Guitar Landscape.” 

It focused on Olcott-Bickford, a famous American guitarist from the early 20th century who founded the American Guitar Society in 1923. Acosta Zavala's participation in the conference was made possible by a grant from the Fred Fox School of Music

“She basically built a whole institutional framework for the classical guitar and the championing of the instrument,” Acosta Zavala said. “I’m trying to build on that and how she built the Society and what it did for the future of the guitar.”

Acosta Zavala came to the U.S. from Peru at age 16 to pursue her education in music and completed both her undergraduate and Master’s studies at UA. She said she became inspired to apply for the PhD program so she could research the lives of women in music because she noticed most musical repertoires she had been exposed to in her career were by male artists.

“I wanted to see the lineage I had come from because my education had not given me that, so I wanted to search for it,” Acosta Zavala said. 

After receiving a grant from the UA College of Fine Arts’ Medici Circle donor program, Acosta Zavala was able to visit the Vahdah Olcott-Bickford Collection held at California State University, Northridge last summer to look through archives and conduct research. 

Acosta Zavala said her Medici donor Pam Geoga, who passed away in early March, her mentor-turned-coworker Julia Pernet from the Tucson Guitar Society and her female colleagues in the School of Music inspired her to do research on influential women in the music community.

One of those colleagues was Jennifer Post, a lecturer in ethnomusicology, who first taught Acosta Zavala two years ago in a course on music in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

“It was clear from the beginning of this course that we were ‘on the same wavelength’ and this made it easy for me to teach her and for her to learn from me,” Post said. “I chose to focus the course on politics and music, and I think Kathy was especially interested in this approach.”

Post said she is passionate about studying music and gender, and is excited for Acosta Zavala to write her dissertation, which includes those topics.

“The School of Music has not offered courses on women in music in recent years, and I am pleased that Kathy has taken on this important subject,” Post said. “I am fully in support of this work and definitely believe that we must continue to address the need for greater diversity in music history in both education and research.”

Another subject Acosta Zavala has been interested in researching is how music has been used during times of war and she wrote a paper on the topic titled “War, Institutions and Commissions: A Study of the 1943 League of Composers’ War-Themed Commissions.” 

Acosta Zavala presented that paper at the 2018 Rocky Mountain Music Scholars Conference, where it won the award for best student paper. Acosta Zavala said that year’s conference, which she organized, was held at UA and had over 100 scholars from around the country attend. 

Acosta Zavala said she was able to do research for her award-winning paper through a trip with five other UA music students to several archives in New York. The research trip was organized by Matthew Mugmon, an assistant professor of musicology at UA’s School of Music. 

Mugmon said dealing with lots of archival documents can be challenging, but Acosta Zavala did not let that stop her.

“Kathy faced this task confidently and gained important experience that has already paid off,” Mugmon said. “I know that Kathy has been developing fluency with a wide range of approaches and methods used in the study of music, and that she will combine those skills with her analytical acumen and strong musical sense…and make a splash wherever she goes.”

When Acosta Zavala is not conducting research about music, she can be found working at the Tucson Guitar Society as the operations director or hosting the “Sundays in the Garden” concert series at the Tohono Chul botanical garden in Tucson.

After she graduates from UA, Acosta Zavala said she one day hopes to write a children’s book that tells the story of Vahdah Olcott-Bickford. She also hopes to eventually become the executive director of an arts organization and help give back to the music community. 

“That is what I want to do with my PhD, with my career, with who I am,” Acosta Zavala said. 


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