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Nicole Whittaker Malley '98

Assistant Professor of Music, Director of Jazz Program

At Knox Since: 2003

Major: Music

Nicole Whittaker Malley '98 is on stage dozens of times a year -- as a
performer and director in bands and ensembles -- all the way up to
soloist with a symphony orchestra. But this year, "for the first time in 20 years I've had stage fright," she says, after taking a class in auctioneering.

Malley, assistant professor of music and director of the jazz program at Knox College, enrolled at the World Wide College of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa, as part of ethnomusicological research for her PhD dissertation at the University of Iowa.

Malley spent nine days at the auction school. "We did dozens of drills, tongue twisters, 'number scales' -- which is exactly what it sounds like -- you count up and down by increments," Malley says. "As adults, we think we know how to count. But what about going up to 100 and back down by two-and-a-half? Or counting by fives, starting at $1000? You have to stop thinking about what comes next -- you just do it."

Malley's research is an ethnomusicological study of improvisation in auctioneering. In addition to analysis of the sound structure, she is also looking at the socio-economic environment of the auction itself.

"Auctions are musical performances that facilitate financial transactions," says Malley, who is one of very few scholars to conduct in depth academic research into auctions.

Malley received her bachelor's degree in music from Knox in 1998. She graduated magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She has a master's degree from Washington University in St. Louis and has taught music and directed jazz bands and ensembles at Knox since 2003. An accomplished vibraphonist, she plays tympani with the Knox-Galesburg Symphony and directed the Youth Jazz Band at the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival.

Similar to jazz, "auction involves improvisation -- choices that the auctioneer makes 'in the moment,' to maintain excitement, depending on what the audience is doing," Malley says. "There is a fascinating relationship between the audience and the auctioneer. It's almost as if the audience is the director."

As auction school pushed Malley out of her comfort zone, her research is also stretching the envelope of ethnomusicology. "The auction has a non-aesthetic functionality that falls outside the traditional definition of music." She says she's had to defend the topic to advisors who were concerned that it was "too interdisciplinary."

While auctions have not drawn the attention of music scholars, Malley says that only a few auctioneers see a connection between auction and music.

It may be a cliche, but Malley says the topic came to her in a flash of inspiration, in the midst of a lot of hard work. "I really did have an 'aha!' moment," she says. "One day, I was driving from Galesburg to a grad school class at the University of Iowa, and I was listening to NPR on the radio. They played a ten-second clip from an auction, and at that moment, the whole project opened up in front of me."

It may be another cliche, but the arc of Malley's life since that inspiration parallels that of the kid in Leroy Van Dyke's country-western song, "The Auctioneer," in which the father tells his son, "I'll send you off to auction school ... then you can take your place among the best."

The World Wide College of Auctioneering "was as important as I thought it would be," Malley. "The talent there is overwhelming. The friends and connections I made would have taken me years and years on my own. Now, some of the most famous auctioneers are excited about my project."

Malley says her students at Knox also have been enthusiastic supporters. "They're typical Knox students -- they think that anything that pushes the boundaries is awesome."

Malley says she hopes that her work inspires students to look for research topics that they can be passionate about. "I can't imagine doing anything more fun than this. It shows that it's possible to find a topic that you can fall in love with, and I want my students to see that."

View Nikki Whittaker Malley's faculty page