Classrooms are becoming more diverse. So, why is music education focused on Western music?
As presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to insist upon banning Muslims from entering the U.S. and espousing a need for a wall along the Mexican border, heating up anti-immigration and racist rhetoric, it’s essential we consider this- one in four students under the age of eight in the U.S. has an immigrant parent.
Classrooms are getting more diverse as the percentage of minority students increases. In the fall of 2014 there were more minority students in the the public education system. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, 50.3 percent of students in 2014 were minority, whereas 49.7 percent of all students were white. By 2022, 45.3 percent are projected to be white, and 54.7 percent are projected to be minority.
How can classrooms become more culturally responsive in their teaching practices in classrooms and foster respectful behavior?
As a music educator and music teacher educator focused on culturally responsive teaching, I believe a music classroom is an ideal place to begin. Music is an experience found across all cultures, and music classrooms are a logical place where difference and respect can be recognized, practiced and celebrated.
Music programs lack diversity
Music education programs in the high school setting typically bring to mind the images and sounds of bands, orchestras and choirs. In the elementary context, general music classes are viewed as places where children sing, dance, and play the recorder and other classroom instruments.
Each of these experiences is rooted in either a Western view of music that is focused on placement of Western classical music as the highest form of musical experience, or on methods of teaching that grew out of European music education practices.
In my research, I found that the reliance on a method of general music instruction within a classroom where the majority of the students were the children of Mexican immigrants resulted in a the creation of an inherent bias against the students' culture and a sense of isolation for the students. This bias was the result of the the teacher’s views, which created an environment that did not support the integration of cultural, linguistic and popular music experiences.
This finding was supported by music education professor Regina Carlow, who found that when the cultural identity of students in a high school choir setting was not respected or even acknowledged, students developed a sense of isolation.
This isolation can result in an unfair learning environment.
Teachers lack diversity
So why don’t classrooms engage students in musical practices that are rooted in their cultural and musical backgrounds? The answer can be found in the traditions of American music education.
In 2011, music education researchers Carlos Abril and Kenneth Elpus found that 65.7 percent of music ensemble students were white and middle class; only 15.2 percent were black and 10.2 percent were Hispanic. These data demonstrate that white students are overrepresented in high school music ensembles. Students for whom English was not their native language accounted for only 9.6 percent of ensemble members. Adding to this reality is the fact that the process of becoming a music teacher is rooted in the Western classical tradition. Though the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) does not stipulate a classical performance audition, it is required in a majority of cases.
Based on my experience as a music education professor, aspiring music teachers must pass a Western classical performance audition with an orchestral instrument, classical voice or classical guitar in order to even begin down the path of becoming a music educator, even though no school explicitly states that.
Given this, music education programs not only primarily reflect Western European classical music, but they also create a self-perpetuating cycle.
Start with understanding music
In fact, music curriculum can be an ideal place to start culturally responsive teaching. Music crosses cultures and is an experience that can be considered universal.
This includes cultural values, traditions, communication, learning styles, contributions and how people relate. It is not just taking a week or month to study the folk music of Mexico. It is about building a curriculum that enables students to experience, discuss, and perform music that is culturally and socially relevant.
This happens when teachers draw on musical styles and genres that are varied. For example, learning to sing the folk song “Frog Went a Courtin'” based on its American variant, then comparing and contrasting it to the Flat Duo Jets' rock version of the song.
In this regard, music education researcher Chee-Hoo Lum recommends that music teachers start with the students' cultural and musical background in order to get them to better understand and interact with different musical experiences.
The cultural values and contributions of diverse musicians and genres provide the perfect avenue to explore and learn about the “other” in a classroom environment. Additionally, the chance to sing, play and listen to the music of other cultures creates an understanding that transcends personal experience, and creates a more global perspective.
Reimagine and reconfigure
This is not to say that we should forgo the current practices. Band, orchestra, and choir programs provide wonderful educational experiences for students throughout the country.
And these programs should continue.
However, there are other music programs that focus on guitar as a popular and folk instrument. Such as this one-
And there are programs that run rock bands within the school day. Then, there are programs where students learn to write songs, sample and compose. In addition, there are music education blogs that celebrate the many “other” ways that students learn about music, outside of band, orchestra and choir.
These programs can help us reimagine and reconfigure.
Building walls and excluding groups do not engender respect and democratic growth in our classrooms or in our political arenas. Rather, they foster fear and prevent equality and opportunity. Music classrooms can and should become the places where diversity is embraced and integrated.