Diversity in Music Education

Diversity in Music Education

I was recently in a conversation with a group of music educators where this question was posed, “What can we do to improve music education in the next 5 years?” Some felt that using more technology in the classroom was going to be the game changer. We also discussed integrating music into other subjects, and accessibility for students of all abilities. It was agreed that all these topics are valuable and necessary to the present and future of music education, but the subject that most caught our interest that day was diversity in music education.

Where Do I Even Begin?

Supporting diversity in music education is an incredibly worthy goal, but it may feel so broad that it can be hard to know where to start. There are so many branches to the problems and the solutions. Part of supporting diversity in our field should focus on our marginalized students, aiding our students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and female students. This means putting in the time to understand their particular circumstances and struggles if we are not a member of one of those groups.

Another way that we can create more diversity in music education is to encourage minority students to become music educators themselves. When we provide visibility and role models for marginalized students – both as performers and educators  –  they are more likely to believe that they can find success in music themselves. Providing evidence that there is a path forward for someone that looks like you or has had similar experiences can be hugely encouraging.

Then there are the aspects of diversity within music education that come down to curriculum and programming. As educators we ascribe value to the music that we discuss, assign, and perform. If we only show our students music composed by, excuse the flippant phrasing, dead white guys, we are not encouraging our students to value the vast a beautiful world of music outside the traditional western canon.

Own Voices

When we delve into the music outside the western canon there are some typical pitfalls that we need to steer clear of. The biggest of which is to avoid exoticizing the cultures and music that we are bringing into the classroom. One way to do this is to bring in pieces that have an authentic voice.

Outside of music, one of my greatest passions is reading. In the world of reading there is a movement called Own Voices that has been building steam. It actually started with, what else, a hashtag. The point of #ownvoices has been to talk about diverse literature and to read more literature written from an authentic viewpoint within marginalized groups. This got me thinking, why not do the same for the music that we assign, listen to, and perform with our students?

As much as I love Puccini, I’m definitely not going to teach my students about Japanese music by talking about Madame Butterfly. But we might discuss Daihachi Oguchi and Taiko drumming. In order to share these “own voices” compositions you may need to take the time to expand your knowledge of diverse composers. There are lots of great resources these days. My favorite has been mentioned in another recent blog article, but it is worth highlighting again. The Composer Diversity Database can help you to discover diverse composers for your ensemble type. While this is not by any means a comprehensive database, it has a huge collection and is a great place to start.

We want to take the time to learn about the people, the culture, and the history connected to the music that we are making and listening to. If we give our students a full and authentic context, we can avoid teaching our students how different these compositions and styles are. Instead, we can teach them the beauty of these pieces. We can learn how the stories we tell with music are often universal and about the possible languages of sound people use to tell them.

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Know Your Community

There are so many resources available to help expand your students’ knowledge and perspective that may already be close by. Look to see who is in the community where you teach.. Are there churches, temples, or cultural centers in your area that serve minority communities? Talk to them about the music they perform and if they would like to work with your students. This can be an opportunity to collaborate with musicians who are steeped in a tradition that you may not know as much about. This means that there is a chance for you, as an educator, to learn too! And what are music educators if not lifelong learners?

Beyond religious and cultural institutions, you can also look into performing arts groups. This will obviously depend on your location, but there may be an ensemble in your area that specializes in the music of a particular cultural group. Many of these groups have education initiatives. For example, there is the fabulous Munto Dance Theatre of Chicago. They integrate dance, drumming, and singing from different African cultures into classes, residencies, and performances. Dig into your community to learn about the different voices and experts that are out there. These are people who can teach and inspire your students, as well as provide them with experiences outside those they might have in a music classroom where the western canon is the be all and end all.

It Comes Down to Connection

If we try to get to the bottom of why we love making music, the answer might be for the connection it makes between people. Writing, performing, or listening to music is ultimately an empathic act. We use sound to connect emotionally to those around us. If we take the time to expose ourselves and our students to the music of other cultures, we have a chance to put ourselves in their shoes. We have a chance to see the world through the lens of another’s sound and emotion. These experiences help our students understand that other cultures and the people within them have immense value.

If we circle back to the original question, “How can we improve music education in the next five years?” maybe that answer also comes down to connection. We can improve by connecting our students to different people, different cultures, and different worldviews. Supporting diversity in music education means that we are not just teaching all our students to be skilled musicians, but that we are teaching them to be empathetic musicians. Musicians who understand and value music from many traditions around the world.

Suzanne Whitney

As MakeMusic’s social media manager, Suzanne Whitney is committed to sharing actionable information to music educators, composers, and musicians of all sorts. She has been teaching voice and choir privately for the past eight years. Her students range from kindermusik students all the way to adult community members. Suzanne earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Illinois Wesleyan University and a Master of Music degree in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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