At the school where I teach, we have students from six continents, collectively speaking dozens of languages at home. The school is located in a rather affluent neighborhood that is bordered on three sides by neighborhoods in which subsidized housing is common. In orchestra classes, students who are experiencing homelessness share stands with students who live in the multi-million dollar homes that surround the school.
Though teaching in such a diverse environment can be challenging at times, I consider myself extremely lucky; every day my students and I work hard toward a common goal with people that look, speak, and act very differently from ourselves. It is easy to marvel at times at the unintended but wonderfully organic lessons these students learn by performing together.
Diversity in the Music Classroom
While on paper my school is highly diverse, there are spaces within it that are not. There have been times when the term “honors student” has been synonymous with “affluent white student” in our building, though we have taken successful steps to increase diversity in our honors classes.
In the elective hallway, classes with even a modest prerequisite requirement tend to have more wealthy students and fewer students of color than those without prerequisite. However, our music classes buck that trend. Despite requiring instructor approval and in many cases an audition, the demographic makeup of our upper-level music classes reflects that of the school at large.
My teammate and I have intentionally created an environment that is welcoming to all students who attend our school. The two major strategies we have implemented is to learn about our students’ musical tastes, and to provide authentic musical experiences for our students.
What Do Students Listen To?
The best way to learn about your students’ musical tastes is to ask them. My favorite way to ask is through an assignment in which I instruct my students: “Write down the name of at least one song or artist you think Mr. Runyan has never heard.” I always seem to have at least one student who thinks I’ve never heard of the rapper Tupac, despite the giant Tupac mural on the wall of my classroom. However, I always get several suggestions that I genuinely have never heard.
Armed with this new information, I search for the songs and artists – on a platform that pays its artists – and listen to them. It is worth the time it takes, because I can find something I enjoy every time. In fact, many of my favorite artists became so at the suggestion of a 13-year-old orchestra student.
After this assignment, I make sure to play recordings during class of my favorite suggestions (using “clean” versions where necessary), either as students enter and get set up, or as an alternative to a metronome during rhythmic reading exercises. The students know I actually read their suggestions, and I get to learn what music excites my students.
Students from all backgrounds respond to and are inspired by authentic musical experiences. The foundation of an authentic musical experience is music selection. It may be tempting to program music with a title like “African Expedition” and think we’re building a bridge to students with another cultural background, but in my experience, students are not honored by this type of exoticism.
Instead, I invite my students to help me choose music for concerts. I start by creating music lists on J.W. Pepper and playing the recordings in class, then taking a vote. Each year, my advanced students each complete a project that includes selecting all the music for an imaginary concert. This is another way to find out what music speaks to your students, can aid you in music selection, and is a much more culturally responsive approach than programming “African Expedition.”
Resources for Diverse Repertoire
Of course, a search on J.W. Pepper will not always return results from composers with diverse cultural backgrounds, and it can be challenging to find and program music by female and gender non-binary composers, composers of color, composers from other countries, or composers who are members of the LGBTQ community, especially for a young ensemble.
Two resources I have come across are the Composer Diversity Project and Music by Black Composers. Both have a searchable database and links to composer websites. Composer Diversity Project has myriad search filters, including composers for young band and young orchestra, but even with that help, it can be difficult to find those works, let alone preview and listen to them. Still, if programming works by diverse composers is a goal, these websites are a place to start.
Particularly in middle school, when students’ ability to think abstractly is just emerging, concrete examples have immense value. In my experience, the less often my students of color have seen or heard an artist of color performing classical music at a high level, the less likely they are to imagine themselves performing at a high level.
As a young trumpeter in middle school band, I remember being inspired watching a Canadian Brass video and wanting to know more about the trumpet players in the group. So, for my own classroom, I printed pictures of professional string players of color such as the Sphinx Ensemble, Danielle Belen, Black Violin, Akua Dixon, and Karen Briggs, typed up a short bio for each, and made a QR code with a link to a more extensive bio or artist page and hung them in my room. I show videos to inspire my students that include these artists, then point out the pictures and encourage my students to learn more.
I often hear my students talking to each other about videos of these artists. It may not seem like much, but an inspired student will almost always practice harder, and achieve more highly.
The creation of art for art’s sake is one of the qualities that is unique to humans. I cannot think of a better way to cultivate an appreciation for that which makes us human than to create art together with other people. All the better to do so with people we think of as different than us, as we will find we’re more alike than we ever imagined. That is why I celebrate the diversity in my classes, and why I will continue to find ways to make all students feel welcome.