“In fact, if you only focus on superficial culture, you are doing a disservice to cultural responsiveness overall because you are ignoring who your students really are at the deepest levels.” (Hollie, 41)
I have been thinking a bunch about Culturally Responsive Pedagogy lately. Our province has made it a priority, and I am interested in how music education, particularly the type of music education that I personally do, can be made more culturally responsive. I work with large, Western European inspired ensembles. These ensembles have a traditional canon of music by white, predominantly male composers. (This is happily changing, but changing slowly.) I am a white, middle aged man. The ensembles themselves are top down, industrial revolution style organizations that place the conductor/teacher, the manager on a podium, slightly higher than the ensemble. Hmm...where to begin?
There is a growing amount of literature and research focusing on CRP and music education, as well as a strong desire by most educators involved to make this style of music education responsive. If you are interested, one great resource I have found is Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education: From Understanding to Application by Vicki Lind and Constance L. McKoy.
My particular interest in this post is the choice and use of songs and repertoire in music programs. What barriers are we creating? What bias are we exhibiting?
What is in a name?
As a 28 year veteran of teaching instrumental music, I find this a fascinating and disturbing subject. Have the good intentions that I have had in choosing repertoire been misguided? Sometimes, yes. Definitely. Do these decisions make me unable to create a culturally responsive program in the future? No, I don't think so.
Education researcher Nitza Hidalgo proposed three levels for culture: concrete, behavioral and symbolic. The concrete level is the most visible, and includes elements such as food, clothing and music. The behavioral level includes elements such as the way we communicate, both verbally and nonverbally, as well as our approach to gender roles and even the political party we support. The symbolic level is the most abstract.It is at this level that we find our values and beliefs. (Lind and McKoy, 8)
In spite of our best intentions, the choice of repertoire can lean toward the superficial, and live very much within the concrete level of culture. The title of a piece, such as Africa: Ceremony, Songs and Ritual by American composer Robert W. Smith exemplifies the concrete level of culture as defined by Hidalgo. Although the program notes seem to imply an attempt to acknowledge the rich cultural heritage of the African continent, the overall impact of simply reading the program notes to students and performing the work appears to be minimal.
Africa: Ceremony, Song, and Ritual is symphonic work (for concert band) based on the primitive folk music of Western Africa. Inspired by the recording and research of Mr. Stephen Jay, the work features traditional ceremonial music for dance and entertainment as well as dynamic percussive invocations and historical songs. African musicians feel that they bring life to their instruments just as God gives life to the musician. As a result, individual instruments are believed to possess consciousness and are treated with the same respect and reverence given to an honored living person. (Smith)
In fact, there is some thought that the use of tropes and musical stereotypes in music for concert band such as this do more harm than good. For example, the use of Africa, the continent in the title reinforces a concept that all people, race and culture in Africa are the same, and can be captured in a nine minute work. No acknowledgement of the wide variety of cultures, countries, geopolitical and geographical regions or peoples that make up such a huge space and place.
So, as an obvious example, Robert W. Smith’s Africa is not multicultural in the sense that it somehow transports our students to that culture so we may learn new things. Quite to the contrary, it anchors our students in the most local of contexts, their own subjectivity, and already held beliefs about African culture. The practice, performance and consumption of this piece only reinforce their viewpoint and they mistakenly take the composition as yet more evidence to support the verisimilitude of their beliefs. (Ambro, 14)
Now I don't want to be too harsh to Mr. Smith. In fact, in general and apparently against current music education trends I'm a fan of R.W. Smith. I recently conducted (for the last time) a piece entitled Train Heading West and Other Stories.(Not by RW Smith) Not too bad a piece. Recommended by many. On many festival lists. However, there is one moment where there is a sterotypical First Nations musical trope is used to tell the story of heading west. It made me uncomfortable, I must admit. Listen to the piece yourself and see if you hear it.
However, if we look at band music titles, we can see a sense of "other" implied in many of them. What stories are we sharing, and what shallow cultural expectations are we reinforcing when we perform and teach works with titles such as:
Chant and Fire Ritual
Chant and Tribal Dance
Chant and Savage Dance
Invocation and African Dance
Which is not to say that these pieces are not filled with good intentions, however how would we surround these pieces with cultural knowledge? What would we be using these works to teach, beyond notes and rhythms?
Here is a link to another interesting article on the NAfME site entitled "You Might Be Left With Silence When You're Done." (Urbach) This article discusses the tendency of teachers to be defensive, and to resist change when, for example, the inherently racist meanings of certain folk songs are pointed out.
The author, Martin Urbach points out that much like physicians, the goal the music educator is to do no harm.
Whether merely superficial or even harmful, choosing repertoire because of the text or title does not fulfill the goal of being culturally responsive. The aboriginal support worker of Oxford Street School in Halifax summed up what culturally relevant meant to her with a simple statement: “Nothing about us without us.” The implication of this being, if we wish to create meaningful and authentic experiences we need to move beyond the surface multicultural implications of the repertoire and into a far more thoughtful and deep approach to exploring culture through music. Music educators need to ask the questions “Who can we include in this project from the represented culture?” and “What cultural identities and funds of knowledge are my students bringing to class?”
Last year I asked permission from the Downie Wenjack fund to arrange and perform Secret Path with my students. Secret Path is the musical telling of the story of Change Wenjack, a residential school student who died while trying to walk home from the school. I entered into discussion with several members of the Mi’kmaq first nations here in Nova Scotia about this project. Some were extremely enthusiastic and some were less so. (one answer I was given was "This is just another White Man Saviour Complex thing.")
I decided to go ahead with the project. The concert also included a first nations performer, and I engaged speakers from the Mi'kmaq community who could tell the residential school story to share it with my students. Was this enough?
I don't know. The stories of residential school survivors are certainly not my stories. However they are important stories, and I wanted them in front of and in the thoughts of my students.
Bringing culture bearers into classrooms and creating opportunities for collaboration offers the potential for a much deeper engagement of culturally relevant pedagogy. In his article Countering Musical Tourism and Enacting Social Justice: Repositioning Music Education as a Cross Cultural Meeting Place, Edwin Wasiak discusses the advantages of engaging with culture bearers, or those who are able to authentically speak on culturally relevant musical practices, in a collaborative way.
In contrast to the superficiality of musical tourism or the dabbling of dilettantism, collaboration requires extended engagement, commitment and effort. As the process is prolonged, cultural knowledge and expertise are exchanged, relationships are developed, and understanding and respect are deepened to an extent not possible through most other means. (Wasiak, 214)
Engaging students by finding out what music they are listening to and affirming that there is value in their choices allows music educators to tap into a deeper knowledge of each student. Validating that knowledge and affirming its intrinsic value allows music educators to build bridges to other types, styles and genres of music. Lind and McKoy advise us of the need to acknowledge with which a student comes to class.
“To put it another way, we learn by taking new information and experiences and making sense of them based upon the knowledge, beliefs and skills we already have.” (Lind, 42)
As Sharroky Hollie states:
“Part of being culturally and linguistically responsive requires the effort to combat the long lasting effects of deculturalization through validation and affirmation of the home language and culture.” (Hollie, 50)
I have always believed that in music education, the music is our textbook. We can teach everything that we value through quality repertoire choices, and with thoughtful and insightful design and planning of lessons. If we are going to use repertoire to be more culturally responsive, than I believe that we need to be so very thoughtful about what the repertoire we choose says to and about our students, communities and cultures.
This is challenging work that we do, most certainly!
Some works cited:
Abramo, Joseph. Mystery, Fire and Intrigue Representation and Commodification of Race in Band Literature. www- usr.rider.edu/~vrme/v9n1/vision/AbramoFinal.5.29.07.pdf, Date of access January 2020.
Hollie, Sharroky. Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning. Huntington Beach, Shell Education, 2018
Lind,Vicki R., and Constance L. McKoy. Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education. New York, Routledge, 2016.
Smith, R. W. Africa: Ceremony, Song and Ritual. Miami:Belwin-Mills Publishing Corporation, 1994. 1994. Print.
Urbach, Martin. You Might Be Left With Silence When You Are Done: The White Fear of Taking Racist Songs out of Music Education. https://nafme.org/you-might-be-left-with-silence-when-youre-done/ Accessed Feb 24th, 2020.
Wasiak, Edwin B. Countering Musical Tourism and Enacting Social Justice:Repositioning Music Music Education as a Cross-Cultural Meeting Place. Exploring Social Justice: Music Music Education Might Matter, Edited by Elizabeth Gould, June Countryman, Charlene Morton, Elizabeth Stewart Rose, Canadian Music Educators’ Association, 2009, 2009, 2009, pp. 212-224.