Diversifying Curriculum: Representation, Risks, and Responsible Pedagogy
Increasing diverse representation in our programming with student musicians can be an intimidating bar for those who speak, teach, and make art from a place of privilege. Oftentimes, we run into issues of concern that we are “doing it wrong.” We worry that our errors will make us seem ignorant, uncaring, or the “bad people.” To move forward, I have outlined a five-step process that includes what I consider to be several steps to “doing it the least wrong.”
Increasing diverse representation in our programming with student musicians can be an intimidating bar for those who speak, teach, and make art from a place of privilege. Oftentimes, we run into issues of concern that we are “doing it wrong.” We worry we are not serving the students or the historically underrepresented composers we are trying to include. We worry we are using incorrect terminology in discussions of equity and social justice, where the vocabulary seems to change nearly daily. We worry that our errors will make us seem ignorant, uncaring, or the “bad people.”
To move forward, I have outlined a five-step process that includes what I consider to be several steps to “doing it the least wrong.” I write you now with the privilege of a classically trained, able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgendered, White woman who feels recently redefined in the changing language of the queer community. I acknowledge the inevitability that the terms I use for historical underrepresented identities will expire or have already passed in favor and hope that my openness to discussion and intentions allow for forgiveness of mistakes in terminology. I also challenge those of us speaking and acting from privilege to release the pride that keeps our focus on our own experience. The purpose of this process is not to be seen as “good,” but rather to shift the balance of resources and power in our field and curriculum, seen or unseen.
Let’s get to it.
I challenge those of us speaking and acting from privilege to release the pride that keeps our focus on our own experience. The purpose of this process is not to be seen as "good," but rather to shift the balance of resources and power in our field and curriculum, seen or unseen.
Foregoing labeling majority groups allows for a focus on representation of marginalized communities, though you are welcome to label all identities, should you wish.
Use questions of "standard" repertoire, marginalized identity presence, and skill level delineations to IDENTIFY the needs within your curriculum.
Incorporate processes of peer recommendation, contemporary databases, and targeted online search or algorithm platform strategies to RESEARCH repertoire to fill the gaps in your programming.
Music that is too easy can cast a light of "simple" on the contributions of historically underrepresented composers. Music that is too hard can do the opposite, painting entire communities of composers as "inaccessible."
Have you legally purchased the score and parts, and does the composer benefit financially from your purchase? Is there a way to increase that financial contribution by purchasing directly from the composer or their website, rather than through a larger publishing company?
The point of awareness lies in assumption. I recommend the following inclusions or substitutions in our traditional means of conveying composer information: Include pronunciation keys for both first and last names. Inquire about preferred pronouns for living composers, using self-written biographies as a reliable indicator. Indicate birth dates for all living composers, as well as birth and death dates for deceased composers. List nationality of origin for all composers, distinguishing from location of residence. Allow for visual representation of race by including photographs or headshots of each composer.
Treat all works as equally significant, both musically and culturally, and all composers as equally valid, as artists and humans.
How long will normalization take? In my experience, participants in an ensemble or studio will recognize something as “the usual” when over half of them have adhered to the changes. This usually translates to half the duration of your program’s length.
Step One: Identify
The identification step of this process reflects upon our concepts of “standard” repertoire for each level of our program. What does our default curriculum look like, and what has led us to those decisions? Is our default fully meeting the requirements of both pedagogical necessity and cultural inclusion? For me, this reflection begins with addressing my rationale for considering certain works “standard” for the field, which have many possible origins, including:
- I have personally performed the works as a student at certain levels. Based on my evaluation of my own development and trust in my former teachers, I conclude that those works were appropriate and should remain central in a student’s education.
- I have personally taught the works, and my students benefitted noticeably from them. I have been satisfied with that decision in the past and am thankful to have “go-to” works to serve certain purposes in my pedagogy.
- My higher education training taught me that certain works are “staples” of the canon, and I repeat them from acceptance of and respect for that training.
- Many respected colleagues have programmed the works recently for students of similar ability level as mine, therefore I am willing to accept them as a new standard.
- My program already owns or has access to certain works in our library, and access to funding and resources is a very real challenge. I am likely to select a work I already own rather than purchase something new.
From this point, I have my catalog of “standard” repertoire and recommend the simple (though eye-opening and potentially discouraging!) task of categorizing works by representation of marginalized identities. In order to feel like I could maintain control and have a place to start on my own curriculum diversification journey, I chose three historically underrepresented identities to label, though there are many, many to consider. At this point, foregoing labeling majority groups allows for a focus on representation of marginalized communities, though you are welcome to label all identities, should you wish. A very non-exhaustive list may include:
- Race: Black, Asian, Indigenous, Pacific Island, Latino/a, and any non-White (majority: White)
- Gender Identity: female, trans, nonbinary, genderfluid, and any non-cisgendered male (majority: cisgender male)
- Queer: LGBTQIA+ (majority: heterosexual, heteroromantic)
- Age: younger than 25 or older than 60 (majority: American “working ages” 20s-50s)
- Socio-Economic Status: limited access to institutional resources, self-published (majority: middle to upper class, employed)
- Formal Training: non-classical music pedigree, self-taught, popular music background (majority: classically experienced, formally trained)
The final component of identifying your curricular options and needs is perhaps the component with which we are most familiar. We must determine exactly the technical and musical parameters of repertoire needed for each level of student in our program. This may be the first and second band in your high school; the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in your private studio; the chamber and mixed SATB university choirs at your college; or your single string orchestra. For the start of my journey, these levels were for collegiate bassoonists – admission to a university program, sophomore to junior year barrier exam, degree recital, and graduate study. These curricular levels, which I describe by collections of “proficiency skills,” might include requirements for any or all of the following:
- Melodic range, frequency, or size of intervallic leaps
- Harmonic language, key areas
- Rhythmic and/or metric complexity
- Physical velocity of finger patterns, articulation, etc.
- Stylistic consideration, genre- or era-specific techniques
- Use of extended techniques
After all this categorizing, I can place the works from my standard repertoire into curricular levels and easily see where I have diverse representation. I can identify, quickly and without doubt, that most of my library’s collection of underrepresented composers’ works are only pedagogically appropriate for my most advanced ensemble. Or perhaps I am most aware of music by Black composers for beginning levels, but beyond the first year, the students cease to see those voices in their curriculum. Further still, I may have sought music by young composers and collected several that all utilize avantgarde techniques or electronics, creating a false parallel between a particular identity and a specific skill to be learned.
Use questions of “standard” repertoire, marginalized identity presence, and skill level delineations to IDENTIFY the needs within your curriculum. The key is always to use proficiency level first to guarantee pedagogical responsibility to student then begin the next step to find appropriately leveled diverse repertoire rather than simply any diverse repertoire. Here the identification step ends when you can clearly state your curriculum’s needs.
Step Two: Research
The research step of this process involves evaluating, potentially expanding, and intentionally utilizing a variety of resources to find repertoire to fill the curricular gaps identified in the identification step. Here, I will explore several ways to discover repertoire to potentially add to your programming rotation, recognizing that these resources change daily. Please feel free to reach out and share new resources and approaches to discovering or creating music, both with myself and your colleagues!
- Network Recommendations
I like to acknowledge the role of our professional networks in researching curriculum immediately. We know many aware and like-minded colleagues who can provide recommendations for programming.
- Featured Ensembles or Evaluation Lists
Check out the programming decisions of featured ensembles at conferences and large group evaluations. What groups like yours are performing at your state music education conference, ASTA clinics, ACDA workshops, or the Midwest Clinic? The leveled large group repertoire for middle and high school ensembles is publicly available for many individual states. Leading into the next point, most of these are summarized and linked directly by publisher JW Pepper.
- Publisher Websites
Many music publishers include the ability to sort publications by composer. This may be birthdates or historical eras, gender identity, race, nationality, or more. If this is not visible on their website, don’t hesitate to contact them and ask if you can access that functionality either privately or request it added to their vendor website.
Contact your music publisher of choice and see if they are aware of consortium projects to commission new works for a particular level and type of ensemble. This may result in either a brand-new composition that has recently been commissioned and premiered or, excitingly, the potential to buy in and join a consortium for yourself or with your program.
- Individual Composer Websites
If you find a composer you like but the ensemble does not seem to fit, try visiting their personal composition website or contacting them directly. They may have works you have not yet discovered or may even be willing to arrange a project you love to fit your ensemble, often for a minimal fee as compared to commissioning a brand-new work.
- Diversity-Specific Databases
There exist many more databases that may be in our awareness. Begin with the Institute for Composer Diversity and use their menu bar to select your program type. Foreshadowing the final recommendation for research, you can quite simply perform an internet search for “diverse composers” and your program needs to see what arises. I found an incredible list of “Bassoon Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color” through this process alone.
- Internet Search Skills
Finally, but not insignificantly, it’s time to up the Google game. Yes, searching for “BIPOC band composers” will provide results, but it can often be both overwhelming and focused on only the current trends in programming or popularization by organizations or publishers with wide or well-funded and sponsored online reach. At this point, I recommend taking advantage of the algorithms designed by playlist curators such as Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. Enter the title or composer of a work you have found intriguing or inspiring for your ensemble and style of choice, and listen through the recommended radio station, playlist, or “users also liked” compilation. If an album arises, consider other works on the album, which are likely to be written by the same composer or their contemporaries or performed by the same or similar ensembles.
While the above seven processes are certainly not exhaustive approaches, I hope they have sparked interest and awareness in the variety of ways to seek out new programming options. Incorporate processes of peer recommendation, contemporary databases, and targeted online search or algorithm platform strategies to RESEARCH repertoire to fill the gaps in your programming.
Step Three: Test
The process of testing repertoire for its inclusion is twofold and arguably the most critical step in ethically diversifying your curriculum. As teachers and performers both, we have many potential missteps here! After finding the repertoire, the final step before introducing it two our students and audiences hinges on two questions:
1. Is this repertoire the next best pedagogical step for our students?
Return to your curriculum map and set of proficiency skills, score in hand. Do the technical elements of melodic range and contour, harmonic language, rhythmic and metric complexity, and incorporations of various stylistic and expressive markers reflect a well-designed scaffolded step in your students’ development? Will they be challenged but not over-challenged? Can you explain why the students need to wrestle with and grow through this music, for reasons other than the composer’s identity?
Music that is too easy can cast a light of “simple” on the contributions of historically underrepresented composers. Music that is too hard can do the opposite, painting entire communities of composers as “inaccessible.” Pedagogically well-placed takes priority over including solely for the act of highlighting a diverse face. Including composers solely for their minority status and not their musical contributions tokenizes them as humans and treats them as the method of representation in the abstract – a statement – rather than a unique individual deserving of representation.
2. Are you providing direct resources or influence to those with minority status?
The “direct resources” here are often, quite simply, payment. Have you legally purchased the score and parts, and does the composer benefit financially from your purchase? Is there a way to increase that financial contribution by purchasing directly from the composer or their website, rather than through a larger publishing company? Would you consider listing in your program where to buy music by each composer to lower the research bar for other teachers and make it easier to find and continue supporting the composer?
To this end, I wish I could recall where I overheard the following piece of advice regarding performative allyship, as I would provide it for you in citation. If you know, please remind me! The advice was a simple statement to the following effect: if you aren’t shifting resources or power, you are performing. If the primary beneficiary from your diversified program is you, as reflected in your reputation in your field, then there is more research and testing to be done.
With new literature in hand, TEST each work for its best use within the context of a single program, a complete semester or annual concert cycle, and the full course of a student’s curriculum with you or the larger development of your personal artistic projects. If your choices are pedagogically supported in terms of your students’ development and audiences’ experiences AND increase the volume of money directed to minority communities, it’s time to play!
Step Four: Implement
Implementation of diverse curriculum often seems straightforward – present the new music to students, with or without some information about the composers – but there are a few potential pitfalls in this process, and ones I have certainly tripped into in my own teaching. I recommend the following two guiding questions to ensure that we are treating composers as individuals and artists, rather than tokens of their marginalized communities.
1. How do we present repertoire and composer information to students and audiences, and what information is included?
This may include instructional handouts, either as preparation guides for students or listening guides to audiences; spoken introductions to works; printed program notes; brief video interviews with composers; or more. Through these, we have the option to include as much information as we like about the composer’s name, birth and death dates, nationality, race, gender identity, and any personal anecdotes we find interesting or appropriate. The point of awareness in this question lies in assumption. I recommend the following inclusions or substitutions in our traditional means of conveying composer information:
- Include pronunciation keys for both first and last names.
- Inquire about preferred pronouns for living composers, using self-written biographies as a reliable indicator.
- Indicate birth dates for all living composers, as well as birth and death dates for deceased composers.
- List nationality of origin for all composers, distinguishing from location of residence.
- Allow for visual representation of race by including photographs or headshots of each composer.
Through these, we are able to include a variety of information for students to connect with or be exposed to without directing attention to the diversity of certain identities over others or tokenizing their contributions to a given program or concert cycle.
2. What are the requirements for treating composers ethically when publicly labeling their identities?
The simplest answer to this is to treat all works as equally significant, both musically and culturally, and all composers as equally valid, as artists and humans. This means introducing all the information above for all composers, not simply the living ones or the ones we identify as diverse in some capacity. Equally present and educate students on the historical and cultural context for all works, not only the ones from backgrounds different than what we assume our students to identify with. Create programs that incorporate composer identity, rather than utilizing their identities only as programmatic themes, such as International Women’s Day, Black or Hispanic History Month, or Pride Month.
The core of increasing equity for historically underrepresented composers rests on two principles. First and foremost, all composers must be introduced, discussed, treated, and valued as individual human beings with complex identities and unique artistic voices. Secondly, the resulting financial gain and performance exposure must benefit the composer rather than the director or performer, ensuring that power and resources are directed toward increasing equity. This second point was previously covered in step three, the testing phase.
Students and audiences become aware of historically underrepresented composer identities when we as instructors and performers IMPLEMENT not only the musical works into our programs but also make known composer identities equally – all names, all nationalities, all gender identities, all visible faces to see as distinct humans.
Step Five: Normalize
To fully normalize changes into our curriculum, we must first fully understand the process and timeline by which things become “normal” in a given culture. What are the current normalized elements of your program, and how did they become the norm? How does normalization happen? And, as is at the front of most of our first thoughts, how long does it take?
Normalize, perhaps obviously, is the process of making normal. Normal is that which is standard, usual, typical, and follows expected patterns. We have already created a set of expectations for a variety of techniques, eras, styles, cultures, identities, behaviors, and principles of community in our programs. Normalization of anything new, then, happens when we establish patterns, make our students and audiences aware of them, and adhere to them over time. Continue to return to the proficiency requirements you set in step one of this process as guideposts for what you believe your students need to learn and be exposed to.
An open acknowledgement of intent to change can make a big difference in setting new expectations – “in our program, we now strive to perform at least XX works per year by composers whose identities have been marginalized in the classical music/orchestral/wind band/choral community.” We name our patterns so we can adhere to them in a transparent and quantifiable way. Clarifying your trajectory establishes an expectation, and making public your measurable goals enables accountability. In my studio, this looks like individual student repertoire including at least 25% works by historically underrepresented composers and my own performance and commissioning repertoire at least 50%.
Then, we wait. We wait actively, repeating success of reaching our measurable goals for inclusion, but we wait nonetheless. How long will normalization take? In my experience, participants in an ensemble or studio will recognize something as “the usual” when over half of them have adhered to the changes. This usually translates to half the duration of your program’s length. If you teach at a grades six through eight middle school, at least a year and a half of programming sets a new normal. At most high schools and colleges, this process takes at least two years. We must remember that a minority of time is a minority of experience.
With time, you, your students, your colleagues, and your audiences will acknowledge a conscious dedication to incorporating historically underrepresented identities into your programming and move toward an expectation of hearing those voices. Balanced representation becomes a quantifiable standard practice of your program or career, rather than an abstract goal or temporary special focus.
To NORMALIZE the inclusion of underrepresented composers within your curriculum and program will take time, time that is measured in more than a single themed concert or repeated program of two or three “diverse” works scattered over a student’s time with you. We must publicly state the intention of change and consistently make measurable programming shifts until most of our students and audiences recognize adherence to patterns of inclusivity and diversity.
To combine these five steps, we have a line to draw between preparation and execution of changing curriculum. Before engaging with students, we must IDENTIFY and RESEARCH new repertoire for both its representation of minority communities and composers, but also for its suitability for our program objectives from strictly technical and musical priorities. Once this is complete, we move to TEST, IMPLEMENT, and NORMALIZE changes in our programs as a part of a transparent mission to diversify the collection of music presented to students and audiences, as well as to equitably balance the voices of historically underrepresented communities.
In this way, we have ethically supported composers by recognizing their identities and manually overriding the biases of our classical field to prioritize humans with cultural majority status to acquire their music. We have kept our students at the front of the process in our minds, ensuring that all we bring to them is quality music by a variety of humans.
I hope that these steps and the philosophy behind them are helpful to you and your program. Thank you for your work to move the classical world forward, starting with our young musicians. I welcome you to the messy discussions of ethics and to taking the next best step. Please reach out with your stories, and I am excited to hear your music.