Tag: music education

Empowering Teenagers to Compose: A Guide for Educators

A pen and a notebook with handwritten notes, a CD and a smartphone with a display of a video of music performance overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo

Although K-12 music standards call for students to develop skills in composition, I often hear educators express that they feel ill-equipped to support their students in this endeavor. Many music teachers do not get trained on how to facilitate composition projects in the classroom, and their own experience with composing can be quite limited if their studies placed an emphasis on performance. As a result, instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

Though these assignments can serve a purpose, they often do little to develop a young musician’s creativity, and at times, they can even stifle students’ artistry by implying that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to compose. Instead, students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development. This is especially crucial in music programs where many students’ only access to formal music instruction is in the classroom, where their studies are typically not as individualized as they would be in a private lesson setting.

This article is a collection of actionable tips primarily from my own experience as a composer-educator and founder of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop. These strategies can be adapted to group or private lesson settings and don’t require that educators have extensive background in composition. Though these approaches are geared towards middle and high school students, many of these tips can be adapted to create lessons for students of different age groups.

  • Instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • I encourage students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities. For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • If students feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today's world.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer

Cultivate a practice of observation and discussion.

Eric Booth, in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, advises that we need to guide students in practicing observation before defaulting to interpretation or judgment – a discipline that we also need to cultivate in our own practice.1 This approach enables students to learn a great deal from the music that they listen to, yet it also gives them an ability to ask insightful questions of themselves while they are in the process of realizing their own ideas.

If a student listens to a new piece and responds with “This piece makes me feel as if I am watching a cartoon,” giving a follow up question such as “What about the music reminds you of watching a cartoon?” can help them to return their focus to aspects such as the instrumentation or texture of the piece.

When we model questions that focus on observation, this empowers students to practice asking themselves more insightful questions during the composition process. For instance, a student who is dissatisfied with how their melody resolves can ask themselves, “What about this melody makes it sound incomplete?” However, if they immediately judge the melody as something that is “no good,” they will likely abandon their original ideas, and the opportunity to learn from their experiences will be missed.

Even if the student ultimately decides to scrap their composition and start over, taking a moment to pause and observe what they have created so far can give them the insight needed to accomplish what they set out to write the next time around.

Focus on one element of music at a time.

In the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, one of our topics during the first week of classes is a lesson on the elements of music. When we give students the vocabulary to talk about elements such as rhythm, pitch, and texture, they become better equipped to make observations about the music that they are listening to. That way, they are less dependent on interpretations and judgment.

Even if students are having trouble finding the right terminology to use in the midst of a discussion, it can be helpful to invite them to describe what they are observing to the best of their abilities without having to utilize the proper musical term right away. The vocabulary can always be taught later, and the students’ findings can be great ways to open up conversations around new terminology.

Aside from listening exercises, composition projects that focus on a singular element of music are great for narrowing the scope of a lesson while allowing plenty of room for creativity. For example, I’ve often used the Sonic Scavenger Hunt by composer-educator Danny Clay as a starting point for students to explore the concept of timbre.

Experiment with many approaches to composition.

When students can try their hand at a variety of approaches to composing, they will eventually choose a writing process that is most inspiring to them. Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece. They may even decide to change their approach based on the result that they are trying to accomplish in a given project.

Though a new approach may be uncomfortable at first, sometimes, students can actually be inspired in unexpected ways. I’ve taught workshops where students work together to compose chance music; however, I always tell them that even if they set up a system for choosing the notes, they are always free to break their own rules and edit the piece if they are dissatisfied with the result.

After using a die, a coin, or a picker wheel to determine certain elements of a piece, often, they will become quite opinionated about which notes to change and why they are changing them–another great opportunity for conversation.

Bringing in guest composers to teach a class (either in-person or virtually) or finding videos of composers talking about their creative process can motivate students to try something new. Though some students may initially feel that processes such as rolling a die or turning their name into musical notes are not legitimate ways to write music, when they discover that there are many established composers who have created masterpieces with similar strategies, they will feel validated in their own creative process.

Many of the reasons for introducing a variety of approaches to composition also apply to experimenting with different styles of notation. Another great aspect of Danny Clay’s Sonic Scavenger Hunt is that it is a great example of a graphic score – a concept that is fit for beginners and more experienced students alike.

Students can also explore projects that don’t require any notation, such as composing a fixed media piece in a program like Audacity. Young composers tend to fixate on pitches and rhythms, but these alternatives to traditional notation can be useful exercises in developing elements such as timbre, texture, and dynamics when students might not have focused on them before.

Use technology to your advantage…

Even simpler apps, such as voice notes or a video camera that’s included with a mobile device, can be useful tools for composing. When I teach composition, I often encourage students to record their ideas as they go. That way, they don’t have to worry about forgetting concepts that they are experimenting with – a strategy that I often use in my own work before I begin to notate my ideas. Documenting the composition process can also enable students to better reflect on their experiences since it will be easier to see how the piece evolves over time.

Aside from being a way to introduce students to other artists and composers, watching and discussing videos of performances, interviews, and demonstrations can be a great way for students to witness how sounds can be created in innovative ways. For instance this performance of Zaka by Jennifer Higdon has been a great conversation starter amongst my students since it demonstrates the concept of extended techniques. Additionally, this profile of Angélica Negrón has piqued my students’ curiosity about electronic music and found sounds.

…but be mindful of where technology has its limits. 

At times, introducing certain technology too early in our students’ development can encourage them to “color inside the lines” in unintended ways. I have often seen this happen to students who begin to use notation software long before they have started to get comfortable demonstrating their ideas on an instrument or writing sketches by hand, however imperfect these methods may be at first.

In a lot of notation software, such as Noteflight, MuseScore, or Sibelius, to name a few, users are asked to specify parameters such as the meter and key signature before they begin to enter the piece itself. Changing these options later on can become a barrier if students aren’t aware of how to work around these limitations or if they are not aware that their tools are imposing such limitations in the first place. This often results in melodies and rhythms that sound too “square” and pieces that can become too redundant.

One way that I counteract this is by encouraging students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities.

For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

Some verbal and graphic notes for a musical composition that can be used instead of music notation

Save the theory assessments for another time.

When composition projects are primarily intended to examine whether your students can write an eight-bar melody in D Major, for example, they are much more likely to become fixated on whether they are choosing the “right” notes and pleasing their teacher. Instead, opt for open-ended projects that enable students to explore and define their musical tastes.

Students who feel empowered to envision and realize their own ideas will gain a sense of confidence that can be applied to any profession whether they choose to continue in their musical development or move on to other endeavors. On the other hand, if they feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

Alice Kanack, the pioneer of Creative Ability Development, has a very helpful formula to refer to when structuring creative exercises for students:

Freedom of choice or Freedom from criticism + Disciplined practice and repetition of making choices = Creative Ability2

Whether I am teaching composition in my own studio or I am visiting another teacher’s class to do a workshop, I’ve found it much more empowering to encourage students to express their intentions and their artistic vision so that we can explore how they might accomplish what they intended. This is another reason why lessons that incorporate plenty of time for discussion and reflection are so important.

Embrace imperfection.

As educators, we can enable students to take creative risks and break free of a fixation on choosing “right” versus “wrong” notes by creating multiple opportunities for them to share works-in-progress. Often, I will set a short timer (e.g. 5-10 minutes) for students to respond to a prompt that is very narrow in scope. Then, they will have an opportunity to share what they came up with and express their intentions for their work as they go forward.

Even though there will often be at least one student who is too shy to share their unfinished works, I’ve found that simply inviting them to reflect on what the experience of composing was like can gain their trust. More often than not, they ultimately decide to present the music itself.

That being said, it is crucial to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable in this way, especially if they are in a group setting with their peers. All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few. This goes for all parties involved — their peers, their teachers, and even parents or guardians who are supporting them in their studies.3

Because of this, modeling what it’s like to embrace imperfection can be a powerful tool. When I give students an opportunity to work independently during class, I will often use the time to compose ideas for the same prompt and demonstrate what it’s like to share my own imperfect, unfinished work. This includes verbalizing my thoughts on how I feel about the creation at the moment. Whether I am excited about moving forward with my ideas or I feel ambivalent and want to scrap them, I make a habit of sharing these reflections with my students so that they can feel safe to do so as well.

Connect lessons to real-world experiences.

Introducing our students to living composers, whether it is via a live workshop or through pre-recorded media, can illustrate the many ways in which a career in music can take shape.

This can easily become a starting point for activities that give students a taste of what the music profession can be like. For instance, prompts such as writing a short solo for a classmate to perform can give students a glimpse into the process of writing a commission.

As part of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, Samantha Hogan, has visited our class to share excerpts from her concert works as well as selections that she wrote for games and film. After her presentation, she facilitated a lesson in which the students created music to portray characters from I Wish I Were A Butterfly, a children’s book by James Howe. This kind of activity is a great way to introduce students to the idea of telling stories with music.

Aside from empowering students to make creative choices in the music itself, encouraging students to assist in the production of their work can give them confidence to initiate their own projects later on. Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today’s world.

One of Sakari's online composition lessons.


As you begin to apply these practices, my hope is that you will feel more confident to share the art of music composition with your students, even if you have little formal training in composition or you do not identify as a composer. Though an emphasis on observation and experimentation will take much more time than prompting students to “color inside the lines,” approaching the study of composition in this manner will offer more enriching opportunities for us to learn alongside our students, inviting them to take risks and explore new territories in their creative practice.


  1. Eric Booth, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33.
  2. Alice Kay Kanack, Fun Improvisation for Violin: The Philosophy and Method of Creative Ability Development (USA: Summy-Birchard Music, 1996), 15.
  3. Kanack, 20.


Confronting Our Complicity: Music Theory and White Supremacy

A photo of a wrecked classroom with paint peeling from the ceiling, desks turned over and broken.

For many students, the traditional music theory core curriculum is an undesirable and yet unavoidable part of their college music experience. It becomes something to be suffered through, survived rather than savored. A critical source of this frustration is the disconnect between their musical lives inside the classroom and those outside it. Despite the fact that the majority of our students do not listen to Western art music regularly, nearly all of the core curriculum is based on it. Consequently, as students progress through their degree, they must endure the constant friction between the music they want to study and the music they have to study, between music they value and what music theory as an institution values.

In “Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy,” I described how a theory curriculum devoted to a single style is inherently limited and inherently limiting. When we restrict ourselves to Western art music, we forgo the opportunity to speak about basic yet essential musical elements such as groove, timbre, improvisation, and post-production in styles where these are powerfully foregrounded.

Why then do we as a discipline remain so averse to change? Despite the passage of time, the evolution of taste, and the advent of new styles, new techniques, and new technologies of music creation, the topics we teach and the examples we use rarely reflect this. Instead, today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students, as those our teachers used as students, as those our teachers’ teachers used as students. The theory curriculum at too many institutions remains largely standardized and largely stagnant.

This is a problem.

Our unwarranted privileging of Western art music—a style constructed by white people as white, despite the historical and ongoing participation of people who aren’t—enables the dismissal of other styles of music and the people associated with those styles through unfavorable and unfair comparisons. How do we reconcile this with our many statements extolling the virtues of diversity, equity, and inclusivity? Why do we continue to rely on a deeply flawed pedagogy?

We continue to rely on the traditional pedagogy for three interrelated reasons. First, given our extensive training in Western art music, we’re reluctant and often unable to divest ourselves from its contents. Second, because institutions prioritize research over teaching, we prioritize research over teaching. Finally, we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness of the curriculum because we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness in our lives.

When we rationalize our use of the traditional pedagogy by appealing to its contents, we attempt to transform a subjective preference into an objective truth. The specific set of skills that one acquires through studying Western art music becomes the necessary set of skills for any consequential study of music. But basing an entire core curriculum on any single style requires making major concessions about the musical elements we can talk about and the informed ways we can talk about them. Being able to harmonize chorales “correctly” means nothing if you’re looking to get up, get into it, and get involved. Conversely, asking if you can take it to the bridge won’t help you avoid parallel fifths.

Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why. Simple historical inertia—the replication of what we were taught as students—isn’t sufficient. If we appeal to “art for art’s sake,” we need to be explicit about whose art and, consequently, for whose sake. We need to talk about the metrics being used to determine what counts as art, who selects these metrics, and their reasons for doing so. We need to talk about how white male identity politics has shaped Western art music.

Our decision to use the traditional pedagogy is also motivated by how this impacts our careers. Institutions place a disproportionate weight on research relative to teaching, and this incentivizes perpetuation in the classroom, rather than innovation. Because the classical style is highly codified and relatively easy to teach, we can allocate more time and energy to research while still hitting established learning goals. Unfortunately, our longstanding pedagogical dependence on Western art music has conditioned us to expect certain results without asking if they matter, much less how they do, or to whom.

Contingent faculty have even less institutional incentive—and often less agency—to challenge the curriculum at the schools where they teach. The instability of employment and higher turnover rates means that any traction for innovative pedagogy is hard to establish and harder to maintain. In general, changes to the status quo, when they occur, tend to be fairly isolated.

Nevertheless, theory’s established historical pedigree does not absolve us from the moral necessity of questioning what it is we’re actually doing in the classroom. Well-established marginalization is, after all, still marginalization, and the generation of predictable results does not in itself mean that we are teaching our students what they should be learning. The bald assertion that the traditional pedagogy provides any and all necessary and fundamental knowledge needs to be defended, and I don’t believe it can be.

We present music almost exclusively by dead white European men under neutral course titles like “Basic Musicianship,” allowing the two to conflate into a tautological definition of what qualifies as “Real Music,” and re-inscribing racial and gender hierarchies in the process. We present Western art music as an unassailable good and our teaching of it as unassailably good. We present Western art music as an intellectual art form, a high art form, a better art form, and we do this in the service of an ideology that positions white identities, ideas, and ideals as superior.

We want to continue using the traditional pedagogy without acknowledging how it upholds white supremacy because we don’t want to acknowledge how we uphold white supremacy. We consistently downplay or deny the privileges whiteness provides and we consistently downplay or deny the ways we protect those privileges.

  • Today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students.

    Dave Molk
  • Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why.

    Dave Molk
  • Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. ... Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist.

    Dave Molk

Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. Studying Western art music is not racist in itself. Teaching Western art music is not racist in itself. Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist. Requiring all students to use a white lens to approach, understand, and critique music is racist.

As Michelle Ohnona and I wrote in “Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom,” we need to engage with music and with the social and cultural mechanisms that shape it. We need to look past individual intent and acknowledge the cumulative impact of supporting a pedagogy that holds that a core curriculum based solely in Western art music is acceptable. To present this status quo as the natural order of things, without critique, is to uphold white supremacy.

The 2020 presidential election once again laid bare the ongoing thrall of white grievance and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. We can’t be impartial about this—oppression within education is a reflection and a reinforcement of oppression within society, and when we fail to address injustice, we ensure its continuance. Let us push back against the claimed inevitability of this insupportable curriculum.

The best thing we can do for our students is to embrace an engaged, transformative pedagogy in which, as bell hooks eloquently writes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.” This requires at least a realignment and probably a rethinking of what higher education is supposed to be.

With a transformative pedagogy, we recalibrate our classrooms into spaces where we acknowledge the humanity of our students and are explicit about how the work we do in the classroom relates to their lives outside of it. We talk openly with students and with each other about racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other forms of identity-based oppression. That this call to arms isn’t a new one only underscores its urgency. That these discussions aren’t necessarily easy only underscores their urgency.

As we teach students how to hear, interact with, and think about music, let’s also teach them to think critically, ask questions, self-reflect, and to care enough to do so. Let’s open their ears, eyes, and minds to voices and people that have been marginalized, to the stories that surround and support the notes, to the unheard music. We need to teach the humanities as a practice you take out into the world.

As with any enterprise involving the sowing of seeds, some will germinate immediately, some only after the passing of several years, and some not at all. This is okay. Now is the time for planting.

Leveraging the Quarantine to Create an Online Music Camp

Young composer at keyboard wearing headphones

“So is your father an entrepreneur to have worked with you through all of this?” asked Benjamin Taylor, composer and founder of the Music Creators Academy.

“That would be my mother.”

I remember my heart racing two months prior to that call on one of my regular walks around the neighborhood with my mother. Only a day before our walk, my plans to attend the Brevard Music Center’s Summer Institute had been canceled due to COVID-19, and we were already planning out the logistics for me to host my own summer camp.

“The demand is there,” I said, “I’m evidence enough of that! But this could be the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken…”

The Composers Collaborative Project (CCP) is an online series of lectures designed for the benefit of composers of all ages and skill levels. It has been my project of the last three months, and my attempt to leverage the quarantine to create a unique opportunity for composers seeking a path to continue developing their skills. The CCP currently features fifteen professional composition professors and freelancers – each teaching a 90-minute masterclass tailored to their individual strengths and passions. It has been one of the most exciting, nerve-racking, and fulfilling things I’ve ever attempted.

April 6th. The first email of many. If I was going to make this thing work, I would need a business entity. So I reached out to Steve Goldman, founding member of the National Young Composers Challenge (NYCC), in hopes of establishing a sponsorship or partnership. I wrote the email, took a deep breath, and pressed send.

Even though no professional partnership emerged from the conversation, Mr. Goldman was incredibly supportive and put me in touch with another NYCC judge, Dr. Alex Burtzos. Luckily for me, Dr. Burtzos had experience organizing festivals. He suggested that the best chance I had at seeing the project succeed was to turn it into a fundraiser. And with that, he introduced me to New Music USA’s Solidarity Fund. Though the Solidarity Fund would end earlier than I had expected, my mother and I decided to follow Dr. Burtzos’s advice, and – encouraged by their Solidarity Fund and other programs – evolved the project into a benefit for New Music USA.  And with a warm conversation and a plan secured with their Development Manager Miles Freeman, my next step would be to find our teachers.

From the beginning, I was concerned that it would be difficult to find anyone interested in giving their time for the project. What I discovered instead was the incredible generosity of the composition community. The support was overwhelming. I started with teachers that I knew, and reached out to others they recommended from there. In a short time, we had enough support to schedule two weeks of masterclasses!

“It’s common for young composers to think of established composers as superstars. In reality, most composers are relatively unknown outside of the new music community… They will generally be excited to hear about your interest in their work, and much more open to donating their time than you might think.” – Alex Burtzos, on our call

As a high school student, it’s intimidating reaching out to any college professor. Imagine now if that professor was a Grammy award winner, or was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, or is known around the composition world, or has judged the competitions you’ve entered, and so on! The humanity of the people I have worked with has been one of the most surprising parts of this process.

An example involving my initial conversations with Dr. Marcos Balter comes immediately to mind. I always do my best to research a person’s title before reaching out to them. In his case, I made the mistake of using ‘Mr.’ instead of ‘Dr.’. When, in the next email, I realized my mistake and apologized, he responded that it was no problem at all and that I could call him Marcos! I was blown away.

With the panel of teachers squared away, I needed to build a website. In many ways, this was a family affair. I worked on the layout and graphic design, my sister took care of the photography, and my mother wrote out the copy. Stuck in the house, my sister and I worked with what we had to create professional-looking backdrops: we rearranged my room and created props out of old manuscripts and an easel from years ago. The end result, I must say, I am very proud of.

  • The Composers Collaborative Project is my attempt to leverage the quarantine to create a unique opportunity for composers seeking a path to continue developing their skills.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • I discovered the incredible generosity of the composition community. The support was overwhelming.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • Of course, we were not the only ones creating a camp.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • I will not be able to judge the success of the project until the very last minute.

    Brendan Weinbaum

Of course, we were not the only ones creating a camp. This brings us back to Benjamin Taylor’s quote from the beginning. Days before launch, I traded details with Joseph Sowa, a professor of the Music Creators Academy. He described his program as “a band camp with a heavy dose of creativity” for middle- and high-school students. I was antsy for sure; nervous at the prospect of competition. Nevertheless, both Dr. Sowa and the project’s founder, Benjamin Taylor, were incredibly kind, and given our conclusion that the two programs were meant for different audiences, we agreed to support one another in what ways we could.

This brings me another one of my favorite stories from this whole experience. Somehow neither I nor Dr. Sowa had told Dr. Taylor that I was a high school student. When we had our call and I referred to him as “Dr. Taylor”, he laughed and responded, “Should I call you Dr. Weinbaum?” He thought I was a composition professor! Now that’s a compliment if I’ve ever received one.

Launching the website and social media accounts brings us to where I am today. For the past few weeks and for the next few weeks, I have dedicated myself to promoting the event however I can: Email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, group chats, etc. I have had to stretch myself to get my head around many of these platforms; nevertheless, the results have been promising so far, and I continue to hope for the best!

Regardless, my heart still races. People generally prefer to wait until the due date to sign up for an event like this (as I have discovered talking to many people), and so I will not be able to judge the success of the project until the very last minute. If that doesn’t keep someone in suspense.

The lectures will take place from July 20-31 and registration will remain open throughout. If you are interested in learning more about the Composers Collaborative Project, please visit our website or send me an email. I would love to hear from you!

Website: www.composerscollaborative.com

Email: [email protected]

Third Coast Percussion: The Collaborative Process

David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors (Photo by Saverio Truglia)

In the first couple of weeks following the global lock down, we hadn’t completely figured out how we were going to produce the extensive NewMusicBox Cover conversations that we launch on the first day of every month—we were too busy finishing up work on our talk with Nathalie Joachim which we were lucky enough to record just a week before all this began. But we knew that these in-depth conversations about new music were something we had to keep going somehow, especially since the next one was slated for May 1, the 21st anniversary of the launch of this publication online. What to do? So much of what has made these conversations so exciting is the intimacy, empathy, and camaraderie that emerges from an in-person encounter, often in the homes of the people with whom we are talking. But we’re also well aware that this method of recording these talks also comes with limitations. There are tons of exciting people making fascinating music all over this country whom we have wanted to feature on these pages, but we’ve usually been limited to folks who either live in the greater New York Tri-State area, are a possible day trip along the Northeastern Corridor in either direction, or have come to NYC for a performance (and those talks are obviously not at home and so run the risk of feeling less personal).

I’ve long been a fan of Third Coast Percussion which marks its 15th anniversary this year and I’ve been eager to talk with their four members for quite some time about their collaborations with Augusta Read Thomas, David T. Little, Donnacha Dennehy, Philip Glass, and more recently Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and JLin, as well as their own compositions. (I’m particularly enamored with TCP member David Skidmore’s immersive Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.) However, TCP is based in Chicago and is constantly touring around the country, so the dots never connected.

Then very soon after concerts started getting cancelled all over the country and we all began sheltering in place, TCP started presenting live stream concerts on their YouTube channel which were really motivational, particularly their second one on March 28 which—in addition to featuring the amazing pieces written for them by Glass, Hynes, and JLin, plus an awesome original by TCP’s Peter Martin—was a fundraiser for the New Music Solidary Fund which New Music USA administers. So I just had to figure out a way to make them the May 2020 NewMusicBox Cover somehow! Thanks to the Zoom platform and the fact that each of these four guys—Dave, Peter, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors—was tech savvy enough to record themselves separately with microphones and camcorders, we were able to record a substantive conversation online from five different locations that looks and feels almost like we were all together… almost.

We talked about a very wide range of topics. They started off by sharing stories about how TCP introduces audiences to percussion instruments and how they each came to devote their lives to making music. Then we engaged in a heady series of dos and don’ts for writing and performing percussion music. After that, we spent a long time exploring some details of the staggering range of music they have nurtured from an extraordinarily wide range of creators including in-depth commentary about some of their own original compositions. Finally, we had a heart to heart about what they all have been doing to cope in these unprecedented and uncertain times that everyone has been thrust into. I hope you find what they each had to say as poignant and inspirational as I have.

[Ed. note: To accommodate a broad range of experiential modalities, we’ve included audio links for the entire conversation as well as a complete text transcription. Click on “Read the Full Transcript” and you will also be rewarded with a few video clips from the talk and well as several performances! To facilitate access, both the audio and the text have been divided into four discrete sections, each of which is self-contained, in order to make the experience somewhat more manageable since the total discussion ran a little over 100 minutes. We encourage you to bookmark this page in your browser and return to it multiple times rather than going through all of it in one go, unless you’re extremely intrepid! – FJO]

Glass Half-Full, Mug Half-Empty

A glass of water that is half full (or empty), a mug with the caption "Do Epic Shit," a Black Lives Matter button leaning against a Buddha statue, and some books (Stavey Abrams's Lead From the Outside, Alex Haley's Roots, American Indian Stories, Dorothy Roberts's Killing the Black Body, and Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them), and another button ("She, Her, Hers") on a shelf in Anthony Tidd's home.

“The best investment for one year is to grow grains; the best investment for ten years is to grow trees; the best investment for a lifetime is to educate people. What you gain from one year’s growth will be grains; what you gain from ten years’ growth will be trees; what you gain from a hundred years’ growth will be people.”—Guan Zhong

To me all problems, and not just those found within the music biz, are best solved through education.

To every civilization education is paramount. The noblest job is that of the teacher. One could look at many problems today, and rightly place them at the feet of this nation’s failure to adequately invest in the truth and real education.

Question: Are our venues and arts institutions (whether for profit or non-profit) free to do as they please, or do they bear some level of obligation/duty to the communities in which they reside?

If art venues and institutions abandon their vital role within the arts scene/ecosystem, leaving the next wave of creative young nest-less, what will that mean for the arts overall in the next twenty years?

My friends and acquaintances sometimes call me “Pie-in-the-Sky-Guy”. What this means is that I’m the kind of guy who is always coming up with some new hare-brained scheme, usually in an effort to bring forth “improvement”, based on my core belief: We should all endeavor to leave things equal to, or preferably, better than we found them. I’m not sure where I first heard this ethos expressed, but it still makes a lot of sense to me.

We should all endeavor to leave things equal to, or preferably, better than we found them.

Thinking this way requires an abundance of optimism because more often than not, most of the ideas that I propose are either ignored, or met with a series of no’s. However, occasionally, while the powers that be weren’t really paying attention, I got to do some cool stuff.

Knowing this, it’s hard to write about the Philly scene in a positive light. Though I would really love to, there’s that nagging thing, the truth. The Philly Jade that so many of my peers suffer from is real. Just like real jade, this Philly Jade took years under intense pressure to form, and in most cases it formed because such peers actually cared about their city and everything that it could and should be. Many of them, some of Philly’s brightest, have already left for greener pastures. I feel it nipping at my heels right now.

The simple truth is that we Philadelphians live in a city which is over 40% black, and over 60% of color, but where over 90% of resources are allocated to neighborhoods which are either primarily white or on their way to becoming so via gentrification. Long before the recent headlong rush towards gentrification of its inner city neighborhoods, Philadelphia had a long history of underserving its communities of color, and an even longer history of undervaluing their contributions to the city. This all may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but it is also the truth. While some of us are fortunate enough to avoid this truth most of the time, people of color live in a racially tainted reality which touches every aspect of their lives, whether acknowledged or not. Such statistics should put a pretty big dent in anybody’s optimism. Mine is dented, but not gone, yet.

Philadelphians live in a city where over 90% of resources are allocated to neighborhoods which are either primarily white or on their way to becoming so.

If I were to think glass half full, I would say that Philly has a seemingly endless supply of talent. Philly is the kind of city where one might be living next to the inventor of the light bulb for 20 years and never know it. Everywhere I look there’s some amazing talent, poised to take things to the next level. Some of these amazing people are my colleagues, and others have been my students over the years. I am certain that there are many more that I am yet to meet.

I often find myself bumping into Philly’s music royalty, sometimes Jamaaladeen in Paris, or Orrin Evans at the North Sea Jazz Fest., or back in December at the Village Vanguard, Johnathan Blake, drummer and son of the great jazz musician John Blake. Pentad, Johnathan’s band, played the Vanguard for the first time. This amazing band featured Dezron Douglas on bass, David Virelles on piano, Joel Ross on vibes, and Immanuel Wilkins, one of my first students in the Creative Music Program, on alto saxophone.

A poster for Pentad's December 2019 gigs at the Village Vanguard. Pictured from left to right: Immanuel Wilkins (alto saxophone), Joel Ross (vibraphone), Johnathan Blake (drums), David Virelles (piano), and Dezron Douglas (bass).

They sounded fantastic, and thus, to those lucky enough to experience Philly musicians on stages around the world, there’s never any doubt regarding the outstanding level of musicianship that this city has and still continues to produce. Through mentorship and education (both formal and informal) many of these great musicians have managed to sustain a hundred year old enduring and ongoing tradition, which some call jazz, but which I more often call creative music.

The Philly area has also been home to a number of excellent jazz based music programs for young people, including Camden Creative Arts High School (Camden is Philly to me), run by Jamal Dickerson, the Clef Club of Jazz, run by Lovett Hines, and the Creative Music Program, run by myself at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

In the case of CMP, this program has provided opportunities for outstanding musicians such as Marcus Belgrave, Doug Hammond, John Patitucci, Danilo Perez, Linda Oh, Gary Thomas, Melvis Santa, Wayne Krantz, Miles Okazaki, Wycliffe Gordon, Sumi Tonooka, Tyshawn Sorey, Jen Shyu, Eric Revis, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Matthew Garrison, Yosvany Terry, Jon Batiste, Jonathan Finlayson, Greg Osby, Kokayi, Lee Smith, Kris Davis, Odean Pope, Cyro Baptista, Steve Lehman, Marcus Gilmore, Rajna Swaminathan, Nicholas Payton, Orrin Evans, Dafnis Prieto, Greg Hutchinson, Anwar Marshall, Laurin Talese, Eric Wortham, Joanna Pascal, Steve Tirpak, John Smith, John Swana, Erica Lindsay, Josh Lawrence, Venissa Santi, Khary Shaheed, Ursula Rucker, J.A Dean, Brent White, Tom Lawton, Tim Motzer, and so many others to pass on their unique approaches, experience, expertise and even life lessons to thousands of students for over 9 years. This list is long because I have to pay homage to those who helped to make this program great, however the clef club has an even longer list of amazing musicians, which goes back much further to the club’s founding in 1935.

Both have had an immeasurable impact on the Philly scene and for students, such as alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, who recently graduated from the Juilliard School of Music and is now one of the most exciting young players in NYC. Or, pianist Joseph Block, who won the 2016 Essentially Ellington Competition while still in the program at 17, and who today at 19 still studies at Juilliard, whilst being one of Wynton Marsalis’s go-to arrangers for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. There are many more, like Maya Keren, Nazir Ebo, and Yesseh Farrah-Ali, who you’ll surely hear about very soon.

One might reasonably expect based on such a stellar track record, high level endorsements from MacArthur fellows, Grammy recipients, Doris Duke recipients, and directors of some of the most prestigious jazz programs in the nation, that the future of such programs would be somewhat guaranteed.

If I were to think mug half empty, then I would say that in Philadelphia what is reasonably expected often does not come to pass. Musicians and music programs are often held hostage by the ill-advised decisions of people who neither possess the history, knowledge, or empathy to understand why such programs are important. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Philadelphia’s brightest young artists will either: a) decide to exit the arts; b) decide to exit Philly; or c) stay in the arts and in Philly, probably to the detriment of their careers and overall happiness. This of course is not considering the millions of highly creative children in Philly and around the world, who will never even get an opportunity to explore the arts in the first place. Some of the most successful and vital music programs in the city (including the aforementioned) have the hardest time finding either institutional support, or funding, or both. The fact that all of these programs are primarily focused on a historic black art form (jazz) is not insignificant.

Musicians and music programs are often held hostage by the ill-advised decisions of people who neither possess the history, knowledge, or empathy to understand why such programs are important.

Some people may believe that all artists are destined to suffer. I do not agree. While we can’t all be Wynton or Beyoncé, this doesn’t mean that all other artists don’t deserve a living wage, or the same path to a fruitful career that lawyers, doctors, and accountants expect, upon leaving school. After all, arts degrees are just as expensive and school loans sleep for no one.

The fact that we as artists do not enjoy the same prospects as our STEM counterparts has less to do with the true importance of the arts within any advanced civilization (art is one important metric by which all past civilizations have been judged), and more to do with the aforementioned dubious decisions taken by “the powers that be”, both inside and outside of the arts world. Besides this, we should also acknowledge that within the arts, as in all other fields, opportunity (and thus compensation) is more often sharply divided along strict racial and gender lines. In this respect Philadelphia is one prime example.

When the new owners of Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus decided to redefine their business model (once again), more or less completely abandoning the establishment’s jazz legacy, turning the space into a multipurpose black-box, focusing on DJs, local funk and rock bands, and entertainment that they considered more befitting of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that is Northern Liberties, it sent shockwaves throughout the arts community. Like so many venues they went from being a home for creative music to becoming yet another establishment that sells alcohol (with music accompaniment). (Exhibit A) Their description on Google reads, “Local funk, jazz & rock performers provide the soundtrack for burgers, burritos & beer drinking.”

Many of the elders on the Philly jazz scene at the time recalled earlier days, when they themselves were teens and were eager to learn all about the music that Miles, Ella, and ’Trane had played barely a generation earlier, and Ortlieb’s, like any other jazz club, was a good place to start. Jazz enthusiasts could listen to any number of the greats who would regularly perform or stop though.

Victor North and George Burton performing at Ortleib’s

Better times: Victor North and George Burton performing at Ortleib’s

After twenty-three years of attending and performing at the same venue, I imagine that those once teens began to feel like Ortlieb’s was their home, in much the same way that children, who were raised in the same house for years, might. Needless to say, these musicians, and the jazz community they built around such institutions, felt betrayed when said institution decided to abandon its role, its community, and them.

What happened to Ortlieb’s is indicative of a change in the culture which is sweeping our cities, partly brought on by gentrification (a favorite tool of White Supremacy), but also equally due to important changes in the overall goals of society as a whole. Just as the children of White-Flight are precipitating a rapid return to the inner cities, the resources, real-estate, neighborhoods, and culture within these big cities is being repurposed.

We see this clearly in what is presently happening to landmark Philly venues such as the Painted Bride. Though the Bride has been home to a number of creative movements within the city over the decades, even whilst surrounding properties changed hands and demographics shifted towards the entitled and wealthy, how does a grass roots community organization keep the lights on? How does any venue survive gentrification while staying on mission and retaining its authenticity? The Bride’s solution is to become a venue-less arts organization by selling its building and using the proceeds to fund an endowment. It would go from being an able bodied participant within the Philly arts scene to a bodiless “arts ghost.” What Philly and the arts community most needs is space and stages, the very thing that the Fringe sought to acquire and that the Bride stands poised to lose.

How does any venue survive gentrification while staying on mission and retaining its authenticity?

It is true that, due to years of being underserved by their host cities, many historically black neighborhoods are in a drastic state of disrepair, and so in some cases any new investment is welcomed and much needed. But, everywhere one looks, from North Philly to South Chicago, this investment has come at a price, and that price has invariably been the ongoing excise of black people, black influence, and black culture.

An Uber driver I rode with a few weeks ago commented on this. My home is in Brewerytown, which I feel is the present epicenter of the aggressive gentrification that is happening along Girard Avenue in North Philly. This Uber driver said, “It feels like all of this is part of some master plan!” He was an older black gentleman who had grown up in the neighborhood, and I could hear the pain in his voice, as he looked around and spoke those words to the soundtrack of John Coltrane’s “Impressions” playing on WRTI. It was like a scene from Do The Right Thing, except this was his life, in the third millennium.

If I had a dollar for every time an older black musician has expressed their belief that they are being pushed out of jazz, a music which they developed and which primarily came out of their struggle and community, I wouldn’t be so upset about spending $180 at Whole Foods Market for a week of basic groceries. No reasonable person can dismiss such fears, because we live in a country where since its founding, black people have been constantly pushed out of, well, everything. Why should jazz now be any different?

We all know that nationwide, American culture has changed. The numerous studies concur that people now read less. A new generation, raised on social media and reality TV, are now accustomed to everything being served up in bite-size chunks, which require the least amount of effort or attention span possible. We are suffering from a national form of attention deficit disorder, brought on by fifty years of flashing images on TVs, which rarely last over 3 seconds each. And the latest onslaught; a smartphone powered social media frenzy, is breeding a generation of introverts who live virtual extrovert lifestyles via Facebook or Instagram. Inevitably this trend has carried over into much of the “new” music available, which has primarily been created for people who in general “listen” less, and find the mere idea of any sort of learning curve antithetical to their primary goal of being thoroughly entertained.

Much of the “new” music available has primarily been created for people who in general “listen” less.

Within black music the once groove has been stripped down to a pulse. The lyric is always easily discerned upon the first listen. The melodies and harmonies are reminiscent of the sorts of I-IV-V nursery rhymes that were once reserved for toddlers. Even the exciting cadence of hip-hop, the most recent and last frontier of true mass-appeal-black-creativity, has been slowed to a syrup-infused crawl, where rhyming schemes which end in the same word are now considered clever. Emcees don’t even attempt to free-style anymore, and stellar improvisers, such as Rakim, Black Thought or Kokayi, are seen as anomalies. Astonishingly, each year music moves further and further in the same downward direction (or at least it has over my entire lifetime), and each year I wonder, “Have we reached the bottom yet?”

A view of The Painted Bridge from the street.

The Painted Bridge before “pre veil”.

I said I wanted to stay upbeat, and not tip the balance of this piece too towards the negative. So, thinking glass half full again, I would say that there’s still some incredible creative music being made right now elsewhere on the planet. American popular music may no longer be what it once was, but deeper underground, artists are forging ahead, pushing the envelope and reinventing art at the highest level, even if most of us may never get to hear it, or become aware of its existence. Thus, we could, in theory, change things for the better overnight by simply finding and supporting more creative music, made by more creative artists.

Ars Nova, an organization created by long time Philadelphian curator Mark Christman has worked hard to provide new and non-traditional spaces for creative musicians, many of whom are already well established outside of Philadelphia. Through his organization, Mark has managed to tap into audiences, who otherwise would have been ignored by the big venues and promoters. Ars Nova has presented some of creative music’s most prominent artists, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, Kris Davis, and many others.

Over the last five years Ernest Stuart’s Center City Jazz Festival has managed to bridge the gap between live music enthusiasts and avid jazz listeners by programming shows, which straddle the “boundaries” between “jazz” and other genres such as rock, pop, and hip-hop. Based on its broad definition of jazz, his festival has managed to bring out audiences, who hail from varied walks of life, but who all come together to support both local and touring artists. Ernest has managed to do this year after year while literally “flying by the seat of his pants”, often not knowing whether he will have adequate funding to make the festival happen again and pay his staff until three weeks before the first show.

A flyer for the 2019 Center City Jazz Festival (on April 27, 2019 at Time Restaurant, Franky Bradley's, Fergie's Pub, Chris' Jazz Cafe, and Maison 208)

A flyer for the 2019 Center City Jazz Festival.

Sittin’ In, the concert series which I created and curate at the Kimmel Center, also focuses on providing creative music with a regular space. Audience development, and giving creative artists a place where their works can be exposed to new audiences, are both vital components of any healthy arts community. Over the last eight years, Sittin’ In has provided this and more to the community. My hope is that this model might one day be expanded, becoming something which happens more than once a month at a single venue, as this only just scratches the surface of the very great need in Philadelphia, and beyond. Like Ernest, as a black creative musician and curator, I’m often left feeling like I’m trying to plug a huge breach in the Hoover Dam with a toothpick. Like Mark, I spend my days saying no to people who I know deserve a yes (at least some of the time).

So, what’s the problem?

Back to mug half empty. The problem is jobs and money. Who holds those jobs with the power and capability to affect real change, and in whose pockets the majority of the money available for the arts ends up. There is certainly a shortage of arts funding in the U.S., but what little money there is out there rarely ever seems to find its way into the pockets of artists of color.

Cities which may have once had 30–40 buildings dedicated to the arts 20 years ago, now have five (at the most), and of those five, most (regardless of their 501c3 status) behave more like corporate entities than arts institutions or venues, making almost every decision about their bottom line, whilst all trying to sell the exact same thing over and over ad nauseam. This results in new artists and new creative music being deprived of a pipeline to audiences and revenue. It is the definition of a catch 22 situation.

Small venues are a vital part of any viable music ecosystem which deals with progressive music.

In the music world small venues, such as John Zorn’s The Stone or Rio Sakairi’s The Jazz Gallery, are a vital part of any viable music ecosystem which deals with progressive music. Creative music is not “a numbers game”, and nor should it be expected to be. Living music, a.k.a. new music, requires testing grounds/labs, where musicians can get together and try new things in front of audiences without having to satisfy the sea of criterion (specified by non-creative administrators, who themselves are mostly detached from the art) necessary in order to get the grant. Artists need spaces free from as much red tape as possible in order to create, and these spaces need to come without the expectation that said artist must consistently pack the house.

Audiences need places where they can go, and occasionally be one of the six lucky people who get to experience the next new thing. That new thing could be Charlie Parker on the precipice of establishing be-bop, or Steve Coleman on that same precipice 50 years later establishing m-base. These artist may go on to consistently sell 400–2000 tickets per show in the future, but they need to be able to start with 6.

The idea that Billie Holiday regularly sang “Strange Fruit,” one of her greatest artistic statements, to American audiences of 1800 plus, packed into halls that were originally designed for orchestras, is both ridiculous and antithetical to the very idea of creative music. The same goes for Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Abbey Lincoln, John Coltrane, and a host of other great innovators.

The difference in the mission of an arts institution and that of a straight forward venue, such as those run by Live Nation should be obvious to anybody who is lucky enough to secure any job of note in the arts or music industry. Venues operate based on supply and demand. Their primary motivation is money, and so they chiefly operate based on conditions dictated by the market and bottom line. To such venues it makes no difference whether the artist is Beyoncé or The Rolling Stones, so long as they believe that they have a better than good chance of selling enough tickets to make the maximum amount of profit. There’s nothing wrong with such venues. They have their place.

Arts institutions exist to preserve, promote, and continue high level art.

Arts institutions exist to preserve, promote, and continue high level art. Their survival is intrinsically linked to the survival of true artists and the viability of the various communities which create said artists. Education is probably the most vital role for such an institution; To educate audiences about the art they present, to educate future generations so that there will be future artists who can create said art, to educate society over all to the true importance and the vital role of art, so that art will continue to hold a position of reverence within society, ensuring that it will be supported in the future. We can call education by many different names; Free concerts, Marketing, Audience Development, Workshops, Meet and Greets, Youth School Year Programs and Summer Camps, etc., but it’s still education. Like education facilities, their mission is primarily social in nature, and like schools, colleges and museums, arts institutions bear a solemn responsibility to the communities, cities and nations in which they reside. Ticket sales are of course linked to the survival of these institutions, but they are secondary to the important social role they play. Unfortunately some of our arts institutions are fleeing from this social role towards greater profitability.

Without true arts institutions and small venues which are committed to this ethos, all venues will just end up repeatedly booking “sure bets,” acts who themselves will likely end up afraid to stray from whatever successful formula got them the gig in the first place, innovation will grind to a halt, and this will be a terrible place for the arts and civilization to be.

To me all problems, and not just those found within the music biz, are best solved through education.

American cities like Philadelphia may still be rich in talent, but today they are unfortunately poor in arts infrastructure; organizations populated by those who are committed to the mission of furthering art. The same is also somewhat true of our schools, colleges, and entire education system, which we must trust to stock tomorrow’s institutions with the next generation of well-informed influential thinkers. Without education there can be no meaningful change in culture. Education is about the future. Who do we want to be in ten, twenty, or thirty years? What do we want to achieve in twenty five, fifty, or one-hundred years? Some may still see the arts as unimportant or trivial, but we will be defined tomorrow by what we choose to support and celebrate today. Of all the investments that any nation can make in its future, education is by far the most effective. And, any education curriculum which is concerned with truth, progress, the realizing of potential, and the overall uplift of its students should feature creativity and critical thinking as central tenants. Without the ability to think critically, discern what is true, and create new solutions we are doomed to repeat the same old history over and over again.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

Photo by Sam Balye via Unsplash of a crowded classroom from the back of the room showing a diverse group of students

By Dave Molk & Michelle Ohnona

Making Whiteness Visible in the (Music) Classroom

Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being. To supplement the ideas presented here, we’ll also suggest additional resources in the conclusion that might help you in your own practice.

Naming: A Way to Begin (some reflections from Dave Molk)

As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.

And yet, the problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression. Calling attention to an injustice forces a decision from those who practice willful ignorance: a decision between confrontation and conscious evasion. Naming is a way to begin, a way to make perceptible something that so often goes unrecognized. As whiteness becomes noticeable, it becomes noteworthy, and we can recognize its ubiquity as unnatural and intentional.

The problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression.

White people are overrepresented as faculty in the college classroom. The belief that race is a non-white problem, something that affects “others,” is itself a white problem with a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Whites are responsible both for this ignorance and for redressing it—claimed neutrality only masks our ongoing racism. There is no opt-out.

An antiracist approach must be intersectional—meaning that race, gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of one’s identity where oppression exists are inextricable from one another. An antiracist approach names these forms of oppression and their manifestations inside and outside the classroom.

When I talk with my students about white supremacy in higher education, I name my whiteness. When I talk with my students about sexism in higher education, I name my gender. I acknowledge that I receive unearned privileges because I am an able cisgendered white heterosexual man and I name some of these privileges. I name the pressures I feel to stay silent and the perils in doing so. If I’m not willing to do this in front of my students, I can’t expect them to be willing to do it during the course of their lives, either.

Questioning the Curriculum

The process of developing an antiracist music theory classroom begins with reflecting critically on what we are doing in the classroom and why. What exactly are we teaching, both in terms of the immediate material and the underlying messages? Why are we including this particular material on the syllabus and why are we teaching it in this particular way? Whose goals does this actually serve, and what exactly are those goals? What disciplinary habits are we unquestioningly reproducing in our syllabi, teaching, and assessment methods? What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why? Ask these and similar questions at the start of each semester and continue to revisit them as the semester unfolds.

What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why?

Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

I. Centering the Student

To develop an antiracist music theory classroom, we should begin by acknowledging that the classroom is not a neutral space and that each of our students is a complex individual whose background knowledge, social identity, and relationship to music and music education is unique. Being able to connect with students from different backgrounds requires a flexibility in approach, an awareness of privilege and of power dynamics, and the understanding that these things matter. We can empower our students and encourage them to be active participants in their own education when we validate their musical experiences.

During our first meeting, I explain to students that I am not the sole source of knowledge for the course and that our work together will be more successful once we all realize that everyone has something valuable to contribute to our learning community. I state that there are no guilty pleasures in the classroom and that we will not self-deprecate. Hearing these messages said aloud helps students to understand that different musical backgrounds are a source of strength and that our class will work best when everyone feels comfortable contributing.

Questions to ask:

  •   Why do we presuppose that challenging our students is mutually exclusive with validating and empowering them?
  •   What is the relationship between the work we do in the classroom and the lives that our students and we lead outside it?
  •   What is actually necessary in what we teach? How are we defining necessary and who are we considering when we do this? What do our students actually do with this knowledge?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Create the syllabus with intention and invite feedback from a trusted colleague. Discuss pedagogical choices with students.
  •   Continue to ask who is included and who is not.
  •   Invite students to situate themselves in relation to the course material. Create opportunities for them to tell us what they need. Listen. Respond.
  •   Build trust and community by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We can’t expect students to be open if we are not open ourselves. Acknowledge the hard conversations. Empathize.

In Practice: Big-picture conversations

The classroom is not a neutral space.

To help students recognize that music is, in addition to “the notes,” a social and cultural product, I devote the majority of three classes each semester to a round-table discussion of big-picture ideas. I explain that, while I will facilitate as necessary, students should engage in dialogue with each other and not with me. These topics become reference points as we continue through the semester, and we keep these conversations going via online postings and explicit connections during lectures. The final paper asks students to continue realizing the political in the personal by situating themselves more deeply within these big-picture issues.

These discussions provide a way to begin uncovering pervasive biases and various forms of systemic oppression that influence our ways of thinking and modes of interaction. Even when I provide readings ahead of time to help students begin to think about these issues, I deliberately leave space in how to interpret the prompts. This allows students to approach the material from their own experiences and allows the class to learn how these big-picture issues can manifest in different ways. My role is to push us below surface-level engagement, to make visible the underlying assumptions. Teaching only the notes is a political decision with real consequences—in the absence of interruption, injustice replicates. The following are prompts that I use:

  • What makes music good?
  • What exactly is “the music itself”?
  • What is authenticity in music?
  • Disparities faced by women in music.
  • Connections between music, race, and racism.
  • The efficacy of protest music.

II. The Polystylistic Approach

A polystylistic approach uses the particular strengths of many different styles of music to create a sophisticated working knowledge of how music can be put together. Through a polystylistic approach, we also gain ways to talk about the social and cultural issues that are inseparable from music. Using examples from other genres within a pedagogic framework that still prioritizes Western art music is not the answer—inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy. While including “everything” is neither possible nor productive, we must be clear that the decision not to include a particular style is not a dismissal of that style.

Inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy.

If we restrict ourselves to a single genre, then we develop a monochromatic music theory. We forsake the opportunity to speak well about some musical phenomena and the ability to speak at all about others. Our understanding of what music is and what music can be will necessarily be limited by the aesthetics of the single style that we study, and we miss our chance to make music theory more relevant to more students.

Questions to ask:

  •   What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific? How do we justify the inclusion of style-specific material in a basic theory curriculum? What is the explicit purpose of this style-specific material, is it warranted, and are we going about teaching it in the best way?
  •   If our students turned on the radio to a random station, could they engage with the music as a result of our pedagogy? Would they, as a result of our pedagogy, be dismissive of certain styles? Does our pedagogy disrupt such dismissive attitudes or reinforce them?
  •   If we require most/all majors and minors to take music theory, how can we convince them that music theory has value for what they do and who they are?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Be explicit about why we are teaching a polystylistic curriculum. Explain to students the traditional model and name its problems.
  •   Solicit suggestions from students for material to incorporate. Get to know what they’re into and help them to articulate reasons why they like it. Use the familiar to open doors to the new.
  •   Use moments when theory terminology breaks down to point out the shortcomings of theory, then work with students to create better ways to talk about the musical phenomena in question.
  •   Attend to inclusivity both in terms of genre and practitioners within genre.

In Practice: Sampling

To create the two-semester basic theory sequence I used at Georgetown University, I drew primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music. These were styles I had formal training in or had devoted significant time and effort to research. When developing a polystylistic approach, the point isn’t to arrive at the optimum mix of styles, but to use a plurality of style to decenter whiteness, to make the material more relevant to more students, to give students a more realistic idea of how music works, what music is, and what music can be, and to provide an entry point for talking about the social and cultural issues imbedded in the music.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, during which I recreate Daft Punk’s “One More Time” from Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You,” I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style. Sampling lets us talk about a number of important musical topics that don’t come up in traditional pedagogy, including studio production techniques, sequencing, DAWs, riddims, breaks, royalties, and questions of legality, authorship, and ethics. These are more immediate and meaningful to my students than the voice leading norms of a particular style. They’re also more applicable to their careers, and are therefore more important for me to teach.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style.

I use the following guiding principles to contextualize our theory classroom, stating them during our first class and returning to them throughout the semester in order to emphasize their importance. Although we may find these truths obvious, we should still name them for our students—actually saying these out loud underscores the degree to which these points matter.

  • Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • The tools we use guide our interactions and shape our interpretations.
  • We don’t have a sophisticated way to talk about a lot of musical phenomena. These shortcomings belong to the tools we use and not to the material.

Putting It Together: The Blues

Willie Dixon’s composition, “Spoonful,” offers a number of intellectually rigorous ways to engage with both the musical elements that work within it and the social and cultural forces that work upon it. What musical elements tend to be foregrounded in “Spoonful,” and how do they function? How about a tune like “Blues for Alice”—what elements tend to be foregrounded and how do they function? What are the advantages to calling both “Spoonful” and “Blues for Alice” a blues? Is it possible to identify a prevailing blues aesthetic? How might we describe it? Define it? What do we learn about the blues specifically and about the concept of genre generally as a result of this process?

We might compare and contrast Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Spoonful” with Cream’s. We might talk about differences in instrumentation, in the use of space, in guitar technique and tone, in the timbres of the drums, the organization, the energy, and eventually realize we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the musically important material presented in these two versions of the tune. We might wonder why this type of deep and engaged critical listening isn’t what we talk about when we talk about ear training. We might wonder about biases in traditional ear training and about ways to overhaul that component of traditional music theory pedagogy.

The blues lets us engage with issues of appropriation in ways more immediate and more relevant to students than would be possible using Western art music. In light of these two versions of “Spoonful,” we might ask our students, who can sing the blues, and why? Who should sing the blues, and why? Who gets to determine this? Again, why? What does it mean that Eric Clapton built his career on the back of black music even as he espoused racist vitriol? Is this something we can reconcile? Something we should? What does it mean to separate the art from the artist? Is it actually possible to do so? By allotting time and space within the classroom for students to wrestle with these issues in a musical context, we prepare them to recognize how these issues can manifest more generally.

Talking about the blues in the music theory classroom provides an organic way to bring big-picture ideas into the conversation. Angela Davis develops a constructive framework for thinking about classism, sexism, and racism in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as she traces the development of black social protest through the music of the classic blues era and into jazz. Sharing with students the lyrics to “Prove It On Me Blues,” “Poor Man’s Blues,” and “Strange Fruit,” encourages them to understand the work of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as simultaneously musical, social, and cultural. An introduction to this history lets students re-contextualize social protest as it manifests in other, more recent styles of music in the United States, both inside and outside black communities. We can, of course, talk about form, chords, scales, improvisation, and other elements that we tend to find in a music theory classroom when we talk about the blues. Indeed, we must—but we must also push these conversations further.

Concluding Thoughts

As educators, our failure to engage the potential of our classrooms to be sites of antiracist learning and practice is not only a question of social injustice. When we omit, overlook, or unknowingly disregard the work of musicians of color, we commit disciplinary injustice, and do a disservice not only to the students in our classroom, but to our discipline writ large. It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

We should ask how our pedagogy supports the development of critical thinking and engaging with difference, and how we might better incorporate this into our coursework. We should ask how social and cultural forces shape what we study in the classroom, how we study it, and how these forces impact our lives. We should ask how our coursework aligns with the goals of higher education, and why we remain complacent when it doesn’t.

We are all racialized within this society—conservatory and non-conservatory alike. When we abdicate our responsibility as educators to do this work in these spaces, in spite of significant institutional barriers, we ensure the ascendancy of injustice. The ability to step away is itself a mark of privilege that should be brought to bear on fixing the problem, not perpetuating it. We can all advocate within our spheres of influence to advance the cause of justice. The suggestions offered here are possible starting points for critical reflection about the work we do in the classroom and the reasons we do it. All work must have a beginning—may this be yours.

Suggested Resources

Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.”

James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” The Fire Next Time.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.

The Combahee River Collective Statement (see also Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, How We Get Free).

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)

Engaging Students
Philip Ewell’s “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.”

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Ethan Hein’s work on pedagogy, including “Toward a Better Music Theory” and “Teaching Whiteness in Music Class.”

bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Lauren Michelle Jackson’s “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility’” and everything she links to.

Adrienne Keene’s Introduction to Critical Race Theory course page.

Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ contributions to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy.

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.

MayDay Group.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?

The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is a valuable starting point for finding important conversations, contributors, and resources for bringing social justice into the classroom.

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Crowdsourcing Rehearsals—Part Two (the good part)

In my previous article, I suggested that it’s time to move beyond the top-down, conductor-driven kind of rehearsals in education settings to be more inclusive and more student-focused. We also explored some “whys” of rehearsal, other than preparing the repertoire. Here come some practical ideas to experiment with.

Disclaimer: You probably shouldn’t (well, just don’t) try all of them at once. That would not be successful. I certainly don’t employ all of these ideas all of the time. But I do use all of these ideas some of the time.

Instead of Always Telling, Ask More Questions

I get it. We like to fix things. We’re pretty good at it. And, most of the time it’s more efficient. But I can guarantee it’s not as collaborative or engaging as it could be when you are the one telling your students what to do 100 percent of the time. You can start with things like, “That was a pretty good run, but I heard a few things we could improve on. Before I tell you, what are you hearing?” Or, if you hear a balance issue, instead of “Trombones, please play softer.” You can ask, “Hey trombones, are the trumpets playing louder or softer than you are?” Or, “John, is Matt playing softer or louder than you are?” Be prepared for “I don’t know. I wasn’t listening to ____.” Then be prepared to run that section again so they can listen. Nine times out of ten, it will fix itself. You don’t have to do this ALL of the time. But the more you do, the better the students get at listening and figuring it out.

As long as they are talking about the music, it’s O.K.

Here’s another idea: when you are approaching the concert and ready to run the piece, ask the students to listen carefully for things that need improving. After the run, have them talk in their sections about what needs to happen. (This can get cacophonous. You have to be O.K. with the idea that as long as they are talking about the music, it’s O.K.)

Talk Less/Conduct Less

My dear friend Tim Reynish likes to say, “Talk less; show more,” and that’s great. It should be a given that you are constantly perfecting your gesture and conducting to be the most musical/expressive/artistic/helpful it can be, and that you are consistently training your weaknesses. But more and more, I’m conducting less in rehearsal. When there is an ensemble pulse issue, it’s particularly important to stop conducting. We all know it’s far more important for the players to LISTEN than it is to watch, so take the eyes out of the equation. It works nearly every time.

It’s far more important for the players to LISTEN than it is to watch.

Also, get off the box and walk around. It’s amazing how differently you will hear when you do this. It seems like a simple thing, and it is, but it’s tremendously effective.

Change the Seating

I regularly do a “scatter” rehearsal, often two or three rehearsals before the performance. The rules are that the students cannot sit in the same row as they usually sit, and they cannot sit beside a like instrument. There are a number of benefits to doing this, but the most important benefit is deeper listening. More specifically:

  1. Musicians hear things in entirely new ways. Or, they hear things for the first time.
  2. Musicians get used to hearing the “back” or the “front.” Now they have to open their ears and adjust to make the balance work and the blend.
  3. It’s fun. Tubas like to come to the front row, as do trombones. And flutes like to move to the back.
  4. You hear things in entirely new ways.
  5. You can’t cue sections without looking ridiculous, so don’t.
  6. More individual responsibility and musical independence.
  7. It builds community and collaboration. Have the students introduce themselves to their new neighbors.
Try the “monk” rehearsal … where you don’t speak.

Try sitting in a circle as well, and put percussion in the middle. And you can always try the “monk” rehearsal (students LOVE this one) where you don’t speak. Very interesting what can evolve in this setting.

Be Authentic

Talk about being “authentic” is really hip right now. But, it’s amazing how many people I see change who they are when they are on the podium. Be vulnerable. Demonstrate that you are a life-long learner. Let your students in. If you make a mistake, admit it. Everyone knows you made a mistake anyway so if you don’t take responsibility, you not only look silly but you model a behavior that is really undesirable. Sincerity and humility build a culture of trust and responsibility. Early on in my career I observed a choral rehearsal where the singers quickly put up their hands when they made an error. It’s a simple thing but gosh, not only does it save time (you don’t need to stop) but it helps create this culture of accountability and trust.

Guide-at-the-Side versus Sage-on-the-Stage

Have a second score and have a student sit beside you while you run a large section or a piece. Have them talk to the ensemble about what they are hearing. Choose these musicians VERY carefully.

Invest in Student Leadership

This is for middle and high school folks mostly. All that incredible student leadership that you build in to marching band—section leaders, rank leaders, drum majors, etc.—bring inside. For some reason, all of that peer-to-peer coaching goes away with a lot of programs in the spring semester. Why?

Open up the Programming Decisions

What if the students helped you choose some of the repertoire?

In the previous article I said something like, “We tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it,” and then brag that our students are more engaged in our band class than in their math class. What if the students helped you choose some of the repertoire? You can start with a theme then give them a choice of three pieces that “fit” the theme, have them listen to all three (hey, now they’re listening to more repertoire!), and afterwards choose (by vote…democracy! Cross-curricular learning!) the one they want. The “buy-in” on that piece goes through the roof.

Record Rehearsals

Sure, you already do this. But do you send the recording to the students? I can assure you they think they sound better than they do, and it is ear-opening for them to hear it. Try telling them that their homework is to NOT practice and instead their homework is to listen critically to the rehearsal. Have each section deal with one aspect. For example, percussion comment on intonation (which they tend not to think about); trumpets make suggestions on balance; flutes make suggestions about blend, etc.

Project the Score

It’s absolutely silly to me that in 2018 we are still handing out individual parts. On paper. (Some students are using iPads) Why, for goodness sake, is there only one expert in the room with all of the information? And why do we keep it a secret? For several years, I’ve been projecting the score from my iPad. We have a large screen in the rehearsal room at the Hodgson School of Music which I stand in front of and the score is projected behind me for the musicians to see at all times. I have used the app forScore, which is great and pretty intuitive, but we are now also using Newzik. Projecting the score and referring to it in rehearsals is not only more efficient, it’s more engaging.

How you create a culture of trust and collaboration matters.

The greatest gifts we can give our students are life-long. Years from now, they may not remember a chromatic fingering, a composer’s name, or a musical term. But they will remember how it FELT to be in rehearsal, that their opinions mattered, how they learned to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning, that you cared, how to work with others in a community, that hard work paid off, how to lead, how to follow, and so much more. Quality repertoire matters (that’s a whole other article), it matters a lot. But how you create a culture of trust and collaboration matters, too. And frankly, it’s how we will stay relevant.

“Of a good leader, who talks little, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” (Lao Tzu)

Crowdsourcing Rehearsals

This is a two-part article about rehearsing a traditional large ensemble: orchestra, band, or choral ensemble. Many of the ideas put forward won’t be necessarily new, which is a good thing. It means that many conductors are experimenting with, even perfecting, a more inclusive, student-driven approach to large ensembles. But having traveled around this country and a few others visiting music programs, I’m still struck by the overwhelming adherence to the top-down, dictatorial method of running a rehearsal.

I’m convinced that the majority of conductors believe that simply because a student is in his/her ensemble playing an instrument, or singing, they are “engaged.” More and more, I’m convinced that this just isn’t the case. We stand on a box, with a stick, telling them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. And yet, I keep hearing from the music advocacy folks that what we do in the music classroom is somehow “different” or “better” than what happens in other classrooms. Well, of course it is—as far as I know, there aren’t any snare drums and saxophones in a chemistry classroom—but we really don’t teach any differently. And lest anyone think that I’ve got this completely figured out, let me assure you, I don’t. In 2013 I published an article in the Music Educators Journal on this topic and I still don’t pretend to have it all figured out. More on that later.

There aren’t any snare drums and saxophones in a chemistry classroom.

Broadly defined, the student I am teaching today in many ways is the same kind of student I taught at the beginning of my career—smart, engaged, overachieving, hard-working, dependable, dedicated, curious, kind…all that good stuff. But, in other ways, the student I’m teaching today is different. It’s mostly because of an addiction to technology but also trends in parenting and schooling—and societal changes, too. So I think it’s important to assess how we teach every once in a while. Trends come and go, I realize (who knew that leg warmers and high-waisted jeans would make a comeback), and there is a LOT of validity in teaching students to sit, listen, and be quiet. But there is also validity in more student engagement, more student involvement in learning and process, and more student ownership and responsibility.

Imagine, if you will, a gentleman plucked up from his late-19th-century life with a time machine plunked down in Times Square New York City in 2018. Absolutely everything would blow his mind—the cars, the lights (NEON!), the noise, the dress, the store offerings, the height and density of the buildings…everything. He would be completely lost. Until, of course, he walked into a classroom. Except for those white boards and maybe a projector/screen, nothing much has changed in that department. Now imagine a trombone player from the Sousa band plucked up with that same time machine and plunked down in your rehearsal room. With the exception of wondering what all that extra percussion equipment was doing in the room, he would know exactly where he was and where to sit. Now, I’m not saying this is all bad. But, it’s something to think about.

A gentleman plucked up from the late-19th-century to 2018 would be completely lost…until he walked into a classroom.

A decade ago, Randall Everett Allsup and Cathy Benedict penned an important wake-up call for band teachers called, “The Problems of Band” (Philosophy of Music Education Review, 16, no. 2, Fall 2008). If you haven’t read it, give it a go. It’s a no-holds barred exposé of the “band tradition” that even names names. Ouch. Here’s one of my favorite quotations from that article:

The problems of the American wind band…stem from an inheritance that is overwhelmed by tradition…predominantly teacher-centered, teacher transmitted, and content/repertoire driven…we are deluding ourselves if we think our students are actually taking on the responsibility of independent musicianship or becoming more musical.

Let’s think a moment about WHY we rehearse, especially in a school setting. I would think that what immediately comes to mind is something like this: to prepare a performance; to improve and perfect. But let’s go deeper. Rehearsing is something we conductors spend a tremendous amount of time doing, not to mention forcing our students to do it, too. What do we really want our students to learn in rehearsal other than the repertoire? Here are some ideas:

We rehearse to make mistakes because we know that we learn more deeply from failure than success.
We rehearse to facilitate LISTENING.
We rehearse to learn everyone else’s part in the whole.
We rehearse to learn how to lead. And how to follow.
We rehearse to build a musical community. To build trust.
We rehearse to develop musical independence.
We rehearse to co-create an environment of safety and the freedom to take risks.
You see where I’m going here? I think what we should be doing in rehearsals is more than getting the music right.

In a subsequent article, I’ll talk about some basics of good rehearsal technique, keeping in mind everything we’re talking about here. And then, we’ll move beyond the basics to get a bit more innovative and even more student-centered.

#ToTheGirls from The Most Powerful People in New Music

It is much more important who the singing master at Kisvarda (small village) is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail.  (Often even a good one.)  But a bad teacher may kill off the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of pupils—Zoltan Kodaly, 1929

What are you doing with your power as a teacher?

Before some of you click away from this article, dismissing the notion of yourself as a teacher, consider this: Do you teach lessons in your home, or through a studio collective? Do you teach music theory and music history or composition seminars? Maybe you do the odd masterclass as a guest artist. Perhaps you get commissions to write for children’s choirs or you sing Carmenella in a traveling production. DO you slog through research and test data in the district where you teach or live to prove that it’s important that kids get reading intervention AND music? Maybe you don’t consider yourself to be a music professional at all, but because you are curious and excited, you listen and you tell others, “Hey, you should listen to this cool new thing!”

If you nodded your head to any or all of these, you are teaching. You are more powerful than any hiring committee. You are more powerful than the symphony board or arts commission or endowment. You have the power to enact far-reaching positive change on multitudes. You are a teacher.

Let me return to my original question: What are you doing with your power as a teacher?

The sea change that is needed in the music world to balance gender inequities must begin from and be reinforced through our music educators.

The sea change that is needed in the music world to balance gender inequities must begin from and be reinforced through our music educators.

I have been a music educator in various capacities for more than 15 years. I have done all of the jobs I listed above. In addition to being a music educator, I am a composer. I am also the president of the International Alliance for Women in Music. The IAWM exists for the sole purpose of promoting the interests of women in music. Originally founded as a collective of composers, our membership is far wider, encompassing researchers, performers, conductors, critics, and—of course—educators.

Hooray to the women’s choirs! Bravi to the ten-member trombone section with nine girls! Now I ask the directors: What are you playing this season? I ask the theory teachers: What scores are you studying this week? I ask the general music teachers: What are you listening to today? I ask the aficionados: What’s coming through the earbuds today? I hear the same names. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised to hear about a living composer. I am ecstatic and slightly shocked if I hear any of these teachers mention a female composer.

The IAWM exists for the sole purpose of promoting the interests of women in music.

In this battle of assuring lawmakers and policy enforcers and testmongers that the arts are a truly essential part of every student’s experience, we still must find ways and opportunities to teach our students and the public at large that music is not old, white, dead, and male. To ensure that music is and remains relevant to our students and our general education, we must be inclusive of gender in our classrooms, studios, and conversations about music. This issue, this problem of relevancy, should be every bit as important as the fattest prize, the latest commission, or the most admired new gadget.

Often a single experience will open the young soul to music for a whole lifetime.  This experience cannot be left to chance; it is the duty of the school to provide it—Kodaly, 1957

In Song in The Heads: Music and Its Meaning in Children’s Lives (2nd edition, 2010), author Patricia Shehan Campbell recounts numerous interviews with children about their musical experience. The interviews reflect students receiving a broad range of music education: traditional Orff/Kodaly/Dalcroze-based methods at school, Suzuki or other private training, and wonderful family influences, which include traditional musics from multiple continents, popular genres, Western classical music, and their own compositions. One common thread these histories all share, though, is a lack of dialogue about female composers. There are female performing artists from popular genres mentioned, notably Whitney Houston, Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, and Fergie. These women are mentioned as performers, but never as writers or composers. In the classical field, we only hear children mention Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach.

During those most formative years in a student’s musical education, in elementary school, most of the music instruction is by women.

What’s funny/disturbing/confusing/disheartening in the mix of this is that during those most formative years in a student’s musical education, in elementary school, most of the music instruction is by women. A 2015 analysis of music teachers in the U.S.A. (http://mtdresearch.com/gender-analysis-of-music-teachers/) shows that around 74% of K-8 general music teachers are women (the number climbs to 78% when looking at only elementary grades). Why are these teachers, who are mostly women, not promoting the works of women alongside the typical canon?

One cause may be found in the K-12 classrooms themselves. Most teachers must rely on what is offered by a limited number of education supply sources when decorating their teaching space, selecting music for a festival, or choosing listening examples. This bottleneck allows very little new and fresh material into the classroom, resulting in practically no ready-to-use resources featuring women in music.

Would you like to hang portraits of great composers of the Western tradition? Here are 40 of them. They’re all dead/white/male, by the way. Or, here’s a nice timeline that’s a bit more diverse. Glad to see Bessie and Ella made the cut. I’m not knocking them by any means, but I do think there should be room for more than two female names.

In addition to participating in great oral traditions of folk songs and dances, students may begin to listen to great works. Here is a package deal geared toward the classroom teacher, offering the “greatest hits.”

It’s a little, well… sad. Correction: It’s maddening. There’s no new music, not a single female composer, not a single composer of color.

It takes some digging to find this supplement. It’s a fine product, but it’s the only one. As a female composer, it is frustrating to find many of my role models set aside in an “other” category. Ruth Crawford Seeger should be listed alongside Berg and Messiaen; Fanny and Clara should be alongside Felix and Robert; Barbara Strozzi should be a recognized heir of Claudio Monteverdi. None of these should be shuffled off into an “also rans,” because the message it communicates to students is that women aren’t equipped to be great composers.

What about those concert selections? Looking for a unison or two-part choral piece yields 55 selections noted as “Editor’s Choice” in the J.W. Pepper catalog, of which 20 are arrangements or original compositions by women. 14/50 for SAB concert selections, 13/85 for SATB. If you are looking for band works, the website recommends a “basic library” list of 363 works, which includes five works by two women. Looking for a concert opener? The Editor’s Choice list of 96 suggestions doesn’t include a single piece written by a woman. In fact, the entire Editor’s Choice list of 1680 works for concert and contest band music only includes 16 works by women composers or arrangers.

The second probable cause lies in the curricula of the music education major itself. In the USA, changes in tests such as the Praxis series reflect the expectations that music teachers possess knowledge of music technology and world music. These are appropriate and needed changes. However, diversity in education is not limited to making sure students have exposure to non-Western music. It is equally important that students have the chance to absorb the concepts of gender inclusivity in music classes.

Our most popular textbooks for core classes in the music major include relatively few references to women composers.

Unfortunately, our most popular textbooks for core classes in the music major include relatively few references to women composers. Though there are recent gains in some music history textbooks, most music theory textbooks remain behind the curve in gender inclusivity. Researchers and educators such as Roberta Lamb, Rosemary Killam, and others have been questioning the paucity of women composers in our music curricula for decades. The presence of women composers is noted in music histories more frequently now, but the absence of their works in music theory topics undermines the thought that music written by women is worth studying. Many outside resources have been published in anthologies, on dedicated websites, and in blogs, but few have actually made it into the standard textbooks and curriculum packages.

And I would advise my young colleagues, the composers of symphonies, to drop in sometimes at the kindergarten, too.  It is there that it is decided whether there will be anybody to understand their works in twenty years’ time.—Kodaly, 1957

At the beginning of 2018, the IAWM welcomed six newly elected members onto our board of directors. As with any great change, people brought ideas for new areas of advocacy and new projects emerged. One new focus of our organization is to aid educators through more explicit efforts to supplement curricula. A new grant initiative was proposed and a pilot grant will be announced later this year. This grant is specifically to help teachers who bring women in music into the classroom, whether by purchasing new classroom materials that include women composers, helping to commission a new work by a woman, or bringing in a guest artist.

As president of IAWM, I envision a second, more extensive set of projects that includes advocating not just for women already in music, but for all students of music who desperately need to see, hear, and experience music written and performed by women, not just taught by women. These will include resolutions and recommendations to NASM and NAfME on gender diversity in music curricula, more extensive resource listings on our own website, and documents such as lesson plans, long-range planning guides, and syllabi to bridge the gap between current textbook offerings and the research available on women in music. The last piece will be lobbying publishers for greater exposure of works by women.

You’re a teacher with enormous power to effect change.

So, you’re a teacher with enormous power to effect change. You want all of your students to feel that.  What do you do?

1. Actively seek out music by women composers. There is plenty of it out there, trust me. The 20th and 21st centuries have produced much wonderfully juicy low-hanging fruit by female composers. Pluck some.

2. Bring a score, pull up a recording, assign research. Actively studying the music acknowledges the worth of someone’s work. Simply mentioning a female musician’s name as “someone in the same school as X” is not creating gender diversity in your curriculum.

3. When teaching or reading, don’t assume that women composers were or are lagging behind the men. Just as often, we’re ahead of them, but don’t receive the credit.

4. Commission works by female composers. If you think you don’t have the budget to do this, form a consortium.

5. Have masterclasses with female musicians, or Skype interviews with researchers, performers, and other music professionals who are women.

6. Create and model more equitable opportunities for networking among your students.

7. Write to your local curriculum coordinator and/or standards writers and explain that they need to include gender diversity as a required component of K-12 music curricula, so that teachers have explicit guidance on the issue.

8. Think about the music teachers of your past. Just out of curiosity, how many of them were women? Find them, and write them a note to thank them.

Finding Ways to Entice Young Musicians to be Creative

Uneasy silence filled the room. Tight bursts of muffled laughter sporadically cut through an undercurrent of shuffling sneakers and nervous wriggling in chairs. Here I was, inviting a group of exuberant Los Angeles middle school musicians to make some NOISE with me in a rendering of Pauline Oliveros’s Sounds from Childhood, but all I got was some side-eye, a little healthy skepticism, and perhaps a touch of dread.

These students were the YOLA at HOLA Symphonic Winds, a group of young musicians from Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, an El Sistema-inspired program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic based out of Heart of Los Angeles, a non-profit that hosts programs for underserved youth in academics, arts, and athletics. YOLA at HOLA—a full, cost-sharing partnership between the L.A. Phil and HOLA—is a free, intensive music program in which students engage in 12-15 hours of group music lessons and ensemble playing each week with the goal of empowering young people to be both musicians and agents of change. The YOLA program, which operates at multiple sites in L.A., focuses on neighborhoods grappling with violence and high poverty rates, and is designed both as a haven from the outside world and as a way to provide a new lens through which students can view themselves, each other, and their collective creative capacity.

The International Contemporary Ensemble’s work at YOLA at HOLA was to pilot a new side-by-side initiative, called entICE, and our goals were multifaceted. We wanted to create a new piece of music, collectively, and workshop it together, from the early stages through its performance (much like any piece in ICElab). In so doing, we wanted to invite these students, who were mostly focusing on music from the distant past, to view this process and the resulting sounds, as theirs—their music, their work.

By playing together (literally sitting next to and among the young ensemble members), we were seeking to build upon and reinforce the ancient tradition of creating and shaping music with one another. Instead of “teaching” new music and telling kids how to play these outrageous new sounds, we would play side-by-side, teachers and students both learning and discovering in tandem.

As an intro (an ICEbreaker—tee-hee) and a way to build trust in the first few workshops with the YOLA students, we incorporated methods from ICE’s earlier education program, a graphic score workshop called The Listening Room. We invited the students to invent their own musical language—using pictures, words, and symbols—in order to compose a series of small graphic scores that allowed us to work towards building a big, collective piece.

When they asked what a composer was, I said, “YOU! YOU are all composers!”

The Listening Room has always been a favorite of mine. I’ll never forget the end of my first workshop in Chicago at the George B. Swift Specialty School in a class of first graders. When they asked what a composer was, I said, “YOU! YOU are all composers!” In one particular child, I saw a look of wonder and awe and then a small but palpable recognition of her own POWER wash over her face. That moment still gives me goosebumps to this day.

Beginning with our residency at YOLA at HOLA, we used what we learned in The Listening Room and incorporated it into entICE residencies going forward, keeping the graphic score intensive workshop as a way to empower and get to know new students while creating a shared language and way of working together before venturing back into the world of notated music.

The overarching goals of entICE were clear:

  • Invite the bright minds of a new generation into the creation process, providing them with a sense of ownership over “new music”: THEIR music.
  • Play together, side-by-side, in rehearsals, workshops, and performances—learning from one another and inviting intense levels of collaboration at every turn.
  • Invite students to COMPOSE, to actually create their own work.
  • Illustrate, through the composers we select, the diversity, depth, and breadth of the artistic world in spite of a dearth of representation.
  • Create a space of trust and comfort; a place where there is no such thing as playing the wrong note, and no sound is “uglier” (or prettier, for that matter) than any other sound.

Tania León, the powerhouse Cuban composer, was our first entICE collaborator. Not only did she write a great piece for the ICE / YOLA experience called Pa’lante, she conducted and coached us all towards an incredible performance. She was TOUGH, but her high standards and her ability to relate to students on and off the podium, earned her the respect and awe of even the most skeptical young collaborators.

We learned so much in that first collaboration, and we are ever grateful to the amazing staff of YOLA for their insight and guidance and to the students for their trust and bravery. Over many intense days and several weekends, we worked on building that trust, finding a shared language, and making something NEW!

And the students, with very little encouragement necessary, ended up creating an AMAZING graphic score, which they called CW Rainforest, a dedication to the founding program director of YOLA at HOLA, Christine Witkowski, who had started them all on their journeys as young musicians. They were so successful in building this piece and rehearsing it on their own, we added it to the performance with León’s piece at Disney Hall; though ICE members sat with and among the student musicians, these young artists were the true leaders in every way. The conductorless ensemble was led by a team of internal firebrands: the percussionist who started the piece with a loud BANG; the sole bassist in a room of wind instrumentalists who bravely took a solo; the brass, who self-organized seven consecutive hits inside the macro-structure of the piece. At every turn, it was thrilling to witness to this collective creative energy and drive.

EntICE has since expanded to many cities nationwide. Our next collaboration was with the People’s Music School in Chicago and composer Marcos Balter, and after that we worked with the SFSYO of San Francisco alongside composer Anahita Abbasi.

Now, FINALLY, we’re in New York City! On March 31, we’ll complete a month of deep collaboration in the Bronx with the incredible students of UpBeat NYC and the amazing Nicole Mitchell, presenting both her work, a piece called Inescapable Spiral, and theirs, titled A Musical Storm, at the Five Boroughs Music Festival at Pregones Theater.

Making music together is a powerful tool.

As entICE grows and expands, so too do we learn from all our collaborators of every age and experience level. Making music together is a powerful tool, and I’m immensely grateful for every young student who has invited me to sit next to them (my bassoon possibly WAY too close to their ears for comfort!) and engage with me in the most resonant and human way I know how: by making sound with one another.

Through the constant work-in-progress that is entICE, one thing is crystal clear: there is much work to be done. As a community, we are only just beginning to start on the long road to recognizing and exploring how to upend the implicit and explicit biases that contribute to the incessant strengthening of the status quo and consistent overlooking of the creativity of the young artists.

And yet, in each of these deep collaborations there is a moment: when these kids see a composer who looks more like themselves than Beethoven or Brahms; when they perform their own pieces, written by and for themselves and one another; when, hopefully, they get a glimpse of their own creative power. That moment is why this work is vitally important. Now more than ever.