Tag: teaching music

Then, Now, Tomorrow: Collaboration in Writing Music for Student Players

(Text by Belinda Reynolds with video content by Ashley Killam)

I first wrote about the lack of works by living composers for younger players 15 years ago. Fast forward to today. Sadly, essentially nothing has changed. Contemporary music is still desperately needed in the teaching repertoire for most orchestral instruments.

Back then, I addressed the problem by creating a set of progressive level instrumental books, called CUSTOM MADE MUSIC SERIES (CMM). The 6th book has just been published by PRB Productions: CUSTOM MADE MUSIC VOLUME 6 – 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet. Using this new CMM addition as a guidepost, I wish to share with you some tips on how to successfully compose for student players and make a lasting difference in new music for all of us in today’s challenging times.

Step One:
In approaching composing at the student level, find a collaborator who is both a player and a teacher of your chosen instrument(s). They will bring the expertise and knowledge needed to help you create a project that can make lasting change in the pedagogical repertoire. They can come from any avenue in your life – a former teacher, a colleague, a friend, a connection, anywhere! For my new project I collaborated with trumpet player/music educator/new music advocate Ashley Killam (she/her). She actually found me when she was researching composers to be listed in her open source music catalog of brass music by underrepresented composers. We wound up having a conversation about students and the trumpet repertoire and I asked her if she would be interested in being the Editor of a new CUSTOM MADE MUSIC book for trumpet. She was and thus began our project.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley’s point of view on the CUSTOM MADE MUSIC collaboration.

Step Two:
Together identify the technical gaps in the pedagogical repertoire of the instrument(s) you both wish to approach with your project. In this case, Ashley immediately knew what was needed, thanks to her extensive experience in working with music students and teachers across the country and in her studio. After a Zoom session and a few emails we decided to create a book mostly containing solos and some additional duos for three levels of trumpet players: beginners, late beginners, and early intermediate learners.

With each work I introduced the basic techniques that Ashley said were essential concepts for young trumpeters to master. I also kept all of the compositions limited to a one octave range because it was the maximum reach for most beginner players. All of these issues were addressed in composing a tasty melody for them to play. For me such challenges are creativity drivers; I believe in the motto “Limits Create Possibilities”.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley describe in more detail the ins and outs we addressed in the creation of these new compositions along with her playing one of the solos for beginner, “Carefree.”

Step Three:
Do workshops during the entirety of the creation of your composition(s). From day one I included Ashley almost as an equal partner, for I believe that bringing musicians into the creation of a new piece just makes for a higher quality composition. This is almost essential when composing for students. I learned this during my 25 years as a member of Common Sense Composers Collective, as well as with my own independent career. Ashley found this approach to be extremely rewarding, nourishing and a wonderful creative outlet for her. Together, along with her students, we ironed out the kinks and even found some new possibilities for some of the pieces. The results, we feel, are a stellar group of small pieces that young trumpet players can easily learn and gain technical skills while doing so. Take a look/listen below to one of the pieces that came to its true ‘life’, thanks to workshopping it:

Step Four:
Beta test all of your project before you bring it to its premiere and to market, so to speak. After workshopping your music, before it hits the limelight have the intended students or a similar group of learners “test” out your pieces. These young players are the final arbitrator of whether your music will or won’t work for them, regardless of what you and your collaborator have done thus far. What may seem idiomatic to a professional can sometimes seem weird and awkward to a newcomer. Ashley did this with many of her students, who gave her insights as to what articulations to finally use in some of the works.

Step Five:
Be enterprising and do tons of outreach and marketing to insure your project lives beyond the first performance/publication release. All too often a new music gem is lost into the past after its premiere because nobody pushed hard and long enough to give it a foothold in the repertoire. Compared to 15 years ago, marketing is easier than ever thanks to social media and other internet resources. Both you and your partner must utilize these tools. Urge your friends to help and reach out to all of your professional contacts that may have interest or contributions to make to your release. Outreach in the music education community is also essential, even more than ads. Get your music into the hands of teachers via networking with educational organizations, instrumental guilds, and music conventions, among other areas. Bring it to classrooms and teaching studios with creative workshops showcasing your project from the start to the finish. Folks love to know how something works before they purchase it! Once your project is ready for the public both you and your collaborator must invest in the time and effort to do these actions; creating room in the repertoire of an instrument is a long term investment. You must get fans of your project on board, those who teach the instrument(s) and those who play it/them.

I hope this presentation will inspire you to try writing at the student level. Don’t worry if you think your style is not ‘kid-friendly’. I have found that EVERY style can be student friendly if it is tested and presented in a way as to welcome the learner into its universe and not alienate them. Young players are mostly more open to the sounds of new music than their older counterparts. Your efforts will plant the seeds for long term sustainable growth of new music in both today’s and tomorrow’s professional players and audiences. In addition, it will help both your creative skills and your career trajectory as an artist. I have received numerous performances and commissions thanks to the reputation of my work in composing music for younger players. I welcome you to try this venture!

The cover for the latest volume in Belinda Reynolds's Custom Made Music Series: 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet, edited by Ashley Killam

Belinda Reynolds, Composer
Raised in a Texan-Florida Air Force family, Belinda Reynolds (she/her) now considers herself an “adopted native” of California. Her music is performed worldwide and has been featured in such festivals as Lincoln Center’s Great Performers Series, the Spoleto Music Festival, and many more. As a Music Educator Ms. Reynolds is in demand nationwide helping children learn to create music. For more information, go to www.belindareynolds.com.

Ashley Killam, Editor
Ashley Killam (she/her) is an international speaker, researcher, and educator based in Radford, Virginia. Killam is President of Diversity the Stand and General Manager of Rising Tide Music Press. Killam’s work centers around educating musicians on the importance of making ethical and sustainable changes in performing and teaching music. For more information, go to www.ashleykillam.com.

Zoom Tips for Private Music Instructors

Private Music Teachers in Unchartered Territory

Unfortunately, many of us are back to feeling unsafe when it comes to in-person learning, due to the increase in the Delta variant. Here are some tips for private music teachers who are transitioning back to Zoom learning.

Background: This article is written from the perspective of a classical flutist who has a background in instrumental music education, particularly, band. That being said, many of these tips can be adapted to other instruments.

Keep Students Connected

I am a huge advocate of taking the time to get to know your student on a more personal level. This means that you need to take a breath and keep your students connected. Learn more about their school: Are they in-person, are they online? What are they doing when they’re not so busy? While this tip may sound basic, it can mean the difference between keeping your student on Zoom or losing them to a competitor who is still offering lessons in person.

I recall the ‘Aha’ moment I had with a student when I realized that she was reading The Lunar Chronicles Series; A set of books that I had begun reading when I was her age as well. Knowing that she was into fantasy and dystopian novels helped me make more relatable allegories for her during flute lessons. Checking in is always time well spent, whether it’s about sports, family, or video games. While we can’t always physically be there, we can get emotionally closer to our students. The better the rapport you have with your pupil, the easier the transition back to online will be.

Integrate Manipulatives

Just because you can’t be with your student in person, doesn’t mean that you can’t use manipulatives. Do some research, and find things that your students can make at home. Some of my favorite tools to use for flutists include simple household items like disposable chopsticks, straws, and Smarties. Chopsticks and straws make easy fixes for weak embouchures and poor tonguing techniques. A roll of smarties (the candy) can be placed on the knuckles to check if the student’s wrist is properly lifted. Elementary students will enjoy making their percussion instruments from tubes and paper and performing new rhythm exercises on them.

Guitar students and other instrumentalists will benefit from manipulatives as well. For example, recently, when I was receiving an online bass lesson, I was instructed to hold a small object between my pinkie and ring finger. This helped me fix the position of my picking hand, without my teacher having to physically be there.

Change Their Angle

It can be very difficult to help your student hold their instrument properly when you can’t physically adjust it for them. Having your pupil periodically change their camera angle will help immensely. I remember when I was an undergrad, one of my professors was watching me during a lesson. He realized that he had only ever seen me play from one certain angle, in the same place, in his office. It wasn’t until he stood up from his chair that he realized that I was playing with a poor wrist technique. My left hand needed to be dropped so that I could play more comfortably.

Use Their Metronome

This is a tip that I learned from guitarist Samuel Rugg. Don’t teach Zoom lessons with your metronome. Lag is one of the biggest complications of teaching music lessons online. If you use your metronome, there will be two lags: One from your metronome getting to the student, and the second, in the student’s sound getting back to you. In essence, even if the student is playing perfectly in time with your metronome, you won’t hear it as such. It’s best to save you and your student some time (and headache) by having the metronome and performance coming from the same location.

Assign Something Unconventional

Students will greatly appreciate lessons that fall outside the norm. Even if they are studying cello performance, try throwing a vocal exercise or composition prompt their way. When it comes to studying music, there’s no irrelevant exercise. Everything is connected.

There are tons of great online music tools out there, too. So when it comes to Zoom lessons? Don’t be afraid to assign a bit of fun homework. For younger students, try giving them an online listening game from Classics for Kids (www.classicsforkids.com/games.html) or ask them to compose on a short melody in Chrome Music Lab (musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/).

For adult students, have them compose something on an instrument they don’t play inside of Garage band (www.apple.com/mac/garageband/). Or, get your students to work on a track together using a free collaborative music site like LoopLabs (www.looplabs.com/).

If you’d like to go more along the classical route, you can also try assigning ear training through a site like Teoria (www.teoria.com/).

Recruit a Family Audience

Many musically gifted students have had to endure the better part of two years with no on-stage performances. A couple of months back, I was teaching an intermediate flute student online. She had seemed far more engaged during this particular lesson than she had been in the previous weeks. I didn’t realize until the end of the lesson (when she turned her camera away from me) that her older siblings and parents had been listening in on us.

At first, I was spooked. I watched my internal teacher become critical: “Did I do a good enough job entertaining the family? Did I spend too much time making book references? “ But then, the mental chatter faded. I realized that recruiting family members can help fill that missing space of not having a stage. When her family was listening, she had an audience.

Conclusion

It’s a brave new world for all of us Zoom music teachers. But we’ve been here before, and we can do this again. Keep conversations during lessons light and lively, and don’t be afraid to try something a little odd. And remember: Online music is better than no music at all!

Wanted: Orchestral Scores by Composers Not Named Beethoven

A page from the manuscript of Emilie Mayer's First Symphony

It is mid-August. In my profession (I teach college-level composition and music theory), that means it’s time to get down to the less lofty aspects of course preparation: ambitious ideas must be reborn as precise learning objectives, clear evaluation criteria, detailed weekly schedules, and finalized repertoires. As I comb the internet for pieces to use in the introductory orchestration course I will teach for the second time this fall, I am reminded of a familiar frustration: it is easy to find scores by white men, and much harder to find scores by anyone else.

Yes, IMSLP offers an ocean of free sheet music, and that’s to say nothing of the more carefully curated online resources such as Music Theory Examples by Women and the Composers of Color Resource Project. But this apparent abundance can obscure the many omissions. Looking for the full score of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A minor for Orchestra? The piece was composed in 1898 and begins with a stormy opening theme — a perfect example of how to subtly strengthen the melody in a passage scored for low strings. (Can you hear the lone bassoon doubling those violins?) Yet, on IMSLP, you will find only piano reductions of nearly all of Coleridge-Taylor’s orchestral works. A full score for Petite Suite de Concert, Op. 77, is the lonely exception. Curious about delving into the orchestral works of Louise Farrenc? Her three symphonies, all written in the 1840s (easily old enough to be in the public domain) are nowhere to be found on IMSLP.

It is true that with a bit of determination and more than a few disposable dollars, these scores can be acquired: Musikproduction Hoeflich offers in its “Repertoire Explorer” series an edition of Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for a reasonable 18€; I eagerly bought it, but I’d have to think twice about requiring my students to purchase a copy unless I could find a way to make it a primary text for my course. In contrast, one must shell out over 150€ for the Hoffman/Heitman edition of Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, rendering it highly impractical at best for classroom study.

I am grateful that these recent editions of long-neglected works exist, yet I can’t help but lament their inaccessibility, especially when compared to the ubiquity of freely available scores composed by white men. The simple question of why — why are Robert Schumann’s symphonies from the 1840s accessible at no cost for anyone to study and perform, while Louise Farrenc’s symphonies from the same period are behind a costly paywall? — is an important one, but it is related to a larger truth: music educators who wish to fundamentally rethink their content often face significant practical challenges in the simple matter of accessing viable learning materials. The last few decades have seen significant progress toward building web-based resources for inclusive music pedagogy, yet there remains in many disciplines a lack of adequate resources — a major disincentive for teachers wishing to move beyond inherited repertoires and perspectives. In perhaps no musical discipline is this absence more glaring than in the study of orchestration.

Orchestration as an academic study occupies a nebulous place, residing somewhere between composition and music theory, two fields which are themselves often grouped together. (As an example, I teach in my conservatory’s Composition and Music Theory program, where all music theory courses are listed under the same “MCOM” prefix.) My introductory orchestration course that starts next week will include student composers, performers, and music educators. For many of them, this class may represent their most sustained exposure to full musical scores for mid-sized and large ensembles, so the choice of composers studied in this context could profoundly influence their notions of whose music is worthy of study. (For a fascinating and bracing study on this topic, see Cora Palfy and Eric Gilson, “The Hidden Curriculum in the Music Theory Classroom.”)

Textbooks wield a special kind of power in perpetuating the canon of composers that still dominate the music academy, and music theory textbooks have been heavily scrutinized in recent years. In his Music Theory Online article, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” Philip Ewell provides a racial demographic breakdown of musical examples in seven leading music theory textbooks, in which he reveals that, “of the 2,930 musical examples in all seven textbooks, 49 were written by nonwhites. This represents 1.67% of the musical examples from all textbooks.”

Orchestration textbooks have largely avoided such critiques, but they fair no better; they are actually a bit worse. The following chart presents a racial and gender demographic breakdown of the musical examples in three well-known orchestration textbooks:

Textbook Total # of examples # of examples by non-whites % of examples by non-whites # of examples by women % of examples by women
Adler, 4th Ed. (2016) 402 3 0.75% 3 0.75%
Blatter, 2nd Ed. (1997) 174 3 1.72% 4 2.30%
Kennan and Grantham, 6th Ed. (2002) 241 1 0.41% 1 0.41%
TOTALS 817 7 0.86% 8 0.98%

The percentages shown in the chart are so extreme that they bear restating: fewer than 1% of the musical examples in these books are taken from pieces by non-white composers, and fewer than 1% are from pieces by women.

There is not a single example composed by a non-white woman in any of the books. In contrast, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is used in 10 separate instances, while Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony and Claude Debussy’s La Mer are each cited 9 times. The outsize representation of these familiar works extends to the disproportionate attention lavished on the expected composers. Mozart leads the way with 18 pieces featured in Adler’s The Study of Orchestration, followed by Beethoven at 17, then Ravel, Strauss, and Stravinsky at 13 each, with Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Wagner rounding out the tidy list of ten composers with 10 or more pieces in the Adler book.

The racial and gender identities of the authors of orchestration textbooks are even more lopsided than the identities of the composers whose music populates the book. I could not find a single comprehensive orchestration manual authored by someone other than a white man. It’s worth noting that Blatter’s Instrumentation and Orchestration includes an unusually thorough bibliography containing related resources that reflect perspectives other than those of white men, including books on the history of the orchestra (Joan Peyser, ed. The Orchestra: Origins and Translations, New York: Schirmer, 1986), volumes on instrumentation (Sibyl Marcuse, A Survey of Musical Instruments, New York: Harper & Row, 1975), and several manuals about composing for individual instruments. And the internet offers numerous excellent tutorials on composing for individual instruments, such as Heather Roche’s excellent blog on contemporary clarinet writing. Yet when it comes to lists of books and blogs on orchestration, most look like this and this.

I gave a talk at this year’s Society of Composers National Conference called “Tossing the Textbook and Decentering the Canon in an Introductory Orchestration Course.” The talk focused on my efforts to move beyond the traditional orchestral literature in my orchestration class by relying on evidence-based pedagogical practices, such as using backward design, creating the conditions for meaningful student agency, and providing and receiving effective feedback throughout the semester. The pedagogy portion of the talk was met with a shrug; I was preaching to the choir about the why. How was another matter. The issue of access to scores and the challenge of finding adequate learning materials — along with the stark demographic statistics I provided about the orchestration textbooks — sparked engaging and sometimes passionate discussion.

  • It is easy to find scores by white men, and much harder to find scores by anyone else.

    Andrew Conklin
  • Why are Robert Schumann’s symphonies from the 1840s accessible at no cost for anyone to study and perform, while Louise Farrenc’s symphonies from the same period are behind a costly paywall?

    Andrew Conklin
  • I could not find a single comprehensive orchestration manual authored by someone other than a white man.

    Andrew Conklin
  • We must continue to demand that new textbooks do a better job with representation.

    Andrew Conklin

So, what of the pieces that are old enough to be in the public domain, yet are still nowhere to be (freely) found? Why is IMSLP full of Robert Schumann’s orchestral scores but devoid of Louise Farrenc’s, replete with Gustav Mahler’s symphonies but virtually empty of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s? Farrenc’s three symphonies were written in the 1840s, but the Hoffman/Heitmann critical editions were published between 1998–2000 and thus will remain protected for decades. Unless you can get yourself to the Bibliothèque nationale de France to peruse the original manuscript of Farrenc’s Symphony no. 3, or to the Philadelphia Free Library’s Fleisher Collection to pore over the microfilm, the critical editions are the only game in town. Similarly, many of Coleridge-Taylor’s orchestral works are available only as recently published, and sometimes costly, critical editions.

These critical editions are invaluable resources; their editors deserve to be credited and compensated for their expertise. I only seek to point out that, as of today, I can choose to invest in Schott’s critical edition of Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony but I can also access many earlier editions for free. I don’t have that choice with much of the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Louise Farrenc for the simple reason that their orchestral work wasn’t thought to be worth publishing until relatively recently.

Some editors and publishers are working to make these scores more accessible. The French site ComposHer strives to increase access to scores by women composers; its recent edition of Emilie Mayer’s Faust-Ouverture is freely accessible under a Creative Commons license and includes a full set of parts. Another publisher, Serenissima Music, restores and digitizes original editions of hard-to-find pieces and posts them to IMSLP; it is courtesy of Serenissima that we have access to the full score of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert. (Serenissima has also partnered directly with IMSLP to print and sell physical copies of some of these reprints under the Petrucci Library Press imprint.)

We should feel a sense of urgency to join these efforts to make more scores of public domain works accessible. Imagine the possibilities for cross-disciplinary student projects devoted to creating usable and accessible editions of scores for Emilie Mayer’s first and second symphonies, or modern editions of Vicente Lusitano’s book of motets, Liber primus epigramatum. These projects would bring together music scholars from various disciplines and would galvanize students and faculty toward a common and profoundly meaningful goal.

We also must continue to demand that new textbooks do a better job with representation. Though alternative learning resources exist, textbooks continue to be important and influential forces in defining the values and boundaries of a discipline. It is encouraging that W. W. Norton has contracted Rosa Abrahams, Philip Ewell, Aaron Grant, and Cora Palfy to write a new music theory textbook, The Engaged Musician: Theory and Analysis for the 21st Century (projected 2023), which Ewell describes as “a modernized, reframed, and inclusive textbook based on recent developments in music theory pedagogy.” The field of orchestration is in dire need of a similar textbook, with the backing of a publisher willing to help with the costs of reprinting copyright-protected musical excerpts by BIPOC and women composers in addition to curating selections from the public domain.

So many of our students and colleagues want to move beyond the canonic composers. Let’s keep working to get them the resources they need.

How Audition Requirements Exclude

Guitar near open window

“I guess no music schools will accept the repertoire that I’m playing for my graduation recital, right?” My student paused, and then gazed back into his webcam. “I can take a year off, I guess.” His voice, heavy with frustration and disappointment, trailed off.

“Yeah,” I replied, not really thinking about it. “Most schools require Bach and Sor, at least. You might have to take a year off to learn that repertoire—”

I stopped, suddenly considering my own reaction to my student’s question. We both sat silently for a moment, considering the personal, artistic, and financial implications of a gap year. We both knew this wasn’t a feasible option. Even over Zoom, his posture seemed to collapse under the weight of this potential setback. No—this couldn’t be the answer.

My student, Matthew Briehl, is currently working on repertoire for his graduation recital at Arizona State University, where I’m an assistant professor. He’s committed to learning and highlighting the music of Black composers, and—with my enthusiastic approval—he has made the decision to only program works by composers of color on his graduation recital. His dedication demonstrates a level of initiative that few students possess. As an educator, this is something that I seek to encourage and cultivate within my studio. Yet, by encouraging my students to seek out works by underrepresented composers—an initiative that most music schools would seem to support, at least based on their recent statements—I’ve inadvertently disadvantaged those who aspire to apply for graduate study, festivals, competitions, and other opportunities.

By encouraging my students to seek out works by underrepresented composers, I’ve inadvertently disadvantaged them.

In response to recent tragedies and the subsequent protests and public outcries, most major conservatories have made statements that condemn systemic racism and affirm allyship with individuals identifying as Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). These institutions have publicly declared intentions to create “a welcoming home for African American colleagues [and] all people of color” (Yale School of Music); to “tear down systemic racism and injustice” (The Juilliard School); to “embrace diversity, inclusion and equity” (Cleveland Institute of Music); and to “forge a new path of systemic inclusion” (San Francisco Conservatory of Music). There are many more I could include—I’m sure you’ve encountered similar language in statements issued by other leading performing arts organizations.

To be clear: These are admirable, worthy goals, and I’ve chosen these schools as examples because of their prominence. Many institutions have already detailed specific actions that will lead to measurable changes in both culture and curricula. But, in exploring these lists, I have yet to see any mention of audition repertoire. Institutional change is necessary, yes; but, if admissions requirements already exclude BIPOC, then institutional changes will remain surface-level and will do little to improve diversity and representation within our industry.

For auditioning classical guitarists, most music schools require: a piece by Bach; a major piece from the classical or romantic era; a 20th century work; and, occasionally, a contemporary piece. Among the programs I know of there isn’t one audition repertoire list that places emphasis on music by BIPOC and/or female composers. It is important to recognize that these lists often determine the repertoire that students select to learn during their most artistically formative years. Why take on additional repertoire that won’t contribute to educational and/or professional advancement?

I’ve been guilty of perpetuating this problem, too. I acknowledge that I have been complicit in this area of systemic exclusion, and I intend to create meaningful change within my own program. Previously, I have based my audition requirements on those of other US-based guitar programs without giving sufficient thought to the kind of program I seek to cultivate and the values I intend to uphold. But, my student’s recent comment forced me to recall my own days of learning and perfecting repertoire that I didn’t really relate to. As a Korean woman, it was exceedingly rare that my prepared audition repertoire could include music written by anyone I could identify with. As a performer, I’ve upheld a commitment to performing music by diverse composers. Further, I commission new works in an effort to expand the classical guitar’s contemporary repertoire so that it better reflects our current time and audience. As an educator, I strive to promote these values, and I intend to do better.

A zoom screenshot of a guitar lesson. Matt playing guitar and Jiji following along with the score.

One of Matthew Briehl’s guitar lessons with Jiji Kim over Zoom.

I’m proud of my students who seek out repertoire composed by BIPOC and women composers, and I’m grateful to my student who compelled me to confront a significant blind spot. I’m committed to making a change, and I want to show him that his voice and experience matter. We can—and must—become more inclusive.

You might argue: “Cool idea, but isn’t it a CLASSICAL guitar program?” Yes, it is a classical guitar program; however, in this context, the descriptor “classical” describes an instrument and specific style of playing. What does CLASSICAL really mean? And, why is our definition so exclusive?

What does CLASSICAL really mean? And, why is our definition so exclusive?

I often perform pieces that require live processing using Max/MSP and Ableton. Many wouldn’t define these works as strictly classical; however, these pieces make significant demands on the artistry and technique that I’ve only obtained through “classical” training. I teach my students the artistic and educational value of investing in contemporary works that represent the time in which we live, particularly works that incorporate technology. I also encourage my students to commission new works and engage in mindful programming—sometimes, you might have to exert a little more effort, but I assure you, BIPOC composers have contributed incredible, worthwhile works to the classical guitar repertoire. They’re there if you look for them.

Further, it’s important to recognize that classical works in the traditional canon often do not represent the background or experience of a student, particularly those who identify as BIPOC. This isn’t to say that the canon doesn’t hold educational or artistic value—I continue to teach these works, and I do not seek to condemn their validity or diminish their significance. Rather, I argue that we can and should expand opportunities for our students to engage with works that hold personal significance. We need to recognize that exclusive audition repertoire lists and recital requirements severely limit these opportunities.

How can I make requirements a better reflection of our current time?

Our industry and institutions have so much to gain if we truly open ourselves to the diverse voices that exist—and have existed for centuries!—within classical music. So, I challenge my colleagues across the country to examine their required repertoire lists for both auditions and graduation recitals. Ask yourselves—who do these lists exclude? Who do these lists benefit or advantage? How can I make these requirements a better reflection of our current time? How can these lists further institutional and/or industry goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

I pledge to make the following changes to my own audition requirements at Arizona State University:

Master of Music

  • Three solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). *It is strongly encouraged to play at least one composition by a BIPOC or a female composer (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
  • Applicants can also choose to demonstrate one (1) of their own compositions or an arrangement *optional
  • OR a curated (themed) recital program could be submitted directly to the guitar faculty

Doctor of Musical Arts

  • Four solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). The chosen works may all be by BIPOC or female composers. *It is strongly encouraged for a Doctoral applicant to include one piece by a BIPOC and a female composer. (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
  • As per the Master’s audition requirements, original compositions/curated (themed) programs would be accepted as well

Here are some examples of current audition requirements at major music schools within the United States:

Final Audition Requirements: A transcription of a work written before 1750; A classical or romantic work (including the Segovia repertoire) written for guitar; a 20th century work written for guitar.

Live audition repertoire: All compositions must be performed from memory; 1. two contrasting movements of a J.S. Bach suite, partita, or sonata (includes Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV998); 2. two etudes by Heitor Villa-Lobos; 3. A complete work of any period; 4. Two contrasting works: one Renaissance, Classical (Sor, Giuliani, Regondi, Mertz, etc.) or 19th Century; one by a 20th century composer of any style.

I would like to mention that Manhattan School of Music includes a female composer Joan Tower and a Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu as examples of pieces to play for the auditions.

Graduate MM Audition - Choose any three of the following (or works of an equivalent level): A major work by Bach; Elegy or any two pieces from Bardenklange, op. 13#1-11 by Mertz, or two etudes by Regondi, or a sonata or fantasy by Sor, or a major work by Giuliani; Three etudes by Villa-Lobos, or a major work by de Falla, REspighi, Torroba, Martin, Ponce, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, José, Tansman, Rodrigo, Turina, Ohana, Britten, Walton, Bennett or Berkeley; A work written since 1975, e.g., Takemitsu, Henze, Carter, Nørgård, Petrassi, Tower, Ginastera, Sculthorpe.


Celebrating Holland, Bebey, and Casseus

If you have no idea where to look or even begin, please refer to the resources included at the end of this article. Amazing people have dedicated a lot of time and effort to simplifying the process of identifying composers of color. In the paragraphs below, I’ve highlighted three BIPOC composers.

Amazing people have dedicated a lot of time and effort to simplifying the process of identifying composers of color.

Justin Holland (1819-1887) was an African American classical guitarist, composer, and arranger from the 19th century. Justin Holland’s classic method book is perfect for beginners. Referring to methods of Sor and Aguado, he says “They are poorly adapted to the use of beginners. All of the great Masters (Sor, Aguado, Giuliani) … Some omit elementary explanations, some harmonics, others have no mention of the great number of musical embellishments constantly occurring music…” Which I totally agree with. These Sor and Aguado books lack many important rudimentary explanations––so, if you don’t have a skilled teacher, these very popular method books can be a disaster for young guitarists. The first 15 pages of Holland’s method book carefully explain what it takes to play the instrument (fret visual mapping, posture, etc.) and to learn music (music theory, how to count time, etc). His original work Andante demonstrates his immense talent, and you can also see that he was a skilled arranger (Prof. Ernie is an amazing artist).

 

Francis Bebey (1929-2001) was a Cameroonian composer, guitarist, and writer. His works are very impressive—I especially love his composition Black tears. There is a lot happening in this piece––chromatic harmonies and African rhythms—and the emotions keep shifting to such different places, high then low, it’s dissonant for a moment and then it’s not—we are jolly for a moment—ah—not anymore. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a piece, and it requires a tremendous level of musicianship to execute well. Black African Music is not meant just for the ear but for all the senses and faculties of the body. It reflects Africa’s vision of the world on earth and the world beyond, a world of change and movement, a world in permanent search of betterment and perfection.” (Bebey 1974) I’ve listened to this piece over and over again, and I’m in love with it.

Matt and Jiji holding up copies of a published collection of guitar music by Frantz Cassius,

Frantz Casseus (1915–1993) was a Haitian-born composer, guitarist, and arranger who emigrated to the United States in 1946. He was also the teacher of Marc Ribot (who is one of my favorite guitarists and who wrote a great article about Casseus). He had an active performing career which sadly came to a halt in the ‘70s due to tendonitis in his left hand. His composition Haitian Dances from the mid-20th century incorporates classical writing combined with Haitian folk songs and jazz. It’s one-of-a-kind and absolutely gorgeous, and I’d love to see this piece valued as a 20th century major work. This quote from Ribot sums up the perpetual problem Casseus faced during his career: “… [He] lived as a black man in a United States whose southern racists wouldn’t let him stay in the hotels where he performed and whose northern liberals had difficulty accepting his work as classical, preferring to hear it within a “folk” context when they heard it at all.” (Ribot 2003). Let’s not be those “northern liberals”—it’s fantastic, worthwhile music.

As educators, we have the responsibility to engage in difficult dialogues.

As educators, we have the responsibility to engage in difficult dialogues; beyond this, we need to adapt and move forward as society makes progress. We can’t just shout the buzzwords “diversity, inclusion, and equality!” and then not take initiative when we have opportunities to do so. We cannot continue to dismiss diverse voices because they don’t adhere neatly to our “classical” definitions. I’m planning to do better. Are you with me?


I’d like to thank Liz Lerman and Deanna Swodoba for inviting me to ASU’s transformation group and for helping me to recognize systemic abuse. A million thanks to my student Matthew Briehl who has inspired me to make changes. And another million thanks to my dearest friend Hilary Purrington who has generously helped with this article. 


References

Bebey, Francis. “The Vibrant Intensity of Traditional African Music.” The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 2, no. 2, 1974, pp. 117–121.

Ribot, Marc. “Frantz Casseus. BOMB Magazine, January 2003.

Further Resources 

guitarmusicbyblackcomposers.com

www.musicbyblackcomposers.org

Grenier, Robert. “La Mélodie Vaudoo. Voodoo Art Songs: The Genesis of a Nationalist Music in the Republic of Haiti.” Black Music Research Journal 21, no. 1 (2001): pp. 29-74.

www.earlymusicamerica.org/resources/resources-for-diversity-in-early-music-repertoire

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?

Little Band of Dreamers

The iron bars are not inviting. In fact, you will not be welcomed unless you are recognized by the voice at the other end of the call box and only then do the gates part for a measured time. You will immediately be on video surveillance.

On my first visit, I was asked to drive to a designated area of the city and then call for further directions. The exact address is not published for safety and privacy reasons. I also had to pass the background check required for all volunteers. Sitting on several acres in a quiet part of the city, this former religious retreat is something of an island, though mere blocks away from an area infested with drug and sex trafficking. This safe and secluded place now plays host to a shelter—a transitional home for women and their children who are victims of sex trafficking or domestic abuse. I became acquainted with the shelter while reading a story in my university alumni magazine, but my motivation for volunteering was personal. My twenty-five-year-old niece was a bright and courageous warrior who worked on behalf of sex trafficking victims with her New York law firm and other agencies. We had recently lost her to melanoma. This was my way of continuing her legacy in some small way—and honestly, a way to work through my own grief.

I contacted the shelter in the article to find out if they were interested in music activities for the residents. My goal was to promote self-esteem and positive artistic experience in a general music class setting. They were very interested. I was told by the director that a children’s camp was held in the summer which provided enrichment activities for the younger residents. As an invited part of the shelter’s camp experience, I scheduled the first visit and music camp.

I had this crazy idea that music could somehow help them deal with their pain.

I had this crazy idea that even though there were tragic stories within this house, that somehow music could help them deal with their pain, escape their memories, or give them an outlet for their expression. I hoped that through the learning and doing of music, or “musicking” (a term coined by Christopher Small in 1998), to create beauty and a sense of hope for these children, in spite of their difficult circumstances.

My background is in public school K-12 and university music teaching, but there was no precedent for teaching music to this special population. I was anxious about my first visit, as I didn’t know how the students would respond.

Driving up, the building exterior is strangely peaceful and comforting. A two-story structure that has weathered the test of time is framed by large, shady trees covering the grounds. I parked in a very secure place with easy access to the door to bring in my instruments. I carried in a large keyboard, several rhythmic instruments, hand drums, eight different xylophones and sheet music for various age groups.

That first visit included a tour of the shelter, which had ample room, tall ceilings, stocked pantries, and spacious communal kitchens and gathering areas. The building had been lovingly cared for and restored. Residents of the retreat are provided culturally-sensitive, structured services to rebuild their lives as independent and self-sufficient members of the work force. Over forty residents live in separate apartments within this building while receiving employment skills and financial training. As residents are from many parts of the world, English classes and other educational opportunities are especially important for supporting a new start. A 24-hour hotline assists victims with varied needs from medical care and counseling to legal services. The volunteers and employees are friendly, competent, and sensitive.

Moms and their children safely stay here for sixty days before they are transitioned to an apartment and a job, most often in another city. In the meantime, the children that come with them are in a sort of limbo. They are not in their old life, but they have not yet begun their new life. These children, too, are in need of regaining their confidence and preparing to live a life of freedom. This is difficult to do, as they are sequestered on the premises with their mothers.

While the mothers are busy attending classes or job interviews, the children (ages 4-17) have a full-time child advocate that schedules field trips, art classes, and outdoor play. Older children often have access to their phones for video games and music. The shelter provides a safe haven to live as they transition to a normal life, with the end goal of mothers supporting their family without fear of the abusive pimp or family member.


After concluding the tour of the facilities, the music class started right away in the sunroom. We introduced ourselves by playing a name game in which students chanted their names and simultaneously learned rhythmic music notation. There were some students who even struggled at first with speaking their names aloud. Their peers would jump in and save them by sharing their names with me. The comfort level increased as we began to build a sense of familiarity and community. I made quick work of learning their names because it is important for every student to feel validated and recognized for their own unique identity.

What sort of magical music would take little eyes and ears off of their stormy pasts and lift their spirits to create expressively on recorders, rhythm instruments, and through singing? For the most part, the repertoire consisted of folk songs, funny songs, or popular songs. Familiarity was our friend. At first some students were too shy to take a rhythm instrument and keep a beat with the melody, but that soon was overcome by a smiling, happy face that watched their peers with joy. I learned that, like most public school classrooms, the students had a diverse background of musical skills. Some were advanced and could read music. Others had very little to no experience with singing or playing instruments, but they patiently encouraged each other.

What struck me as odd was that there was very little vetting by the children. Walls are usually pretty high from students “trying out” a new teacher. It takes a while for students to “let you in” – to trust you with their friendship, their input, and their story. Somehow, they accepted me immediately as someone who was there to make their world better. I think the music spoke loudly of a time and place when their lives were happier and more in control. Several students would say, “I know that song!” “We used to play that in my old music class.” Or, most heart breaking, “I used to play violin on that song, but we had to leave it behind.” Music became the bridge that allowed the students to see that they still had power to make something beautiful.

The students enjoyed playing melodic ostinati on the xylophone or keyboard as we sang.  I quickly found that they were happy to lose themselves in the moments of music. They were very receptive and loved the instruments and wanted to touch them. They wanted to participate. The only issues I had were those similar to children of poverty, of not knowing how to share well with others. We worked through those issues. They learned that if they shared their instruments they would all have a turn. We did repeated songs so that all students were able to participate. Equity and access were strong parameters for each class.

The music lesson objectives were based on the Five Music Rights of the International Music Council. My first priority was the care of the child’s mental health above all. Music stopped for any behavioral issue and a peaceful resolution was sought. Students were allowed to choose instruments and to have input on the choice of song repertoire. This gave them a voice in the process and a feeling of empowerment. I called upon bilingual music instructional strategies from my dissertation research, knowing that a variety of learning styles and academic levels would be present. Above all there was a mutual respect that I incorporated in all activities: the value of all people to participate in musicking.


The summer was spent visiting the shelter weekly to teach music in a wide variety of methods to the students. It was never directly explained to me if any of the children had personally been sexually trafficked or abused, but it didn’t matter. They had all been damaged by the exploitation of their family. They had all lost their homes, their security, and their belief in the world as a beautiful place. In my experience of teaching public school domestic abuse and/or sexual abuse victims, I could tell that a few of the students at the shelter showed similar signs. These included social withdrawal, checking out mentally, and various other coping mechanisms, as well as a general attitude of knowing far too much of the dark side of humanity for their ages. While you would probably expect this heaviness to pervade every waking moment, it miraculously did not. They were mostly just like other students: energetic, boisterous, socially outgoing, and—thankfully—resilient.

Each student seemed hungry to learn about music.

One factor that was distinctly different from a regular public school music class was that each student seemed hungry to learn about music. They were not required to attend the music camp and could come and go as they pleased. But all of the students present at the shelter eagerly gathered early in the sunroom and looked forward to participating in music making and learning.

One challenging aspect for me was the vast span of ages in our music camp. The ages ranged from 4 to 17 years. As an instructor that usually adheres to a strict lesson plan with distinct objectives and strategies, I learned that it was okay to review more, to skip ahead, or respond to their interest level. I learned that I was just a facilitator. The music was theirs. They owned it. They possessed little else, but they did possess their own ability and right of human expression through music. They championed it through song, chant, rhymes, rhythm instruments, recorders, xylophones, and music learning. They sang out. They played loud. They were heard. They made music bravely.

The older students, all girls, also participated in the music class. We did a lot of beginner songs, but age was not a factor. The older students were very patient and helpful with the younger students. They were just very happy to experience music, no matter what form it took.  I was humbled by their kindness to each other. I played a few songs from musical theater and Disney songs that they knew, and they joined me by singing and accompanying on instruments. At the end of our two-hour sessions together, the students were still wanting to play and sing! I mentioned to the older girls that I might be able to teach them private piano lessons when I returned, and they were very excited.

I have taught students that come from difficult backgrounds. You can tell in class that they are a little less patient at times and may need more attention both during instruction as well as performance. One of the harder things to watch was knowing that the students had very little and that is why they want to touch everything, hold it, keep it to themselves, and not share. These are students who may have a musical background, but for whatever reason, they are now deprived. I asked them what they would like for me to do musically during my next visit, and they adamantly stated that they would like to have a karaoke machine with songs they can sing, a microphone, big drums, a bass guitar, and—if I could swing it—a saxophone! They loved music and they wanted to be involved.

The oldest male student that I’ll refer to here as Marcus (I have given pseudonyms to all the students to protect their identities), was by far the most musically advanced student. He had a charismatic personality and was very people wise. Over the summer he morphed from a boy into a young man. His mindset seemed to be less focused on his immediate need for attention and musical showmanship and developed into that of a caring individual who, despite obvious life difficulties, was mindful of others’ needs in the music class. I asked him to assist in the class routinely. This helped develop his leadership skills and he handled it all very maturely. What was so lovely was that you could tell that by the class demeanor and acceptance of Marcus’s modeling of recorder melodies, or his leading of the rhythm band, that they were proud of him as well. They saw his success as their own.

The students developed their rhythmic and melodic knowledge through body percussion, singing, and playing instruments. We experimented with repeated rhythmic and overlapping patterns. They loved the music lesson when we learned about the instruments in the orchestra and I taught them how to conduct in 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time. Their little arms keeping time with the music, they participated fully with a very high rate of success.

One favorite song was “Lean on Me.” They sang strongly.

Sometimes longevity in singing was an issue. They didn’t seem to have the stamina or persistence to be able to sing for a long period of time. One or two would not participate for a while, staring blankly at the ceiling. They checked out physically for whatever reason, so I always had several lesson plans prepared which allowed me to quickly switch gears and find something that would engage their minds and creativity. Once they relaxed and used correct breathing, they were able to project more with their singing. I was very careful that song lyrics were positive and uplifting. One favorite song was “Lean on Me.” They sang strongly: “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on. For, it won’t be long, ‘til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

A pair of maracas being held in one hand

Not all days were rosy. When we started one of our classes, Marcus was extremely depressed and said that he was having a bad day. He was not interested in participating. He would barely touch the drum. As the intellectual challenge of the music lesson increased, the more participatory he became. When we got to the recorder portion of the lesson, he was captivated by playing the music and had totally forgotten the reason for his bad mood.

On this same day, Sophia struggled just to function. When she had a hard time processing or understanding, she gave up very easily. This was in great contrast to Anna, a girl who always had excellent questions and shared her past musical experiences, which seemed to be very important to her. There were many varying degrees of musical progress. One beautiful thing is that as I was walking out the door Anna said, “Goodbye! We love you! We can’t wait to see you next time! Bye!” It was very sweet. As a music teacher I felt that I had something to share with the students. I could encourage them to be their own music makers. That was a lasting gift.

Performing music was a welcome way to make them feel a part of the group.

For several students, their English was limited and performing music was a welcome way to make them feel a part of the group.  To assist with literacy, we incorporated reading and music learning. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, a West African tale by Verna Aardema, is a wonderful book. The story unfolds a cast of animals whose lives are all disrupted by the actions of one mosquito. Because the mosquito lied, a catastrophic chain of events occurred that ended with the death of a baby owl. The students created rhythmic patterns on percussion instruments to represent the animals in the story. Engrossed as they were, a calm acceptance of the heart of the story was learned. Bad things happen to good people. Cause and effect. Sometimes things happen to us that are out of our control. We go on. We survive. We come together as a community. We lift each other up and find power in facing our fears.

I see it as something similar to the 29,000-year-old cave paintings that were found in Chauvet’s Cave in southern France. Jean Clottes, former archaeology official in the French Ministry of Culture theorizes that these caves and their drawings were places that held transformative power and religious significance. Clottes believes that prehistoric shamans invoked the spirits in their paintings not only to aid them on their hunts, but also for births, illnesses, and other crises and rites of passage. “These animals were full of power, and the paintings are images of power,” he says. “If you get in touch with the spirit, it is not out of idle curiosity. You do it because you need their help” (Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015). So all these many years ago, even then, human expression was a way of reaching out, of making sense of the world.


On the last day of summer music camp, I learned that many of the students had moved to another state or another city. But, as the director told me, they had many new students. It reminded me of the ongoing mission of the shelter and the cycle of its ever changing population. I hoped that the music camp would give our little band of dreamers something good to hang onto in an otherwise dark time of their lives and bring them a lifelong love of music.

At the last class as we wrapped up the recorder lesson, Sophia uncharacteristically needed to talk. A striking contrast to our first class together when words were too hard for her to summon. “Marcus has gone. They moved to Kansas City.” I told her, “I know it is hard and that you miss him. But I am really happy that he will have a new home and a new school.  I will pray for him.” She looked at me with somber, knowing eyes and nodded. As I was leaving I received big hugs and goodbyes from everyone. In my effort to bring healing to these students, they had taught me so much. They taught me that music is an innate human expression that helps us make sense of the world. They played. They sang. They created beauty.

It seems that when we as humans are stripped of all we possess, our friendships, our sense of place and community, we tap into the core of our existence. Just as important as our need for shelter, clothes, and food, is our need of artistic expression. Music has a way of engaging our ability to create and strengthen us as humans. It is a part of the fabric of who we are.

Music is a part of the fabric of who we are as humans.

After over 30 years of teaching music, I learned something new at the summer music camp: that music is a basic form of human expression and often brings hope to the most marginalized of communities. In these seemingly routine music classes a transformation took place. Students tapped into their own ability to increase their self-esteem. They were in a rite of passage. They created power and enablement from their rhythms, their voices, and their bodies. They needed this music. It was not a trite exercise in mindless busy work. Music making became a survival skill for them. It was their way of participating again in a social and individual way that was positive, creative, and valued. It was their own. They owned little else. They left their homes with nothing and were being transitioned into new lives, perhaps in new cities, with new schools and maybe even new names. It was sung in their little voices that grew stronger each week. It was played in beautiful tones and kind and graceful behavior. They owned it. I was merely a bystander.

The director asked me if I would be able to continue this music camp next summer and of course I said “Yes!”. He then added, “I have your contact information. I won’t let you forget. I will be calling you!”

I won’t forget.


Kathy Scherler

Kathy L. Scherler is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Oklahoma Baptist University and received her Ph.D. at the University of North Texas. Dr. Scherler has presented research at numerous international and national conferences, and remains active as a soprano soloist.