Picture this scenario: a black student sits in his kindergarten music class in rural southern Virginia. His white music teacher starts her lesson on finding the steady beat. The student plays along because it’s the right thing to do. He pats his legs on every beat as his teacher does, but knows that she is doing it wrong, that she doesn’t really know how to feel the beat. When our young black musician goes to church with his mother, the people there pat their legs or clap their hands in a different pattern. Still, the student goes along with his music teacher whom he is convinced just isn’t good at keeping the beat.
Now let’s follow our music student to middle school choir. The choir is singing “The Storm Is Passing Over” and the middle school choir teacher, a different white female, plays the piano part in a way that makes the student cringe a little. “If I were playing this, I would use a different chord here and use that fill there.” Still, the student sings proudly; at least they’re singing music that sounds familiar, even if the choir teacher’s piano playing isn’t quite the style he’s used to. One day after class, the teacher asks him if he’d like to play the piano in the concert. He is thrilled not because it seems like a cool opportunity to be in the spotlight, but because he knows the style and is excited to use his knowledge of the style to make the song sound better. (Okay, he’s in middle school; of course he enjoys a little attention!) Oh, and the choir claps on 2 and 4.
You guessed it: the youngster in the stories above is me, the author. I have a special appreciation for culturally relevant music education, because it changed my experience of school music and helped me believe that music education was actually a career choice for me. Growing up, there was nothing I loved more than music, any and all music. (I wasn’t too keen on Country, but I was also not completely opposed to hearing it. It’s a good thing I wasn’t completely opposed to it, because in 4th grade we performed a review called “Red Hot Country” at a PTA meeting. I still kind of like “Achy Breaky Heart.”) Even given this great passion for music and for sharing music, it wasn’t until middle school in Ms. Ray’s choir that I really felt that music could be an option for me as a profession.
Smart black boys were supposed to aspire to become doctors, and I was sure that’s what I wanted to do. I knew of a couple black doctors in the area where I grew up and it seemed like bodies were bodies and doctors just did their best to treat the bodies in front of them. From my experiences in school music, it seemed that music (and who did music) was much more complicated and segregated. For my middle school choir teacher to recognize and respect my musical background was a big deal. She was crossing boundaries that I didn’t know could be crossed. Until then, school music was oceans away from any other music I heard in my life (and despite the numerous references to church music, I did hear musics other than Black gospel). Ms. Ray was (and still is) the queen of finding out what skills her students entered her classroom with and, once we learned that we could trust her, she helped us discover new skills we didn’t even know we had.
So now you’re thinking, “You had a teacher in elementary school whom you don’t remember as particularly inspiring because she didn’t clap on 2 and 4. Then you got to middle school and had a really great teacher who brought out the best in her students. Yes, and…? Isn’t that just good teaching?” Well, first I should set the record straight on my elementary music teacher. I really loved her; I was just convinced that she couldn’t keep a decent beat and was therefore amazed and encouraged by her being able to be a music teacher. Hey, everyone struggles with something, right? And my middle school choral experience really gets at the heart of culturally relevant music teaching and learning, which is indeed “just good teaching.”
We can and must be more specific about this “good teaching” to allow us the possibility of transforming our good intentions into practice in the classroom. In Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, Geneva Gay (2010, p. 31) offers a definition:
"... Using the cultural knowledge, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant and effective for them. It teaches to and through the strengths of these students."
Additionally, she highlights six characteristics of culturally responsive teaching. We can use these as a checklist in our planning, our repertoire selection, our rehearsal, and even our performances. Is our teaching validating, comprehensive, multidimensional, empowering, transformative, emancipatory? Can we answer this question affirmatively for all of our students? What steps can we take tomorrow morning to move our teaching and learning in this direction? Do we need to make changes to our curricula to be certain that all of our students are benefiting from our teaching and thriving in our classrooms? What gaps exist in our own education that may prevent us from diving into this work? How do we address these gaps?
Culturally relevant music education is recognizing that musicing happens in our students’ lives in so many places other than our classrooms and that those experiences have taught them skills that, when we choose to acknowledge and utilize them, can help them trust us and help us teach them. This is a beautiful and slippery slope, though. It would be easy to say we’re looking to use what students know to teach them what they don’t know. While this may be a benefit to teaching in a culturally relevant way, it is not the end goal. One culture practice does not exist for the purpose of another cultural practice. So, we have to be certain that we’re recognizing and respecting our students’ cultures and the cultures represented in the repertoire we program as their own entities, not just the way we can reach students. For example, it’s great that teachers use the rhymes and rhythms of hip-hop to help children remember everything for math facts to states and capitals, but that won’t cut it in music class. Hip-hop is its own cultural form and if it’s good enough to use as a vehicle, it’s good enough to learn as content in its own right.
The MMEA Conference session I participated in March explored the why of culturally relevant choral classroom and whom it affects and how. We looked at some repertoire and think about presenting it, rehearsing it, and performing it through the lens of cultural context and with the goal of moving (or continuing to move) our pedagogy towards cultural responsiveness, relevance, and affirmation. This means questioning the labels “standard” and “traditional.” This means opening our eyes to different rehearsal techniques. This means committing to context. This means allowing a connection between school music and what one of my students once referred to as “real music.”
In choral music, we have a unique cultural responsibility to our students, the repertoire, and the audience because we present our product using a media that almost all cultures use in an artistically expressive manner: the human body (not just the voice) and language. We can take on this responsibility no matter where we teach and no matter the race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status of our students.
Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: theory, research, practice. (2nd ed.). New York: Teacher’s College.