I’m the Guitar Program Director for a public high school. One of the things I love most about it is seeing so many kids of color sign up for my class. They bring a rich diversity of cultural experience to the music classroom that I wasn’t privileged to enjoy in high school.
For some, it may be the first instrument they’ve ever learned to play. The commitments required for participating in traditional ensemble classes may have proven to be a hurdle for students who lack certain luxuries – personal practice space (they have an hour with me every day in school), instrument rental fees (this is highly negotiable with me), and transportation back to school for evening performances. And while this is not the case for students of color as a whole, we all know who are being least served in our economy, and how it affects opportunity.
There’s a lot of talk currently among music teachers about the colonization of Western values in the music classroom. Some colleagues are circulating a video about the perceived systemic racism behind music theory, or at least how music theory is defined by 18th century Western European culture and an approved master list of composers and repertoire.
I understand the earnestness behind it. But music education offers rich opportunities for honest discussion about topics like colonization and appropriation. Broad indictments like this fit the times, but sometimes miss the greater point. In short, I believe that teaching Western music theory isn’t evidence of racism or white supremacism.
Unless it’s all you teach.
I include music theory in my curriculum, and tell my students that ‘standard’ notation is certainly not the only (or even the best) way to learn how to make and play music. It’s simply become the more widely used language – not only across cultures, but across many instrument families as well. If you know how to read ‘standard’ notation for guitar, you will be better equipped to read music written for the piano, the violin, the clarinet, the xylophone… Gaining an understanding of it makes it a useful language. It becomes cultural capital.
Even guitar tablature is written so that you need to read left to right in the European tradition, whereas the Arabic culture reads right to left, and Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing vertically, in columns top to bottom and ordered right to left.
We may question the idea of ‘standard notation.’ But more broadly, Minnesota also has standards for music education. Based on whose cultural values? Is creativity really a universal cultural value? Personal expression? Finding your voice? Some traditions assign a higher value to community through the preservation of ritual, or respect for the world and their natural environment.
Let’s be honest. We all want to be culturally sensitive. But we can tie ourselves into knots on this issue. I also teach beginning piano classes. White keys dominate blacks. White notes have more ‘value’ than black notes, etc. etc.
Does it all have subliminal meaning? Or does the honesty and respect we convey to our students communicate a greater message.
We can do this in how we provide context for a lesson in notation.
A short introductory lesson on the diversity of notation systems across countries, centuries, and styles provides opportunity for cultural appreciation, with connections to visual art classes.
If your students think Western music notation is uniquely abstract. Consider this example of Japanese cursive notation.
Or the mind-blowing musical maps of Tibetan culture.
Consider asking a visual arts colleague and some of their more able students to contribute to the teaching of the lesson of notation as an ‘art form’. The more voices heard, the better.
Western notation now becomes just another point on the spectrum, but one that provides a place to begin learning the language of sound.
Don’t apologize for it.
And don’t presume your Black students will find reason to be offended.
Nina Simone and Miles Davis both applied to the elite music conservatory, Juilliard, because they wanted the kind of education it offered. Juilliard was founded by the godson of Franz Liszt, and modeled after European conservatories. So Davis and Simone knew what they were signing up for. When his friends asked him why he bothered with this kind of music education as a rising star in jazz, Miles said he wanted to know ‘all of it.’
Black singers like Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, and Denyce Graves have made a life in the world of Western opera. Norman was taken by the universality of its themes and the grandeur of the music.
And then there’s the vast number of Asian women (likeYuja Wang, Mitsuko Ochida, and Zhu Xiao-Mei), who have devoted their musical life to the musical repertoire of Western European male composers.
Thomas Turino, in his book “Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation,” talks at length about cultural cohorts (“a cultural/ identity unit based on a restricted number of shared habits and parts of the self”). It explains how people of different geographic and ethnic backgrounds can be drawn to other musical cultures based on some other ‘part of the self.’
It’s why Kings Return a Gospel/R&B/Jazz acapella group find beauty in an 8th-century antiphon and its Latin text.
Brits Jagger and Richards immersed themselves in the music of Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and the like, while Ray Charles and Solomon Burke were recording country music. Lennon and McCartney cut their teeth on covers of Little Richard, the Miracles, and Chuck Berry. Later, Harrison would develop a kinship with Shankar.
And my early mentor (talk about distance learning!), Bay area musician John Fogerty, found his cultural cohort in the Mississippi Delta and Muddy Waters.
Some years ago, I asked my students in the last weeks of school to choose a song they wanted to learn how to play. One of the Black girls shyly confided that she’d like to learn Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” crossing both a cultural and generational divide.
Cultural cohorts, affinities, kinships… you just never know what students are fine-tuned to resonate with.
So let’s not rush to paint Western European musical history in broad strokes as the devil in disguise. Let’s just put it in perspective and not presume what our students might be drawn to. Let’s teach all of it. The basso continuo with the be-bop. The funk with the sonata allegro. The Liszt and the Lizzo.
Finally, anyone quick to dismiss traditional music education as white culture colonization needs to step back and notice the forest for the trees. Virtually all school textbooks (no matter the subject) are in English.
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