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Seeking Social & Cultural Relevance: Music Education's Missing Link
For many, traditional music education summons memories of noisy band and orchestra rooms, antiquated choir chorales and, of course, learning to play the recorder. And while these staples can help build a strong foundation, connecting with today's music students in a meaningful way requires something more…
In a recent essay, GRAMMY Music Education Coalition executive director Lee Whitmore details his traditional music education prepared—and didn't prepare—him for success in the classroom. What was missing? Cultural and social relevance were missing, according to Whitmore.
"Being culturally responsive means teaching music where kids are, and with what interests them," he writes. "It means using songs by Bebe Rexha or Wiz Khalifa before an American folk song. It means teaching kids to play a synthesizer, electric guitar or drum kit, not just a violin or recorder."
— GRAMMY Music Education Coalition (@GRAMMYMusicEd) July 21, 2019
Techniques like these ignite interest and effort in students, and Whitmore doesn't stop there. He outlines how relevant music programming can and should go beyond the rote textbook-to-recital progression and be truly creative and original.
"Being culturally responsive means having students write and record the music they practice, not just playing it onstage at a holiday or end-of-year concert," he writes.
Connecting with students means meeting them where they are regardless of where they come from. For example, Whitmore relates the experience of visiting schools in the Metro Nashville Public School District. At one such school, John Overton High School, "students represent more than 100 countries and 50 languages in its approximately 2,000 students." These impressive numbers create incredible opportunity for culturally responsive school music programming. Whitmore lauded their efforts, writing, "The district’s approach in this high school and its feeder middle schools is impressive and “culturally responsive.” Of the many musical options at Overton—which include band, orchestra and choir—entering students who don’t speak English have the option to take a world percussion class."
Other schools in the Metro Nashville Public School District offer Mariachi ensemble, modern band—with guitars, drums, basses, microphones and songwriting—and many other nontraditional music classes, according to Whitmore.
Whitmore's aim is not to disregard the value of traditional music education, nor to wax progressive about pop-culture classroom gimmicks, but rather to enrich and support music education with materials that speak to the individual students.
"To be clear, I’m not just sharing an opinion about relevant music education here," he writes. "My narrative makes a case for much more. While my traditional pre-service music education was outstanding, it didn’t completely prepare me to be successful with our most important constituent in the public education system: individual students, regardless of their background or path to a particular community or school."
— GRAMMY Music Education Coalition (@GRAMMYMusicEd) May 5, 2019
In an increasingly data-driven world, especially in the field of education, it's easy for the creative and expressive power of music and the students it reaches to get lost in the margins. But Whitmore makes two seemingly opposite yet complimentary and game-changing points: the research backs up the benefits of quality music education with hard numbers. And yet, the most important constituent in the public education system is, in fact, the individual student. Regardless of where these individual students come from, it should be the mission of the over 100,000 music educators employed by U.S. schools to "offer a combination of the basics with contemporary and culturally responsive approaches to music that draw in and engage all students."