Music Education as Social Justice

I have always been committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in music, especially as it relates to the future of classical music. In a genre where people of color, women, non-gender conforming people, and other minority groups have been almost entirely left out of its history, I feel as though the realms of new music and music education are the two best areas to forge ahead. Obviously, there are those in creating new classical music that are still rooted in the past: those who still subscribe to the music theory created to defend Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and who cannot begin to understand why the pieces of composers who are different from the norm sound different. Why should they be forced to belong sonically to a genre of music that has never accepted them? No white male composer has ever felt “lucky” or as though they were in a moment of positive happenstance to have had their music heard and well received by an audience; the infamously forgotten, equally genius, wives and sisters of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, and surely others, were dismissed as composers and musicians of the same merit as their husbands and brothers.

In this same idea, music education must look ahead to those students and their families who have been historically not given a seat at the table in curriculum building and programming. To only teach and program music by those who have been historically labeled as worthy of teaching or using as instructional tools because of their ethnicity, social status, or gender shows students that only those in the dominant group matter, and their individual voices do not. Not only must we consider the students in our classrooms as we build curriculum, we must also consider those people and groups not present in the classroom, as their absence may be caused by the same structures that make revising curriculum crucial for eliminating disparities. For example, how will students in an upper-middle class, white neighborhood ever understand how to interact with kindness, and respect those music genres that are foreign to their own cultures if they are not approached in the classroom? Students must see themselves and their cultures represented in course material in order to take agency in their learning and understand the perspective in which certain topics are being conveyed (i.e. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms are still worthy of being taught), but we must also use texts that increase students’ empathy and understanding of other cultures of which they do not belong. What better way to highlight women’s’ issues than to listen to the beautiful music of Fanny Mendelssohn and explore as a class why she does not have a place in their music textbook, or to help white students understand their privilege by listening to the pain in the music of composers like Moses Hogan and Nathaniel Dett. 

Music is unique and powerful in that it simultaneously requires no prior knowledge to be created, listened to, or enjoyed, but that its performance is enhanced through understanding context, theory, and meaning; the piece “Ave Maria” by Nathaniel Dett is as equally beautiful whether you know that he wrote it based in a black music tradition or not. That is not to say that these conversations and realizations as music listeners and learners are unnecessary or unmeaningful, but rather choosing to have these kinds of dialogues with our students and their communities is characteristic of true democracy, and requires creativity, variety, openness, and flexibility – the same skills required to successfully understand any piece of music, regardless of composer. Music is the ultimate tool for teaching empathy and social justice because it is so emotive and deeply intimate, without being unapproachable or inaccessible. 

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