As arrogant as it sounds, I wanted my music curriculum to look pretty different from what I’d spent four years learning that it should look like. I wanted it to be much more holistic and grounded in the big picture of local and world cultures. I wanted to integrate history, dance, language, food, sociology, and more into my classroom to contextualize each piece of music and help my students become more informed, compassionate world citizens. I wanted to use more authentic music within cultural context to meaningfully represent and empower all groups of students. I wanted to steer away from tokenization for the sake of being able to check off the “diversity” box on a rubric, and from an approach in which the product (concerts) completely overwhelms the process.
Truthfully, it bothered me a lot that so much classroom music came from or was painted over by super-privileged origins. The standard canon of classroom music for all ages is overwhelmingly rooted in class privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, Christian privilege, male privilege, and most of all, white privilege. “Multiculturalism” is something that’s talked about a lot but only practiced on a superficial level. For example, to include a “Native American” song, standard music curricula will use a song written by a white person using Native American stereotypes to give the impression of coming from those roots. Every concert would include the token South African song or black gospel piece, but the arrangement would usually be whiter than mayonnaise and the teaching and performance would be so far removed from any meaningful socio-cultural context. Though I’m Jewish, it really bothered me that music from Muslim and Arab spaces was straight-up never represented. And on a personal level, my own people’s music was whitewashed and tokenized so heavily that performing and teaching it felt like a disgrace.
I still fully intended to include vocal technique, sight-reading and some concerts, and I didn’t by any means want to ignore Debussy or Mozart or any other white, dead, brilliant man whose music we call “classical.” But I didn’t want to continue the legacy of teaching students that this kind of music was superior to other kinds. I wanted to more broadly use music to help kids learn more about themselves and the world around them. I wanted to prioritize the representation and empowerment of all my students rather than just the rich, white, cisgender ones from Christian backgrounds. I was really excited about this vision. Until I realized that no principal would ever let me enact it.
I realized that principals and school districts were very interested in continuing to implement the status quo when it comes to music education. At times when art budgets are being slashed, no one wants to entertain alternative curriculum models that come off as experimental or controversial. They want to be able to show parents the sparkly “Holiday Concert” (AKA Christmas Concert with maybe one token Hanukkah song);they don’t necessarily want to walk into a classroom discussion about why hip hop as a genre has artistic and cultural value.Click To Tweet
This sort of rigid standardization and strict, conservative conformity is, surprisingly, very characteristic of the field of American music education on the whole. While the classrooms and curricula of two different chemistry teachers in two different parts of the country could look completely different – even amidst the forced standardization of American public education – music teachers are pressured to have their teaching fit into much more anal-retentive molds. Why? Because that’s just how it’s always been done, and that’s what’s deemed as “right.” Most songs with outright racist language have been removed from standard canon and now there’s more focus on inclusion of students with disabilities, but overall the field is not particularly interested in evolution. It makes sense: in conservatory settings, the intention is to conserve.
At times when art budgets are being slashed, no one wants to entertain alternative curriculum models that come off as experimental or controversial.
Naturally, I got into huge amounts of trouble when I asked questions about why things were done the way they were. At the time, I wasn’t yet critical of any of these issues, and I wasn’t trying to challenge anyone’s authority; I was just the typical Jewish girl with a million questions who wanted to learn and understand. Critical thinking is part of my culture and part of who I am. Even though I worked my ass off and really just wanted to show up and learn and do my best every day, roughly half of the music education faculty hated me because I did too much independent thinking and too little fitting into the masturbatory mini-me molds they had set for all their students. Some of the faculty members did some seriously inappropriate things in regards to me, and also tried to block me from student teaching (they failed – hah.) At first, I thought this was just drama with these individual professors, but these individuals were leaders in the field, and their actions and attitudes were representative of music education as a whole. I would have spent my entire career being told by people like them to shut up, stop asking questions and do things their way. By the time I finished my degree, I was already burned out by all of that.