Diversity in music education
Tau Wey, Head of Keyboard Music at Sevenoaks School reflects on changes being made to music education and curriculum that gives voice to our diversity and difference.
A relevant musical agenda
According to UNESCO,
‘three quarters of the world’s major conflicts have a cultural dimension’.
As globalisation and interconnectedness have become a reality, arts and humanities are critically placed to either endorse prejudices, or, by promoting cultural diversity, to, ‘reduce inequalities and build more inclusive societies’. Diversity is now one of the top agendas for educators and studies have shown that promoting diversity has a positive effect on innovation. If we merely engage with people and ideas of our own tribe, we become ‘prisoners of our paradigms’ (Syed, 2021, p. 12). The outsider mindset helps us question status quos and envision new possibilities. This is crucial when dealing with complex problems like social inequality or international treaties. If, for example, women are marginalised or excluded from full participation in society, then the diverse perspectives, information and discoveries of the collective brain [are] serially diminished’ (Syed, 2021, p. 156).
How is diversity reflected in music education?
Within academia, music has in many ways been likened to maths – implying its ‘truth’ is independent of the society which gave rise to it. Working on this assumption, music educators have proselytised students with the Western canon and its rules. Although this is changing, the old ways of thinking are still present. If Mahler’s symphonies are universal in their meaning, then they are good enough to be imposed on all of humanity.
Recent debate has sought to dispute this, with Bloechl et al arguing that ‘the most prominent work on difference in the past fifty years has proceeded from a politicised awareness of injustice carried out in the name of sameness and universalism’ (2015, p. 5). Our social discourse and cultural engagement must respect the diversity of the world in which we live and ‘understand[s] different things, people, and ideas, in terms that are closer to the way in which they perceive themselves’ (2015, p. 7).
An obvious problem in music education is the apparent ‘scarcity’ of female composers. To overlook women’s contribution to music history helps to sustain the gender system itself. On the other hand, engaging with their work, and the same is true for other marginalised repertories, is to accord them, in Bloechl et al’s terminology, ‘recognition, redistribution and representation’ (2015, p. 7).
Florence Price – Fantasie Negre (1929)
The importance of world music
Changes are afoot, too, in curriculum music, which now gives greater prominence to world music as well as vernacular styles of Western music. Just as important is how the subject matter is studied. Hitherto, it would have been customary to study the lone genius of Western culture such as Beethoven. This contrasts with studying ‘world music’ which is rooted in the functions and rituals of the tribe and created by communities, such as Indonesian gamelan music. A focus on ‘the Western genius’ can unwittingly contribute to the perceptions that Western music is higher up in the musical hierarchy. Seeking equality in the way different areas of music are studied will improve teaching. Students can both explore eighteenth-century Viennese music ethnographically, and also uncover important musical personalities in the history of gamelan.
Culturally responsive curriculum
A culturally responsive music curriculum needs to include diversity across social and ethnic strata, too. Hein’s polemic argues that ‘the Eurocentrism of school music sends a clear message about whose cultural expression we value’. It is a point of contention whether the educator should decide what music is learnt and therefore valued, or whether the curriculum should respond to the lived experience of young people and the music they engage with on a day-to-day basis.
It should really be a balance of both, and ultimately diversity and inclusion is vital. Whilst respecting diversity, educators must also be willing to decentre music styles to which they might have previously given a privileged position. Hein’s blog issues the directive that ‘music educators can support the growth of culturally flexible students who possess multiple cultural competencies and are able to relate to people different from themselves’.
Just another fad?
Is the current obsession with equality, diversity and inclusiveness just a fad? Far from it. The last five hundred years of history have witnessed a gradual progression towards greater liberty of the individual. Watershed moments such as the Reformation, Enlightenment and French Revolution are gradually reifying aspirations of equal rights. Grayling (2007, p. 3) lists the abolition of slavery, the rights of working people, and the enfranchisement of women as some of the fruits of the struggle for liberty. One of the frontiers now is the inclusion in society of transgender people and their experiences.
Music, and by extension the expressive arts, as a site of social and political contestation can benefit from as well as contribute to the progress of individual liberty.
As a medium that expresses both the communal and personal, it is ideally equipped, if we only allow it, to give voice to all our diversity and difference.
Tau Wey, Head of Keyboard, Sevenoaks School
Tau studied Music at Cambridge, Trinity Laban and Mannes College and has been Head of Keyboard at Sevenoaks since 2008. He incorporates the methods of Feldenkrais and Dalcroze in his piano teaching and recently performed John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes alongside four students.
To view go to: https://vimeo.com/468101629
The full article can be read in the fourth edition of Sevenoaks School’s academic journal Innovate
References: Diversity in expressive arts education
UNESCO, Promoting music diversity during the world day for cultural diversity (2021)
(https://www.un.org/en/observances/cultural-diversity-day accessed 4 July 2022)
Syed, M (2021) Rebel Ideas, The power of thinking differently. London: John Murray
Bloechl et al (2015) Rethinking difference in music scholarship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hein, E (2018) Teaching whiteness in music class (http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2018/teaching-whiteness-in-music-class/, accessed 4 July).
Grayling. A.C. (2007) Towards the Light: The story of the struggles for liberty and rights that made the modern west. London: Bloomsbury.