Getting Schooled in South Central
I like to start each semester with a bang, and this past spring was no different. I was teaching a Music Appreciation course at a community college in South Central, Los Angeles. On the first day of class, in an effort to get my students excited about the semester to come, I had them listen to everything from opera to hip-hop, while sprinkling in thought-provoking questions to get every student involved. My goal was to show my students that I understand where they are coming from, to make it clear that in my classroom, all music is valid. Over the course of the semester, I tell them, we will approach Bach, Coltrane, Metallica and Bruno Mars with equal and genuine curiosity. Music is music.
At one point during class, I asked my students how they could compare the music of Beethoven (a popular icon in the 19th century) to Lady Gaga (a popular icon in the 21st century). A few students blurted out, “Lady who?” I looked around at the puzzled looks. “You know, Lady Gaga!” Nothing. Okay, I thought to myself, maybe she’s fallen off the charts. I tried again. “How would you compare Beethoven to Cee Lo Green?” Again, nothing. “Miss A,” said one student, “we don’t listen to that stuff.” Although I hadn’t taught at this particular school before, I’ve taught plenty of 17- to 20-year-old students and I know exactly what to expect. Radio and TV play a large role in shaping their musical interests. “If it isn’t Top 40, it doesn’t exist,” I thought to myself. I wrote off this first day’s discussion to misunderstandings and looked forward to the rest of the course.
Throughout the semester, I have my students share their favorite music with the rest of the class through an activity I call the “iPod Presentation.” Each student gives a seven-minute long presentation on a piece of their choosing. During their presentation, students must walk us through the piece’s basic musical characteristics (form, tempo, dynamics, instrumentation), lyrical content, and social significance. They are also encouraged to offer their own critique. As for the piece they choose, I impose no limits. Any genre. Any artist. Any language. These iPod presentations are a chance for my students to relate what we talk about in class to the music that they care about. Additionally, these presentations usually serve as the impetus for class discussions on topics such as sampling, Auto-Tune, electronic instruments, the music business, and social issues.
On the first day of presentations a student handed me her iPod and instructed me to press play. Drawing on my experience from past semesters, I was expecting to hear something from the Top 40 (more likely, the Top Ten) with Auto-Tune, thumping bass, and programmed drums. Yet the music that came blasting out of my speakers didn’t include any of these elements. I was shocked to hear the sounds of an accordion – playing a waltz!
The student began to speak over the music. “The music I selected is an example of a genre called banda.”
Me: “What did you call it?”
Me: “How do you say that in English?”
Me: “Wow, I’ve never heard of that.”
Random student in back of class: “Miss A! You’re the teacher! Don’t you know about banda?!”
Nope. I’d just finished my 24th year of school. I was a proud new owner of a shiny doctorate in music. I knew the sonata form inside and out, the chord changes to Giant Steps, and the history of Gregorian Chant. Yet not once had I been introduced to banda.
My students in South Central are mostly first generation Americans, their parents having emigrated from Central American countries including Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. Almost all of these students speak Spanish at home, and most are the first in their families to attend college. In many ways, they have adopted the American culture. They wear Vans shoes, root for the Dodgers and watch Family Guy. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, music is one of the few elements from their parents’ culture with which they choose to identify.
By giving my students a voice through the iPod Presentations, I got schooled. I quickly learned about banda, a brass-based music from Northern Mexico. The name “banda” is actually an umbrella term that includes the sub-genres of bolero, cumbia, ranchero and corridos. One of the most well-known banda groups, Sones de Mexico, often uses its music to address the Mexican struggle with immigration and their torn feelings about leaving their homeland. Their 2007 hit, “Esta Tierra es Tuya,” borrows the tune from Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
My students were also eager to teach me about a style called narcocorridos. When I first heard a song from the narcocorridos genre, I was fooled by the catchy and danceable rhythm, figuring that it must be a light-hearted love song. In actuality, the narcocorridos are “drug ballads” that tell the ongoing and ever-present violent story of the drug wars in Mexico. They describe shootouts, murders, and drug-smuggling. Sadly, many narcocorridos musicians have been murdered for exposing drug lords or cartel secrets.
Mis Tres Animales by Los Tucanes di Tijuana. The “three animals” referenced
in the title refer to three different types of narcotics.
By the end of the semester, I realized that the classroom environment I had cultivated with my students was exactly the kind of classroom I should always aim to have. Instead of the dictatorship (I talk, you regurgitate), we established a dialogue, in which each student’s voice was important. I shared my expertise, and they shared theirs. Music became the perfect vehicle to explore, understand and celebrate both our differences and similarities. I started one class off by playing some German polka music. When the voices started singing in German, the class broke into hysterics. “Ms. A” one student declared, “They stole our music!” Instead of giving my students a lecture on the German arrival in Texas in the early 1800s, I took a new approach. We worked together to compare and contrast the two styles. We searched Google, watched numerous YouTube videos, and weeded through journal articles.
By allowing myself to be open to their experiences, my students were able to take control of their own learning experience.By operating my classroom in this way, my carefully constructed lesson plans went down the tubes. Seven minute presentations became seventy. In fact, at the end of the semester, we had only completed half of the material on my syllabus. This, I determined, was a good thing. My classroom was vibrant and my students were energized beyond what I could have imagined. Moreover, by revealing my own ignorance and willingness to learn form them, my students began to understand that school was more than the memorization of seemingly irrelevant facts and statistics.
Throughout my 24 years in school, I had some great teachers. Teachers with endless awards, distinctions and honors. Professors with doctorates and post doctorates. Advisors with so many letters after their name that they can’t remember them all. Yet, I can easily say that this group of forty teenagers from South Central Los Angeles became – hands down – the best teachers I’d ever had. I can’t wait for fall semester.
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