Social Inequality in Music Education
In my music education program, one that is certainly traditional, I have made observations that have led me down many different paths of reflection and questioning. One such observation occurred when looking at the faces around me in class one day. One element became immediately apparent: nearly all of the students in my graduating class are white and come from middle class economic backgrounds. Upon speaking with them, you also realize quite quickly that everyone comes from very similar towns, schools and music programs. I have also seen the same phenomena at work in some of the local high schools I have observed: the “top” band is nearly 100% white and the “lower” band typically has a majority of students of other racial backgrounds. Clearly, there is something larger at play here. Is it possible that there are outside factors creating or helping to create this lack of diversity? While, surely, I can not sit down and offer every possibility, or a right or a wrong theory, I’d like to simply reflect on some of the structures in place in music education in America in order to theorize about what could possibly be contributing to this and ways that each and every one of us, no matter our role, can help fight against social inequity in our music classrooms.
Picking up a copy of the Tradition of Excellence beginner book, immediately we can see a certain portrayal of values. The cover bears a black and white photograph of an all male wind band with a white conductor’s hand and baton superimposed over the top of it. From the second we hand our students their beginning book for band class, we have already instilled one image of what music is, who does it, and how they do it. From here, this stereotypical view of music and music makers is continued throughout the education of young students.
Our students, in most settings, are continually asked to play a specific type of music in a specific type of style with little regard for what their actual interests and musical backgrounds hold. The values within this type of formalized, academic, “school” music setting are rigid and traditional and often, seem to have no room for adaptation. Oftentimes, we have no interest in what musical background a student has unless it fits nearly perfectly with the one we would like to craft. Typically, this ignorance of musical culture goes so far as to reject a student if he or she does not fit within the model of what a musician is in that particular program. These students must adapt to fit the model or simply, they can not participate in their school’s music education program.
Economic and Social Factors
Besides simply not being interested in “school” music, I believe that one of the main reasons why some students thrive while others almost immediately begin to sink is because of the economic and social factors that come with playing an instrument in a school setting. To even afford to have an instrument and learn in our traditional settings, students must have a certain level of economic ability. However, this is only the beginning. In order for students to continue to pursue music at a high level, they are typically expected to receive private lessons, attend rehearsals before and/or after school, arrange the necessary transportation for these rehearsals, and often, a student who is very successful in their school music program is coupled with a parent, or parents, who are very involved in the school music program, as well. This only begins to add to the complications for success in this limited view of music education.
Perpetuation of Values
Applying the viewpoint of critical theorists such as Giroux and Freire, it becomes apparent that the music education system confirms the values that it teaches through aptitude testing, solo and ensemble contests, auditions, and ultimately, the university music program. In order for a student to achieve by the typical standard, they must accept and master the values of this type of music. The students who experience great success at the high school level will then sometimes continue on to pursue music at the collegiate level.
As a result of an almost identical duplication of musical values at the university level, the student then experiences a system where the people who are educated to become music educators themselves, are from this traditional model of school music and have achieved success by these specific standards in their own schooling. Do our nation’s music education programs attract rappers, producers, rock guitarists, or other students who fell outside of school music norms themselves? Are future music educators encouraged to think and question the programs they experienced as budding musicians? Without different musical perspectives and philosophies, the music education model currently in place goes on unquestioned and naturally, unchanged.
My goal is not to simply criticize the traditional school music system, nor to offer an alternative that involves eliminating the standard of music education in most schools and universities. Instead, I am suggesting the addition of types of music and instruments to the curriculum and overall musical culture in American schools. There are many schools and programs nationwide that have embraced this type of music teaching and I hold them up as the new standard of what we could be achieving with our students. By accepting a more diverse population of musicians and styles of performance and practice, we open the doors to thousands of students who are being turned away from musical study in schools. We should never be asking our students to adapt to our preconceived notions of music and musicians or telling them that they can’t participate. Instead, we should constantly be asking ourselves if we should be the ones adapting and offering new, more inclusive gateways to music for our students.
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