Four Practical and Helpful Ways to Diversify Choral Music
Many of today’s choral music educators are packing up our outdated libraries and making changes for the better, searching for repertoire that properly reflects our students, our communities, and our world. Though some choral music education programs choose to not focus on internationally-diverse repertoire, I firmly believe that a diverse program of music is absolutely essential to the livelihood of today’s choral program.
As teachers, we want everything we teach to connect to students, and singing is an extremely accessible avenue for cultural exposure. We can sing the songs of all types of cultures and only need a room full of voices to do it – no special equipment required! This is a great way to approach introducing and exploring different cultures to your students. You may be wondering, though: how do we start the process of ensuring our choral programs and repertoire are diverse?
Before we assess our repertoire, let us first define what diversity is. For the purpose of this article, diversity is considered to be any type of music outside of classical, Western-European styles. Let us now explore four main points that further aid and drive us in our quest to create diversity in our choral programs.
Abandon the idea of diversity being the same as world music.
The term ‘diversity’ among many choral music educators carries a connotation of music from foreign countries. World music styles do make up part of a diverse repertoire, but we do not have to look outside our borders to find diversification. Consider the genre of jazz and the variations within that one style as we see it in Chicago, New Orleans, and St. Louis. How about women in jazz? How many of us teach and perform songs that represent Native American communities? Diversity in choral music does not have to mean music from a faraway land. There is diversity all around us right where we are!
Being diverse does not mean the removal of classical styles. Instead, it is the seamless inclusion of all styles.
Thinking back on my days as an undergraduate, I remember my choral literature class where we studied what I like to call The European Choral Lit Hit List. But, what about more modern choral samples? I sometimes refer to my students as the “Glee Generation”. This does not mean that I exclude classical choral repertoire, but it does mean that I cannot deny the culture of my own students. Students should be able to see themselves in our programs. As long as the music has an educational purpose and meets our standards for rigor and excellence, why exclude it from the performance repertoire? Through the singing and studying of a variety of music from varied sources, students can learn more about their own sense of musicality and cultural awareness. Students can also better understand the concept of culture and of music as a cultural component if steps are taken to utilize diversifies music.
There is a difference between performing a song that sounds authentic and a song that actually is authentic.
Diversity in choral music education is best appreciated when the repertoire is genuine. Students respond to authentic learning in all content areas, and within choral music education, that authenticity applies to our repertoire selection. A song with known roots to a specific African or Latin American country is going to produce an authentic response when compared to a song that only imitates the perceived sounds of the country instead. It is always beneficial to research the background and context of the music we select.
I have found the internet tremendously useful for this, but oftentimes my students and their families are my greatest resource. We performed a lovely song from Mexico one year for a spring program. One of my students, a soprano originally from Mexico, took a sudden interest in the song and mentioned, under her breath, that the English text at the bottom was not a translation of the Spanish at the top. I encouraged her to not only properly translate the text, but to also help teach the class the proper Spanish diction. Singing a song from her native country allowed her to become a leader and the class expert on that piece. Before this experience, she had been uninvolved in the class. However, after this experience, there was a noticeable increase in her overall engagement and interest. She later confided in me that she loved to sing at home, but was never interested in singing at school because she felt that the music she enjoyed at home was treated like a novelty item and not accepted as ‘real music.’ Now, she has a connection to the class and curriculum because she was invited to be a part of the learning process.
If an in-school resource is not available, music publishers such as EarthSongsChoralMusic.com and WorldMusicPress.com focus on authentic multicultural choral literature and often offer diction practice tracks and other valuable resources. Consider reaching out to local cultural centers and international organizations. Volunteers are often very willing to help with translations, create diction tracks, and educate us and our students on the context of the music we share. It is a beautiful experience for our students and the community.
Approach diverse music as inclusive concept, instead of the exclusive ‘our’ music and ‘their’ music.
We strive to unify our ensembles through the inclusion of a variety of musical styles and concepts, but our approach cannot be ‘ours vs. theirs’ which can inadvertently come across as ‘right vs. wrong.’ It is all music and a diverse repertoire showcases our uniqueness without promoting one to be better, worse, right, or wrong. I once read an article that proposed introducing music alongside the various awareness months, such as spirituals in Black History Month and Spanish-language tunes during Hispanic Heritage Month, but this approach is still exclusive because spirituals have musical value outside of Black History Month. Cultures intermingle in the world while maintaining their identities, just as musical diversity should be in our choral classrooms. Our students should see variety in the full curriculum, not singled out as being relevant for a month or two.
Addressing these four points may take some time, but it is so rewarding. There are large amounts of music waiting and ready to be explored if we set aside the time to think globally as we function in our local capacities. We can show our students and communities that all are welcome to take part in the musical art form of choral music. The choral music classroom is a safe place to sing, share, and connect as part of a cultural exchange that we, as choral directors, help facilitate. We cannot always take our students to see the world, but we can bring more of the world to them through the music we share.
Goodkin, D. (1994). Diverse approaches to multicultural music. Music Educators Journal, 81(1), 39-43.
Miralis, Y. (2006). Clarifying the terms ‘multicultural,’ ‘multiethnic,’ and ‘world music education’ through a review of literature. Application of Research in Music Education, 24(2), 54-66.
Shaw, J. (2012). The skin that we sing: Culturally responsive choral music education. Music Educators Journal, 98(4), 75-81.
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