Sow Your Seed in Fertile Ground . . .

HBCUs: The Hidden Gem in Music Education

By Johnathan M. Hamiel, President-Elect of North Carolina Music Educators Association

During the spring semesters, many of our music students prepare for college and scholarship auditions. There is a small amount of scholarship and studio space in collegiate music programs. The college audition process can be a strenuous one filled with high anxiety and stress. While we assist our students in this process, let’s encourage them to open their options to that of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) as well as PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions).

In my personal experience, I feel that HBCUs are the hidden gems in the world of music and education. HBCUs instill many qualities and skills that will equip an aspiring music student with the tools needed to be successful as a music educator. HBCUs foster a sense of pride and confidence in their students, as well as a feeling of self-worth and musical excellence by musicians and professors who share similar backgrounds, experiences, and socioeconomic statuses as the students they serve. Many are familiar with the grossly misconceived notion that HBCU students may not be musically proficient, professional, or have mastered the content knowledge of education and musical pedagogy. In fact, my professors were among the best educators, performers, and professionals in the field of music education and have won numerous awards for excellence in the classroom, on the stage, and in administration.

brass instrument closeup | wavipicture


In North Carolina, when discussing the state of education, smaller class sizes continue to be an important topic, especially during the pandemic. For years, music class sizes at HBCUs, have always been smaller with more individualized attention for students who wanted or needed extra help. In the music world, I understand the need for size and numbers, but I did not lack any instructional or musical experiences by going to an HBCU. As a matter of fact, we got to travel more because we had fewer students, which costs less money for travel. These experiences allowed me to travel abroad multiple times to perform and speak on stages that I never would have dreamed of performing on. We were also exposed to and performed the standard masterwork band literature such as Divertimento, Lincolnshire Posy, and The Holst Suites, staple band pieces that we all should know and that have stood the test of time. Since we were smaller, during the times we did not have the personnel to cover all the parts in certain musical works, our professor created “slash players.” Many music departments at HBCUs develop brilliant and superior performers on secondary instruments or slash players. Slash players are doublers—musicians and performers who can play multiple secondary instruments at a superior level. Our professors were brilliant, professional, and knowledgeable, but more than anything, they were resourceful and optimistic.

“It’s like the saying, we learned to do so much with so little for so long, that we are now able to do anything with nothing.”

In music education, I have seen many educators who have amazing skill when it comes to classical music, many who are exceptionally talented in jazz, and others who are exceptionally superior in musical arrangement and composition. At the small HBCU I attended, we did not have graduate assistants to help teach, fill in the vacant spots during practices and performances, write pieces, rehearse ensembles, or to improvise and participate in the traditional large jazz bands. Students had to be more than just proficient and experienced in classical, jazz, music theory, musical arrangement, and musical composition for the program to flourish. It’s like the saying, we learned to do so much with so little for so long, that we are now able to do anything with nothing.

In educational psychology, psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced a theory of cognitive development and the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development and the scaffolding method.

“The Zone of Proximal Development, often abbreviated as ZPD, is the difference between what a learner can do without help, and what they can’t do; which focused on the role of culture in the development of higher mental functions. Scaffolding, is a method of teaching, designed to offer students structure and support, much like its construction counterpart. . . . It can also involve teaching a child something new by utilizing things that they already know or can already do” (Anita Woolfolk Educational Psychology 11th Edition, Chapter 2).

In a small amount of time—4 years—professors take music students who attend HBCUs to a place of excellence in order to be competitive and knowledgeable in this field. Professors at HBCUs are masters in the art of Vygotsky’s scaffolding. However, because HBCUs are often undervalued in their contributions to music, they do not receive the support of many directors who are in the music field or the recruitment of applicants that allow their PWI cohorts to have a competitive edge. Students attending HBCUs may not have similar opportunities or resources to participate in private lessons, perform on intermediate/professional instruments, or to pay for tuition and miscellaneous fees of larger institutions (respectively). In spite of these limitations, we see graduates from HBCUs go on to become very successful music educators and make tremendous contributions to the field of music education.


As a music educator, band director, and product of an HBCU and a PWI myself, I encourage all music educators to step outside of their comfort zones and begin to use ALL colleges and universities as a resource and tool to reach and motivate every student who comes in contact with us, not just the students who share in our similar taste in music. Regardless of any school a student may choose—HBCU, PWI, private or public—you get out of it what you put into it. In other words, you reap what you sow.

About the author:

Jonathan Hamiel headshotJohnathan M. Hamiel is the North Carolina Music Educators Association President-Elect and the director of bands at R. J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He can be contacted at

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

February 1, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (

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