A Guide to Breaking Cultural Barriers in Today’s Orchestra Classroom

Colorless Teaching:

A Guide to Breaking Cultural Barriers in Today’s Orchestra Classroom

By NAfME Member Taniesha Hines


The orchestra classroom of yesterday has evolved. The days when orchestra programs were only available to the affluent Caucasian and Asian people groups are fading, and the growth of diverse orchestra programs are gaining momentum. It is extremely important that today’s orchestra teachers are evolving as well. There are increasing opportunities for students from various backgrounds and ethnicities to learn a string instrument, and it is the string educator’s job to ensure that enrollment is not hindered based on an inability to be an equitable teacher. Here are a few quick tips to help break down the walls in your classroom.


Know Your WHO

Yes, I know you’re thinking, “I know my students,” but I urge you to dig even deeper. Do you know if they have siblings? How about who lives in their house? Do they have any pets? Do they sing in a choir? Do they like to draw? Do you know what makes them sad? Who is their best friend? Do they have a nickname?


Every student who enters your classroom has been exposed to music. It is our job to figure out how they have been exposed and then use that schema to build upon.


Okay, so here’s how you get that information. You ASK! Children are a lot more forthright than we give them credit for. If you do not feel comfortable asking them, then create a question ball. Grab a big, plastic bouncing ball from your local store and take a permanent marker and write the questions all over the ball. During the first week of school or even a slow moment in a day, toss the ball around the room. Whichever question lands under the left thumb is the question they answer.


classroom games
Photo courtesy of Taniesha Hines


Check for Exposure

Every student who enters your classroom has been exposed to music. It is our job to figure out how they have been exposed and then use that schema to build upon. If your students have mostly been exposed to hip hop music, try using a beat machine instead of a traditional metronome to teach rhythm. You could also find instrumentals of their favorite genre of music and have them rhythmically dictate the melody on staff paper. This strategy helps you use their exposure to music to teach our music essentials in a meaningful way.


string ensemble
Photo courtesy of Taniesha Hines


Be Genuine

“You don’t have to be hip to be let in.” Be willing to take a real interest in your students, but do not feel the need to try to be like them. Fee Fie FAUX Fum, I smell a PHONEY! Students have an alarm system that instantly detects teachers who are not real. Be yourself. Be open. Be willing to laugh at yourself. Be Genuine.


Intentional Sectionals

Sectionals are usually practice time for the different instrument groups. Intentional sectionals are teacher created practice groups that place students together who would not normally work together. Be intentional about mixing races and cultures and watch those walls fall down!


Flip your Lit!

Choose literature that encompasses meaningful connections for every student. Ask each student to submit two pieces that are meaningful to them. Have them do the research through various search engines, submit a written statement explaining their choice and then Flip your Lit!


Pre-Assess then Reflect

Okay, here is where we get REAL! There is a pre-assessment that we all need to take before the start of a new school year. This assessment, if taken seriously, will not only positively affect your teaching, but you as a person. Write these questions down and then journal about the answers:

1. Do I equate socio-economic status with a particular culture or race?
2. Am I motivated by my personal beliefs to be prejudice towards any race or culture?
3. Do I feel uncomfortable when other languages are spoken around me?
4. Do I look down on or feel sorry for a particular culture or race?
5. Is my current circle of people comprised of different races and cultures?

No judgment here! Everyone is a product of their environment, but it is extremely important to reflect on your environment’s impact on your views in order to truly assess whether you are an equitable teacher. Reflect on your answers and then make a concerted effort to renew your thinking!


Employ Unity through Diversity

Be sure to have your classroom be a reflection of the diversity in your classroom. Find ways to not only incorporate different races and cultures on your bulletin boards but incorporate videos, pictures, guest speakers, and even invite successful musicians into the classroom that represent the diversity of your class.


bulletin board
Photo courtesy of Taniesha Hines


Music truly is for all people. As our orchestra classrooms are becoming more diverse, it is imperative that we do all that we can to break down any barriers in our classrooms. Applying these tips will help create a student learning environment that is fun, inclusive, and meaningful.


About the Author:


Taniesha M. Hines is in her sixth year of teaching orchestra at Longleaf Middle School for Richland District Two located in Columbia, South Carolina. Ms. Hines attended the University of South Carolina and received her Bachelor of Arts in Music Education in 2011. She later earned her Masters of Education degree in Divergent Learning at Columbia College in 2013. It was during that time that she discovered her passion for teaching diverse learners. Ms. Hines maintains a private bass studio and enjoys performing in her community. She believes in training young musicians to develop a lifetime appreciation for music and become respectful and productive citizens.


Taniesha M. Hines will be presenting on her topic “Colorless Music Teaching: A Guide to Breaking Cultural Barriers in Today’s Orchestra Classroom” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today! 

music education

Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/NAfME2016. And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!

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