Including the Music of Your Students in Your Curriculum
Every child has a song to sing. Is your bias silencing your classroom?
By NAfME Member Johnathan M. Hamiel
Being able to identify and perform songs that are present in your students’ communities means that you, the music teacher, need to familiarize yourself with the cultures of your students. Who are your students’ friends and families? Who are the individuals whom your students admire? What music are these people listening to? The benefits of a culturally diverse music education are greater than we may know. Your classroom can offer your students windows into many worlds and greater enjoyment of their own cultural treasures as well.
“I believe it is my responsibility to retain in the music program every child with whom I come in contact.” —Johnathan M. Hamiel
I do my best to make every musical experience in every classroom an opportunity to expose students to rich and enlightening music with cultural and educational substance. In high school, I played classic band literature; I enjoyed and respected that music, but I wanted more. I was eager to perform music by artists who had a background similar to mine (I am an African American male who was raised in a rural town). Many times, I wanted to study the music with which I was raised—the music my parents, family, and community listened to. Since early in my career, I have noticed that, as music educators, we all have preferences as to the music we most enjoy listening to. Our job as professionals is to notice our preferences and step outside our comfort zones to learn about the diverse musical genres and styles of others’ cultures. In addition, we need to be aware of the fact that every student has a story to tell and a point of view that could help to make our classrooms, meetings, and conferences more inviting and welcoming of all genres of music and all people.
While teaching elementary school, I observed the motivation and excitement that all of the students possessed during music class. Now, as I teach high school, I see those once-excited students not enrolled or even interested in something that used to bring them so much joy. I’m aware that this situation may be the result of the demographics and socioeconomic status of students in different schools, but I cannot help but wonder what happened to all of the passion and joy of my younger students. What experiences did they go through from kindergarten to high school that changed their outlook on music, and how can we help to change it back?
I used to struggle with teaching Irish music in my classroom. It was simply a style of music that did not appeal to me at the time. It wasn’t until a coworker suggested that I use it as an example to help teach students about the 6/8 time signature and simple duple meter by allowing them to hear, see, and practice some of what Irish music offered that I began to appreciate the style. Implementing my colleague’s suggestion helped strengthen my students’ fluidity and musical competency. My classroom became more culturally diverse. Relating duple meter to something as common as marching or walking allowed the students to internalize the beat of music using these meters/time signatures. As I viewed the joy that the students experienced when we performed Irish music, I came to the realization that I was the one who was holding us back! I had to learn to embrace a style of music not in my comfort zone—an art form that was not a preference of mine. Now, anytime I approach a unit of teaching 6/8 time and simple duple meter, I always use Irish music to enhance the lesson.
I believe it is my responsibility to retain in the music program every child with whom I come in contact, and to make every single kid feel as welcome and involved as possible in my classroom. By the way, I’m not referring to the clichéd performances of a spiritual during Black History Month, “Danny Boy” for St. Patrick’s Day, “La cucaracha” during Cinco de Mayo, and Jewish songs at Hanukkah. The question is simply: “Am I really being as authentic and genuine as possible while giving these different cultures the respect and care they deserve?”
The following quote is an excerpt from David J. Elliott’s article “Key Concepts in Multicultural Music Education,” published in the May 1989 International Journal of Music Education. It may give a better understanding of what to look for when addressing multicultural issues and awareness.
As a descriptive term, “multicultural” refers to the coexistence of unlike groups in a common social system (Pratte, 1979, p. 6). In this sense, “multicultural” means “culturally diverse.” But the term “multicultural” is also used in an evaluative sense. It connotes a social ideal: a policy of support for exchange among different groups of people to enrich all while respecting and preserving the integrity of each. Thus a country can be culturally diverse, but it may not uphold the ideals of multiculturalism or pluralism. That is, it may not support equal legal, educational and economic opportunity for all groups. For example, although South Africa is culturally diverse, it is seldom considered a “multicultural” society. Pratte (1979) argues that the designation “multicultural” is only applicable to a society that meets three criteria: (1) cultural diversity, in the form of a number of groups—be they political, racial, ethnic, religious, economic, or age—is exhibited in a society; (2) the coexisting groups approximate equal political, economic and educational opportunity; and (3) there is a behavioral commitment to the values of CP [Cultural Pluralism] as a basis for a viable system of social organization. (p. 141) To earn the designation “multicultural,” then, a society must evidence a shared belief in freedom of association, competing ways of life, and the preservation of differences … (p. 14)
As a music educator, one of the most detrimental things I hear students say is that he or she loves music but hates music class. Have we done these students a disservice by not accepting their music as art forms worthy of study? Rejecting your students’ music, to them, can mean not accepting them, their family history, or the culture and community of which they are a part. I challenge you to reflect on the practices that you use and to ask yourself whether they welcome and include each of your students in all of the demographic areas that your school serves. Are the art forms they cherish authentic to the culture represented? Is there evidence of cultural pluralism and different musical points of view? I challenge you to listen to the ideas and the musics of your students!
About the author:
Johnathan M. Hamiel is the multicultural awareness chair of the North Carolina Music Educators Association, and the director of bands at R. J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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