Culturally Responsive Music Education: Are We There Yet?

Culturally Responsive Music Education is a term that has been coined to describe the desirable approach to teaching music that accounts for the personal contexts of students and their teacher, and the effects of the interactions of those contexts between students and teacher. These contexts are filled out by factors of age, gender, cultural values, cultural identity, culture learning style, musical experiences, musical preferences and beliefs and expectations. These factors ideally inform the content, instruction and classroom environment for the purpose of making instruction more meaningful and effective (Butler et al., 2007).

While there are numerous aspects of teaching that contribute to the cultural responsiveness of music instruction, I would like to discuss three of them. These are knowledge of community, including student relationships and family relationships, student perspectives, and high expectations. 

The starting point is community. The people who populate every school building, and the families to which they belong, are a community, and that community resides within a larger geographic community that is a school district or municipality. Frequently, as was my experience, a teacher lives or has been brought up in a different community than the one in which they teach. In my case, I grew up in a rural New England town, was steeped in Eurocentric music traditions through playing in the school band and even more through attending a music conservatory for my undergraduate studies. Then I went on to spend most of my career teaching in an urban, inner-city environment; one that was very different from the one from which I came. 

Back then, the prevailing strategy was to start with music the students are listening two, and use that as a starting point to ease them into classical music. The inherent value being taught was that classical music is better than whatever the students were listening to, so they needed to listen to the higher quality music. This philosophy was adversarial in nature, because it devalued the students cultural context and attempted to replace it with a purportedly superior “outsider” one. 

While it seems clear that this approach is objectionable for several reasons, it is perhaps less clear that vestiges of it at times remain today. It is still easy for music educators to construct curriculums, methods, and materials that, while they may contain certain elements of cultural responsiveness, are not truly so. For example, a music teacher may teach a class an African folksong believing they are being culturally responsive to their African American students. And to a limited extent, they may be. But if that song is taught from a transcription into traditional music notation, and is sung by students sitting in chairs, then it is not really all that culturally responsive after all. The song, taught authentically according to the cultural norms from which it comes, would be taught orally, and would likely include dancing, moving, clapping, drumming, and/or call and response. Students that have encountered similar music outside of school likely encountered it this way, not through music notation and physical stillness. The point here is that cultural responsiveness is not only being concerned with what is taught (material), but how it is taught (method). 

Then there is the matter of the students’ perspective. While their culture may be African American, they do not live in Africa, they live in an American municipality, and in a family culture that is not the same as that in Africa. What does singing in their homes look like? How do their parents sing? Do their parents sing? What presence does music have in their homes, and what music do they hear or sing there? Should that African folk song be sung with the drum beat preserved by a musicologist that appears in sheet music from which it was taught to a music class, or should the song be taught with a hip-hop beat that fits the culture within which the students who are being taught the song live? The song “Everybody Loves A Saturday Night” is a song originally from Nigeria. It can be easily taught in the original language, “Bobo waro fero Satodeh.” If the song is taught this way, it is authentic to its origin, but is it connecting with English speaking American students? The New Christy Minstrels made a hit song out of it. Is this version culturally insensitive, or is it effectively bringing a Nigerian song to a larger audience? These questions and others like them are important to ask and answer, and they can only be well-answered if one knows the students perspective, born out of their culture. 

If a student has heard their parent sing the song in the Nigerian language at home, then doing so in school has great meaning and relevance. If a student has never heard the song before, and is taught it only in the Nigerian language, it will have no meaning or relevance at all except perhaps they will enjoy the tones and the rhythm. If the song is translated into English, it is no longer authentic but gains relevance because the student now understands the meaning of the words, which gives insight into why the melody is the way it is. It comes down to the difference between presenting a song for the purpose of informing, and engaging with a song for the purpose of sharing a musical experience across or within cultures.

When students engage with a song, their observable proficiency in the areas in which they are assessed in class is higher than when students are merely presented a song. This brings us to the subject of high expectations. To be frank, it is unfair to hold students to high expectations when instruction is culturally insensitive. Performance suffers, and is easily mistaken as an inability to do better. Students, like teachers, cannot perform as well outside of the cultural environment with which they are familiar as they can within it. Think of the difference between a symphony orchestra musician playing jazz and a jazz musician playing jazz. Think of the difference between and opera singer singing a popular song and a pop singer singing a popular song. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover from hearing Placido Domingo sing “Yesterday.” I’ll take John Lennon’s version any day. Holding high expectations for students is extremely important, but as we do so, we must set them up for success by creating a culturally familiar environment in which to learn and demonstrate their proficiency. 

Ultimately, we err if we simply try to make other cultures fit into or even assimilate into a Eurocentric construct. Often, that assimilation is already done, as popular songs are often a mix of cultural influences. But where our material is sourced from a specific culture, as much of the folk music we teach is, assimilation can become ill-advised. Music that is taught orally in the source culture should be taught orally in our music classrooms. You really can’t teach jazz from notation or a Schubert symphony from rote. Different cultures not only have different musics, but different practices and methods of teaching. Different families in our school communities have different musics and practices too. Some are highly encouraging for reading, others have no books at home at all except what they are given at school. Some have rich musical experiences from family members who have sung to them or played musical instruments, others have scarcely heard any music making at home; only what they hear on their phones. Some have only heard hip-hop, others have been to symphony orchestra concerts or listened to jazz. Some have rarely heard live music, others hear it often at street festivals and block parties. These are diverse musical experiences born of diverse family and community cultures. They must all inform what we as music educators do with our students. 

Butler, A., Lind, V. R., & McKoy, C. L. (2007). Equity and access in music education: Conceptualizing culture as barriers to and supports for music learning. Music Education Research, 9(2), 241–253.

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