Few would argue that two examples of the most dominant narratives in music presented in music classrooms and orchestral performing ensembles over the past few hundred years is that of the child prodigy (e.g., W.A. Mozart) or the brooding and troubled artist (e.g., L.V. Beethoven). Included in these narratives are the ideas and systems established by artists from this milieu including putative music theory concepts and performance/compositional techniques. If one thinks more broadly, they might conclude that these narratives in music actually represent a very narrow experience, which requires and works to uphold the exclusion of other narratives. The praising of these dominant narratives over counter-narratives celebrates dominant narratives as universal when they are actually particulars of a narrow slice of humanity presented as universal. Presenting these dominant traits as universal creates a problem in that it serves the experience and social composition of a world that does not resembles the world that we are currently inhabiting, nor does it validate the experience of the students we are seeking to serve. These narratives need not be erased from history so much as their dominance must be put in check in an effort to make the discipline of music education more relevant and less cynical. Education should remove boundaries between what is taught in classrooms and the world that our students actually live in. To bring the discipline of music study with all its benefits to all of our students, these narratives must reflect a truer and broader truth and counter the “destructive disaggregation that occurs when scholars focus on specific treatises (or narratives) about discrete times and places that ignore larger patterns of social history”. (Crenshaw, 13)
Teaching music today is rife with challenges with regards to dominant narratives, especially if one is looking at a specific area like orchestral performance. Orchestral performance presents challenges on multiple fronts in today’s culture, especially if you are teaching in an urban district. Firstly, no matter who the student is, when trying to acquire a new skill it is of the utmost importance to see examples of people who look like themselves displaying excellence and mastery in that field. If there is no model or template for the student in their desired field, achieving even the most basic competency will be an uphill battle. There are no shortages of examples of this scarcity of narratives for students of color within the arts already. When author Octavia Butler was asked why there are no African-American writers in the genre of science fiction she famously replied, “There aren’t because there aren’t. What we don’t see, we assume we can’t be. What a destructive assumption!” James Baldwin moved to Europe as a young author because “I was trying to become a writer and couldn’t find in my surroundings, in my country, a certain stamina, a certain corroboration that I needed. As far as my father knew (which was much more important) there had never been anything called a Black writer”. (Baldwin/Giovanni, 13)
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses the problem of scarcity of counter narratives in her lecture The Danger of the Single-Story 4. Adichie tells her story of growing up in Nigeria where she had access to children’s books mainly from England and the United States. In these books, the characters who were all “foreigners”, played in snow, ate apples, drank ginger beer and had blue eyes. Because of the books she was reading, her young mind assumed that by nature, all books had to be full of foreigners and had to be about things of which she was unfamiliar and could not identify with. She eventually finds literature that includes African characters but finds them portrayed as a simple people with “no possibility of a connection as human equals.” This is all rooted in who has the power to tell stories or narratives, and which are told. In the Nigerian language of Igbo the term “nkali” means “to be greater than another”. Adichie says that stories are defined by nkali, the possession of which yields the authority to decide:
- Who tells stories?
- Which stories are told?
- How are they told?
- When are they are told?
The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti once wrote “if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with the word secondly”. (Adichie 4) The immediate danger of the single story is that it creates stereotypes which are, by definition, incomplete. The second danger of the single story is that it tamps down the excluded people’s potential, keeping all the gifts for the people with the most power. Some peoples have a surplus of stories creating a broad collection of narratives of greatness, where a great many communities have a scarcity of them with obvious results. By locking these counter-narratives out of the story, we not only harm the excluded community, but we rob everyone of the opportunity to grow and evolve into further greatness through the inclusion of these narratives. Adichie tells us that “when we reject the single story and realize that there is never a single story about a place or a people… we regain a kind of paradise.” (Adichie 4)
How does this dominant narrative or single-story crisis manifest itself in music education? I would argue it is through this scarcity of narrative for communities of color and the ownership of the dominant narrative by white communities within the field of classical music that minority groups are greatly underserved by the discipline. It is not that there aren’t any ethnic minority or Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) musicians, but many of the most high-profile musicians who are repeatedly presented are not from those communities. It is important to expose our students to great music played at a high level through guided listening activities. When doing such listening activities, go the extra step to play a video of the piece played by a person or ensemble of color. Ensembles comprised of Black musicians, like the Chicago-based chamber group D-Composed, should be presented as such examples. The group’s mission inspired the ideas put forth in this curriculum unit. “The mission of D-Composed is to uplift and empower society by providing a platform for the music of Black composers. In order to do this, we aim to increase access and exposure to Black creativity, culture, and life through thoughtful programming, events, and content.” 5 The group’s founder and executive director is Kori Coleman. The four founding musicians of the group are violinists Caitlin Edwards and Kyle Dickson, artistic director/violist Yelley Taylor and cellist Tahirah Whittington. Additionally, each of these musicians can be presented individually. For example, cellist Tahirah Whittington began making her mark in the early 2000’s as part of a group of young Black classical musicians who became known as “The Young Eight” 6. Through the presenting of musicians and organizations that are current and diverse, teachers have the power to change the narrative about who does this thing called music. We must shift our focus and efforts from upholding dominant narratives to promoting counter narratives if we are going to have a truly egalitarian artistic community as opposed to one rooted in “putatively parochial and prejudiced particularism.” (Crenshaw, 3)
It is this scarcity of narrative for classical BIPOC musicians that lead Afro-British double bassist Chi Chi Nwanoku to establish the Chineke! Orchestra, which provides career opportunities for Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians in the UK and Europe. The Sphinx Organization is the US equivalent. The Chineke! Orchestra and Nwanoku are named for the Igbo word “chi” which means “the spirit of creation” or “the god of creation of all good things”. Nwanoku’s emphasizes in her lecture entitled Music Does Not Discriminate 7 that people learn so much more than how to play an instrument when they study music. Studying music introduces life skills to the student including:
- Time management
- Community responsibility
- Providing support to others (Nwanoku 7)
Through the study of music, I acquired the skills listed above, as well. Those skills serve me in all areas of my life, not just on the bandstand. Nwanoku says, “music is even better when we involve ourselves personally and physically in the creation of it.” All communities deserve to reap the benefits that music study yields. Why should any single community have such overwhelming access to it and another so much less? Finding, creating and presenting narratives that encourage students from those communities to get involved is the job that music educators are tasked with. The job is not to present the same tired narratives from a world that was far less diverse than the one that we and our students currently live in. One might make the argument that this is why orchestras across the nation are closing their doors for lack of an audience. The genre is not evolving to meet our diverse and modern communities and include their narratives. Anything that refuses to evolve and thrives on exclusion is destined to wither and disappear, we see it in all areas of our world.
As a middle school music teacher teaching a performing ensemble like orchestra, it is my opinion that our foremost goal is not to create future violin performance majors at a conservatory. Our foremost goal should be to bring the skills and experiences listed by Nwanoku to children through the discipline of music study. It is my belief that we spend too much time prepping competitions and not enough time unlocking skills that serve the student as a human. We live in a society that is all too much concerned with trophies and not actually growing intellectually or spiritually. Acquiring things, piling them up and showing them off appears to be the goal of so much of our current culture. I would argue that this problem is propped up by a white supremacist narrative presented within the discipline of music education. I am certain that few orchestra teachers cover the Negro Philharmonic Society which was comprised of more than 100 musicians in early 1800’s New Orleans, or the rich tradition of Black fiddlers who frequently played music at gatherings for white partygoers when our country was young. The narratives are available: “The slave orchestras that played for parties held in town mansions or on the plantation near New Orleans were generally small ensembles. It was not uncommon to find dance music being provided by a single fiddler. Dance fiddlers were in great demand, and a good one, such as Massa Quamba, could charge as much as three dollars per night for his services.” (Southern, 135) Introducing narratives like this is how we create incremental change in inequity with regards to whom we reach with our message. Again, it is my belief that through changing how and what we teach young musicians (with the how being secondary to the what) that this goal is reached.
Much of the tradition of classical music was written when our world was much more segregated, and few would argue that much of our world remains segregated. By this I mean that much of the genre of traditional classical music was created in the vacuum of white Western Europe. Once we see that, we can also see that it has struggled greatly to keep that stranglehold on the genre and, by proxy, the field of music education. These efforts have succeeded in that the field is still largely dominated by white participants, which is ultimately to its own demise in that this is an unsustainable model. By excluding counter-narratives and the people that those narratives give voice to, the field ceases to evolve and ultimately renders itself obsolete. The task here is to teach this discipline in a way the recognizes this and aims to fix it. History has shown us that as people gained more connectivity and mixing through modes of transportation, and sadly, through institutions like slavery, the disciplines missed the opportunity to incorporate those new voices into itself instead of defending its fortress from “other uncivilized” cultures. Instead, race was invented and therefore a rationale for maintaining ownership was secured. If we as teachers are to stay effective in bringing the wonders of music study to students who live in and are by virtue of their existence, are evidence of a diverse experience and world, we MUST re-envision these things. If we do not, this discipline will live on in museums, its precious gifts frozen in amber and locked away from the modern society that we have become.