At Merit School of Music, inclusion, diversity, and belonging are integral to our mission. Our focus on and commitment to this work doesn’t just happen during Black History Month—it’s a year-round priority.
As Chip Staley shares during our reflection, “I don’t have a February curriculum; It’s more impactful to have a curriculum that always includes everyone so that all students will see themselves represented in the music every day of the year.”
So, this Black History Month, we sat down with three Merit teaching artists to reflect on inclusion and belonging in the music room:
Early Childhood & General Music Program Director; Faculty: Early Childhood, Merit Music in Communities
Ensemble Director: Merit Philharmonic, Symphonic Band, Merit Music in Communities; Faculty: Clarinet
Department Chair: Instrumental Large Ensemble; Ensemble Director: Wind Symphony
Our faculty discuss:
- How they incorporate diverse repertoire and guest artists into their curriculum
- How organizations can support creatives in this process
- The impact they’ve seen this work have on their students
- And more
It’s an important and insightful discussion for music educators, administrators, and all those interested in making the world of music education a place where everyone belongs.
Can you talk about how you make your curriculum inclusive and foster a sense of belonging in classes and ensembles?
Steven Gooden: The curriculum is about the art form. It’s about the music, so finding music that’s representative of shared emotions, shared things they [students] can connect to. Obviously diverse composers, but it’s much deeper than that. That’s one dimensional and slightly less important to us. Even though we’ll still play way more white composers in the classical world, that doesn’t mean that we can’t connect to it just because it wasn’t written by a Black person or a person of color or a woman or anything like that. We can connect to it but just to feel that it’s safe, that it’s okay to connect to it is more important to me.
I was recently directing an orchestra at the Alabama All-State Orchestra Festival. There were three orchestras and two of the conductors were Black men and the other conductor was a woman. [Black classical musicians] can pretty much count on one hand how many times we’ve been to an event like this where there’s been a leader that we could see ourselves through. Essentially, what we’re doing in our classrooms is a lot just by existing and being there and leading. It’s something that’s really pertinent to younger people who look like us and we do that every day.
Essentially, what we’re doing in our classrooms is a lot just by existing and being there and leading. It’s something that’s really pertinent to younger people who look like us and we do that every day.
– Steven Gooden
Steven Gooden conducts Symphonic Band during Merit’s 2022 Conservatory Winter Concerts.
Chip Staley: I think one of the biggest issues that we have in the band world is selecting quality literature in general and picking great music. And what’s awesome about exploring the music of living composers is that we are finding and programming incredible pieces by people who have been excluded for many years from the mainstream wind band literature.
We are expanding our focus from what is typical in the cannon of classical music from the last century— sort of the go-to literature that is used to teach kids music—toward the music of composers who have been under-represented.
Chip Staley conducts Wind Symphony in a performance of “Havana” by Kevin Day—a young, Black composer who infused his work with Afro-Cuban jazz music.
Sally Blandón: When I first started at Merit, we didn’t have a Spanish bilingual curriculum in the Early Childhood program. I felt it was super important to explore the Latin culture. What that looked like was me recalling songs and chants and activities that I actually grew up learning from my mother. It inspired me to create themes and include songs that are essentially the standards in Latin American and Hispanic cultures.
I also think of inclusion and belonging in terms of differently-abled people. Something that I’m proud of and extremely passionate about is my work with Merit’s partner, the Foundation for Hearing and Speech Resources (FHSR), and how we’re going above and beyond different cultural backgrounds as in countries to develop more ways of being inclusive of differently-abled students—like our students who are deaf and hard of hearing.
What impact have you seen this have on your students?
Sally: There’s something to be said about children seeing themselves in what they’re learning…seeing what’s possible. In Merit Music in Communities, we have a program in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood where we offer world percussion classes. Avo Randruut, an ethnomusicologist, is the lead teacher. He teaches the children music from various countries in Africa. He and his colleague Olumuyiwa Ojo recently lead a percussion workshop and the children were going crazy over it—learning West African dances and polyrhythmic patterns.
For a child on the South Side of Chicago where we have predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, for these children to see it in the flesh is priceless. They’re seeing themselves in what is being performed.
The world is a melting pot and, look, your teacher doesn’t know everything because as a teacher my job is to never stop learning and as soon as I stop learning, I stop being a teacher.
– Sally Blandón
Olumuyiwa Ojo and Avo Randruut work together to introduce our Merit Music in Communities students in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood to West African dances and polyrhythmic patterns.
Steven: I see it in Merit Conservatory groups with students who are Black and see music that I get excited about and then they’re asking me more about music like “can you share this?”—the joy, the excitement, the freedom to like it seems to be apparent, that they’re not holding that back or hiding that from being observed outwardly. It’s obvious that I can see they’re excited about some of the things we’re talking about musically and I think that’s really big, really important.
What role do you think schools/organizations play in supporting teachers doing this work?
Chip: I think it’s tricky to require a certain type of “check the box” experience for all teachers. Creative people respond best when given the opportunity to get together to talk about the experiences that they’ve had and what works best in the classroom.
As music educators, it is our responsibility to open our hearts and our minds to the possibility that what we learned in school wasn’t all there was to learn. Music teachers were taught a process that they should continue to use to find music most relevant to all students. For example, half of our students are women, yet most of the music we studied in school and tend to program at concerts is by White men. Music teachers must dig deeper, get out of our comfort zone, and find music by composers that look like their students.
Sally: And what about organizations supporting those teachers who haven’t had that lived experience? Well, that might look like bringing in someone who can coach or collaborate with the person who didn’t live that experience. The children get to experience two different people from two different backgrounds learning from each other. And that is so important for children to see because they learn at a very young age how to interact and socialize with people.
So how beautiful would it be for organizations to say, “we budgeted this much and do you know anyone in your network we could bring in to bring in this shared experience?” The world is a melting pot and, look, your teacher doesn’t know everything. As a teacher my job is to never stop learning. As soon as I stop learning, I stop being a teacher. And I think that’s really important to keep in mind and for organizations to think about how to support that.
Are there any particular ways that you incorporate Black History Month into your classroom in addition to what you do on a regular basis?
Chip: It’s ongoing for us. I don’t think we should only teach the profound impact that African Americans have had on the American music scene in February. I don’t have a February curriculum; It’s more impactful to have a curriculum that always includes everyone so that all students will see themselves represented in the music every day of the year.
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