Tackling culture, history, and sensitivity in music education blog header

Tackling culture, history, and sensitivity in music education

Where are we today, and where do we want to be tomorrow?

The history of music education is a long and winding road shaped by countless individuals, ideas, and events. Music education has been in a state of constant change for centuries. The question is, where do we want to be tomorrow?

While nothing quite compares to music education in supporting a child’s academic growth, we shouldn’t isolate it to the classroom. Studying music helps children develop socially and emotionally too, therefore it should be part of our everyday lives. When we are out on the streets or at home with our family or friends, we should feel free to sing out loud and make some noise!

Fortunately, we live in a truly marvelous time for music; we have access to almost the entire world’s output and history, on-demand, at any time.

Unfortunately, we are also still struggling with racism and xenophobia which leads to both intentional and unintentional biases against what gets heard and presented in educational settings.

What musical legacy are you receiving?

In North America, we have a large Western European Music Tradition that while rich, does have substantial limits when considered against global historical, cultural, rhythmic (think beats), and tonal (think scales) contexts. This is even before taking into account pre-existing biases that filter the music that reaches our ears.

By the time an educator is in front of a group of children, regardless of age, they have been shaped into a presentation format that really only encapsulates a segment of information that is at best described as bearing a colonial legacy.

What is happening now?

While the above does not inspire a lot of confidence in a diverse and inclusive approach to pedagogy, there is reason to be hopeful.

music in preschool classroom with teacher

Technology has, in addition to making music available, also made communication on gaps in our approaches extremely visible. Civil unrest driven by pre-existing and growing social gaps in lower socio-economic and cultural groups has led to a sudden burst of concern and discussion around how best to represent all music in educational settings.

Educators are actively discussing how and what to present and leaning on expert representation from cultural communities that have been misrepresented, represented in racist or discriminatory ways, or completely absent from various curricula.

Danger: cancel culture vs. ‘lest we forget’

In many settings, certain music is being removed from classroom deployment due to its roots in a racist past. The question that we must wrestle with, and which may be situation-specific (i.e. what we do in kindergarten vs. with 10th graders), is whether or not we should ‘disappear’ these songs.

This is a highly challenging situation with two primary and vital considerations:

  • The first is that as our world is multicultural, there is no room for racism in it.
  • The second is that if the examples of our history are effectively erased, we run the risk of those lessons being repeated.

So, what should we do?

How can we teach sensitively and preserve the lessons of the past?

Ideally, an educator should be driven by some of the same motivations that we’d like to see in our children; curiosity, investigation, consultation, experimentation, and more, as an evolving and oft-repeated practice.

Over time we hope to improve ourselves as educators. We will also advance our approach to history through the music we choose to use in our classes, as well as deepen our roots in the communities we work with, for, and serve.

What are the benefits of considerate teaching to children?

Ideally, we would imagine a musical learning journey from childcare through high school graduation. Through an age-appropriate process that includes why we learn, sing and play the songs we do – even when they are challenging because they represent less than ideal parts of our history as people – children transition from no musical understanding to a rich, holistic understanding of music, history, culture and beyond.

The goal is to take an approach to breed sensitivity through the easiest cultural bride that exists to humans: music.

Why should you teach about culture and history in music education?

An educator that cares and feels passionate about what they teach is felt by the children and families that they interact with. They are the ones that make the biggest impact.

We also have a responsibility to leave the world a better place than when we entered it.

Connecting through music is easier than connecting in any other academic area, and has more benefits than in other areas, including communication, organization, collaboration, and completion skills…all of which are vital to adult and professional life. By including a sensitive approach to culture and history through music, we are laying a path for a better tomorrow.

Did you know? ABC Academy of music specializes in Early Childhood Music Education with a focus on in-school and daycare delivery.

Barnaby Kerekes

Barnaby Kerekes is a graduate of UBC and U of T in Music Performance, with a specialization in Orchestral Bass Trombone performance.  He has worked under many notable conductors of the Canadian and international music scene and has been heard coast to coast in live performances, and on CBC Radio 2.  Barnaby is the founder of ABC Academy of Music in Toronto, Canada, which since 2004 has taught students from Canada, South Africa, England, Scotland, Europe, and the USA.