Multimusical Competency for Music Educators: Problems and Possibilities

October 1, 2004

One of the sobering effects of the tragedies that befell our nation in September 2001 is the noticeable tendency toward public reflection on the question of national identity. On the flip side of the recently ubiquitous stars-and-stripes and the short-lived but oft-declared position of "national unity" were the niggling questions: "What does it mean to be American? Whom does this moniker include? Whom does it exclude?" In a provocative paper on this theme, titled "Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Implications for Music Education" presented in October 2001, Gloria Ladson-Billings raised many important questions regarding the concept of inclusivity as practiced in the school music curriculum—questions that one could ask regarding the typical university-level music core curriculum. Citing the dual roles of music as both humanizing force and public provocateur, Ladson-Billings called on music educators to forge a new American consciousness through inclusive music curricula that could help us to "tell who we were, are, and hope to be as a nation." (Ladson-Billings, 2001, p. 6)

In this ideal music curriculum, all musics of all Americans would be portrayed as vital, integral parts of the American musical landscape. This conception of the music curriculum is not new: the same goal was hinted at in the National Standards for Arts Education in 1994. However, since September 2001, the pressing issue of national identity has brought urgency to the discussion, and the topic now deserves our best thinking and action. Can we achieve this noble ideal? Perhaps our answer depends on how we as college music educators respond to Ladson-Billings' ultimatum. We need to ask, "Is it possible to prepare the future music teachers of this nation to have musical competence across multiple musical genres, styles, and cultural traditions?" In this paper I'll address some of the many issues that music and music education professors might consider in the search for the "ideal" undergraduate curriculum that fits all our students for their future roles as "multimusical educators." I'll conclude by proposing one approach to diversifying the musical competencies of future music teachers that we've begun to implement at the University of Michigan through a combination of methods class content, musical internships, on-campus summer workshops, and summer overseas study opportunities.


Six Issues:


#1. The difference between "covering" multiple musical traditions in a survey course and providing the depth required to know any musical tradition well enough to teach it


Our undergraduates come to us with 8+ years of private instruction in one Western performing medium, topped off by a few years of ensemble experience. They then typically spend one semester on ethnomusicology and eight semesters on Western music history and theory. Is it any wonder, then, that the long-term effect of the single ethnomusicology survey course, usually spanning many continents, musical traditions, and peoples, is minimal? Yet the state of Michigan teacher certification program requires the newly-minted music teacher to pass a multiple-choice subject area competency exam in which the student must display knowledge about several non-Western musics. The student's "knowledge about" those "other" musics may help her or him to pass the multiple choice exam and become certified to teach. However, this same student brings to the classroom nothing remotely comparable to her or his Western musical competence and cannot be expected to know another, "other" musical tradition well enough to teach it to anyone else. We make no claims for what these graduates can actually do in another musical tradition: we usually simply offer one course that "covers" the topic, and trust that they will be able to "stay one page ahead of the students," should they ever need to teach something other than Western art music.

An important point, of course, is that they just don't need anything beyond the single survey course to get a job, so we're under no pressure from school districts to change the curriculum. Those of us who worry about such things, however, wonder what would happen to that genre known as "school music" as we know it if each one of our graduating seniors was able to perform and teach in one other musical tradition outside her or his comfort zone. (For the uninitiated, school music is that genre of music that only appears in school. To get an idea of how school music actually sounds, just think of any piece of music written specifically for educational purposes and you get the idea. Or think of any interesting folk song that has been modified for teaching purposes. Technically speaking, school music usually has the syncopation replaced with straight quarter notes to make it easier to read and play and a Bawdlerized text. As one of my former students said, this genre has "the fun taken out of it.") The possibilities unleashed by expanding our students' musical expertise beyond the Western tradition are worth pondering, for they go beyond "political correctness" and the concepts of inclusiveness, diversity, and multiculturalism to the core of what we do: teaching music. We can challenge and change "school music" if we prepare music educators who are able to bring the sounds of one other musical place in the world to their own classrooms and rehearsals. We cannot do this, however, by relying on the current core curriculum of our schools of music.


#2. Modeling multimusical expertise for our students

This one is a very difficult issue for instructors, as it urges us to push out of our musical comfort zones. This is tough, for the great majority of us are single-genre musicians ourselves, trained from childhood in the Western art music tradition. If we expect our music teachers-in-training to have multimusical competence, we need to be models of this kind of musicianship ourselves. Dare I ask? When was the last time you listened to or performed "other" music? If we cannot show our students the musical learning possibilities that open by listening to and performing more than one musical genre, who can?


#3. Does music learning occur differently in the aural traditions?

When moving beyond Western European art music, one encounters aural traditions. Those of us trained to rely on our eyes rather than solely on our ears often find the experience of learning traditional musical genres completely by ear to be challenging, difficult, and sometimes impossible, particularly when learning songs in a language foreign to us. This experience can put a big dent in what we thought we knew about musical learning because it pushes us beyond the symbol-based, visual translation process to one based solely on aural acuity and aural memory. Independent musicianship is not a value in the aural tradition: mimicry and repetition are the means to mastering "the way it is played." Absent are the visual aids found in the score, but they are replaced by intense watching and listening to the teacher.


#4. Does our conception of music teaching change when we move to aural traditions?

Traditional aural teaching methods are rooted in the relationship between the musical master and the apprentice. The master keeps the melodies and gives them to the apprentice in a variety of ways, judging by my own experience during the last five years as a student of Ghanaian traditional music, including singing, drumming, and playing the calabash gourd called adenkum, and xylophone. I've studied with six Ghanaian musician/teachers both in the U.S. and in Ghana, and the "model and mimic method" was used by all of them. The degrees of difference between them were determined in the varying levels of skill with which each one broke the musical task into related chunks and put it back together, and the speed with which they expected me to achieve some of their musical expertise. One of my teachers forbade me to make notation of the music, based on his strong belief that relying on any kind of notation would hinder my learning. The others never mentioned it, nor did I attempt to make any kind of notes for myself, trusting my first teacher's maxim. However, I have found that videotapes of perfected performances I've been involved in are the most accessible means of "writing it down" for future reference, as the video record allows me to stay in the aural mode, with the visual reinforcement of the picture, when I need help remembering how this part goes, or the words to that song. Notation may capture the individual parts, or it may not, for the complexity of Ghanaian traditional music comes from the interrelationships of the many parts, and I've not seen these notated, except by one industrious Ghanaian music theorist, Dr. Willie Anku of the University of Ghana at Legon.

My point is that the teacher of traditional music is both the source and the teacher of the music. One does not go home with the score to practice: one goes to the teacher to both hear and learn the music. This requires the student to memorize the music while learning to play it, rather than to focus on first gaining the technical skill to be able to go home and practice from the symbols on the page. So for the teacher-in-training to fully understand the "other" musical tradition, she or he must be given the opportunity to both learn the music in the traditional way, and learn it well enough to teach it in the traditional way. Learning it well enough to teach it without the aid of notation can be particularly challenging when there is no notation to which the novice teacher can look for help! However, as one of my Ghanaian teachers likes to say, when you learn it this way, you REALLY know it.


#5. Providing students with musical materials (octavos of traditional music, books of songs, resource lists) and cultural information (print materials, videos) does not guarantee musical expertise in traditional music any more than it does in European music.

Yet this has been our solution to the "multicultural" issue. We cover it with content, not with experience in other musics. The prevailing notion seems to be that if we can just give them enough music from faraway lands (as it used to be called), we've done our job and can check off the multicultural box on our to-do list. As a college textbook author, I am acutely aware of the pressure placed on publishers to include enough multicultural materials in music education methods books. It does not matter that the great majority of these materials is ignored by both the methods teachers and their students because this music IS MORE DIFFICULT, if not downright IMPOSSIBLE, to learn from the page than it is from a live human being. It does not matter that what has been notated is probably NOT what the traditional musician actually sang or played because of the limitations of Western notation. It does not matter that the traditional musician who taught it to the Western musician was probably not acknowledged or paid when the Westerner's arrangement of the piece was published. The only thing that seems to matter is that we cover ourselves. To go beyond this is hard work, and requires us to stretch our musical skills beyond our accustomed areas of expertise. In the meantime, we rely on content.


#6. Is the multimusical mandate solely intended for the music education department, or for the entire School of Music?

This is the question that is never raised, but there are many related questions that are also left both unposed and unanswered.

Some examples: What does culturally relevant teaching mean in a School of Music? Does anyone in your school practice it? What is inclusive teaching? Such terms as these, with difference-, gender-, and race-related overtones, are studiously avoided in academic discussions, yet we need to talk about them across our schools of music. Whether or not we support the notion that the public school is the place to remedy societal inequities, this role is now part of the educational canon in this country. States will continue to mandate culturally relevant and inclusive curricula, and our music schools will not be able to hide from these mandates any more than the public school teachers whom we produce can hide from them. It remains for faculty to decide whether to integrate the concept of multimusicality throughout the school of music curriculum or "cover" it in a music education course titled "Multiculturalism 101." While we wait for the conversation on this topic to begin, I'll describe one way that this problem has begun to be addressed.


One Solution: University of Michigan

Five years ago I changed the content and focus of my secondary general music methods class to teach the vocal music education majors something outside their comfort zone: world music drumming.

I wanted to see if these singers could become, in the space of one semester, competent enough as percussionists to be able to teach middle school students to play the percussion arrangements drawn from Ghanaian and Caribbean traditions found in Wil Schmid's World Music Drumming textbook. For the first four weeks of the semester we focused on their drumming skills, using nothing more than the textbook and some modeling from me. Since I had attended one of Schmid's workshops on how to drum and how to use this curriculum, I felt that I was "one page ahead" of the students, since my musical training was not in percussion. During the next two weeks, the students learned to teach the lessons from the book, and I challenged them to do more: to figure out how to make this performance curriculum into a general music curriculum, where each lesson would teach the middle schoolers to both drum and understand something more about music than they knew before. For the rest of the semester, the students were paired off and sent to internships in local middle schools for 6 weeks where they taught some of the arrangements from the textbook. This was a very successful venture, by everyone's account. My students gained drumming skills, teaching expertise, and positive experiences with middle school students. The middle school music teachers were thrilled, and several of the teaching teams' classes were invited to drum on their schools' spring choral concert program.

The actual content of my own students' musical experience worried me, though. I was concerned that they had learned to teach the "school music" version of the Ghanaian repertoire that had intrigued me so much that I had continued to study it with the Ghanaian drummer who had taught at the workshop. So I convinced my teacher to come to Ann Arbor to offer a one-week summer workshop where those who were motivated to learn "the real thing" could do so. The workshop has since become a regular feature of our summer offerings, and in July 2002 it also served as an orientation to Ghanaian music and culture for the student group that I accompanied to Ghana for a study trip during the three weeks following the workshop.

This trip was the first in a program, called GIEU—Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates—sponsored by our Provost's office and designed to give undergraduates an intensive travel and study experience with University of Michigan faculty focused on a research project. Our project's focus was Ghanaian traditional music, and the ways it is taught by traditional musicians. We visited three different areas of Ghana and studied singing, drumming, xylophone playing, drum carving, and dancing with six different musician/teachers. We are now trying to write about the experience, particularly about what we learned about music teaching in the traditional setting, and also about ourselves as musical learners in both foreign languages and media. We are also performing as an ensemble, for we learned more music on the trip than we can perform in two 45-minute sets, and we take paying gigs to support one of the spin-offs from this project. We have "adopted" four Ghanaian girls (ages 6 to 17) for whom we will pay school fees for the next ten years so that they can get an education. The full cost of their school fees, uniforms, and daily nourishment is $25 per year. This activity became part of the project because we were there and saw the need: it was not one of my objectives to set up a charitable fund but that's what happens when you venture out into the world with your eyes open.



The issue of national identity that surfaced following the tragedy of September 2001 has inspired many music educators to reconsider the role of culturally relevant pedagogy as well as other forces that impact music teacher education curricula. Those of us who have dedicated our lives to teaching the next generations of music teachers are still giving a lot of thought to how we can best respond to the multicultural mandate on our own campuses and in our own states. I hope that the six issues raised here can be a catalyst for your thinking. Once you've figured out where you stand, you can initiate the necessary conversations about these issues first with your own department, and then with your music history and theory colleagues. You may wind up working with them to get the extra courses or concentrations in courses or performing experiences that our teacher graduates need to become multimusically competent. You may be motivated to expand your own music listening vocabulary so that you can bring new musical insights to your own classes. And with any luck, you may discover a musical genre that grabs you as much as Ghanaian traditional music grabs me.



Ladson-Billings, G. (October, 2001). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Implications for music education. Unpublished conference paper presentation at Consortium for Institutional Cooperation Music Education Research Conference, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

National Standards for Arts Education. (1994). Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference.

2490 Last modified on October 4, 2018