Students Speak: Diversity in the Pedagogical Practices of Music in Higher Education

July 8, 2014

Additional Arthors:  David Aarons, Claire Anderson, Ne Myo Aung, Maren Haynes, Christina Kowalski-Holien, Kait LaPorte, Jocelyn Moon, Subhash Prajapahti, Julia Vilharlahti, and Patricia Shehan Campbell

The musical world is not flat. Diversity is a foundation around which music teaching and learning can be designed at the tertiary level, as well as in elementary and secondary schools. Following decades of recognizing the planetary pluralism of musical practices, a next generation of teaching faculty in colleges, conservatories, and universities is embracing rhetoric and shifting into the realities of making musical diversity happen in performance and study. They are cutting through to the deep levels of art, folk, traditional and popular expressions available in the world, and are offering strong logic and persuasive reasoning for why they will—and are—planning courses and curricular threads that do not dismiss but rather confirm the essential need for musical diversity in academic courses and applied performance.

The following “ten points of light on diversity in music-educational action” feature the perspectives of ten students within one-to-three years reach of active contributions as members of music faculties in higher education. They are noteworthy for their passionate articulation of ideals and refreshing considerations of music and diversity in pedagogical practice. They offer thoughtful reflection, illumination and hope.

A Many-Splendored Diversity

Diversity is multivalent. The roundness of the musical world is marked not only by the diversity of geographic music cultures but also by categories such as gender, race, class, ethnicity and ability. Musical diversity in university classrooms should include the musical practices of persons with non-normative abilities, an often under-represented group in academic and performance studies of music and performance. This might take the form of sharing videos of differently abled musicians (dancers and theatre artists, too)—those who are blind, deaf, or physically handicapped, and who are musical phenomena in their own right. Blind musicians, for example, enrich people’s lives in a variety of ways and locales, from busking in a New York subway station to storytelling on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. Another avenue is to find ways for university students to facilitate musicking experiences—of a grand variety of the world’s musical styles—with disabled populations, including children, youth, adults, and elders. It is important that students are exposed to the musical practices of disabled persons in various nations and cultures, so that they might understand that the world’s musics can be produced and experienced with myriad ways that are not limited by ability. Students can also grow to appreciate that persons with disabilities do not necessarily conceive their circumstances as disabling but rather as a “difference in human experience.” Given that music is a panhuman experience, too, the deeper meaning of diversity can be learned through knowledge of both music and musicians. (David Aarons)

Single Course or Menu of Multiple Choices?

In some university programs, a single academic course in world music may be the extent of musical diversity studies for undergraduate music majors, courses comprising the standard A-Z tour of musical traditions from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Better one course than none at all? Indeed. Yet there are other ways of conceiving diversity studies in music that would take the focus away from orbiting the musical globe in ten (or fifteen) weeks, or in featuring the musical practices of just one specific culture or region—be it the monolithic titles of Africa, India or Indonesia. One manner of moving away from the single-culture model (or a fast-paced survey course model) is by taking a broad approach to music making, giving focus to musicianship that can be shaped via experiences across a wide spectrum of musical phenomena. A Euro-centric approach to musical analysis could be counterbalanced by other analytical and holistic ways of knowing music’s sonic features, with a parallel course of study in understanding the role of music in the lives of people globally. Broad-based introductory level courses of musical study could utilize a menu of upper-level courses for juniors and seniors that review music topics through defined issue-areas such as identity, nationalism, gender, and politics (Shelemay: 2011). A selection of three or four courses could be organized in such a way as to explore a topic in multiple cultural contexts, from 16th century England and 18th century New England to 20th century Japan and 21st century South Africa. With a mix of foundational and capstone-type courses, graduates of music programs exposed to a diverse range of music cultures will be more adept at making music beyond the institutional setting and applying their sense of global citizenship into all that they musically do. (Claire Anderson)

The Culture Bearer in the Classroom

Bringing cultural diversity into university music programs may sound a bit utopistic, and like any utopian ideal, the process may appear daunting and fraught with challenges. Incorporating diversity into a curriculum might ideally include the term “culture bearer,” someone with expertise within a certain tradition and culture who can sing, play, dance, and enlighten students of a musical way of thinking and doing. However, locating a culture bearer can be challenging. For example, ethnomusicologist Ricardo Trimillos describes a particular situation wherein he was charged with teaching Japanese koto to university students. Though he holds knowledge and expertise in this tradition, he felt that he was given what he calls “misplaced approval” as an authentic culture bearer due to his Asian appearance—although he is Filipino-American rather than Japanese (Solís 2004:13). Issues such as these are part and parcel of the challenges that must be considered when determining ways of diversity through hiring cultural experts into departments and colleges of music.

When it comes to culture bearers charged with teaching within an institutional setting, questions of translation, transmission, authenticity, and acculturation arise. All of these issues relate to pedagogical method, something that the expert teacher—regardless of previous training and knowledge of music and culture—must thoroughly consider in stitching together experiences in diversity for students. For example, should this expert, as dance scholar Mohd. Anis Nor suggests, “relearn” or deconstruct tradition in order to piece it back together in an appropriate way for the institution (2005:3)? In many ways, this process of translation is inevitable and should ultimately encompass the questions noted above. In order to transmit cultural diversity, teacher faculty of music may need to epistemologically unpack their expertise, based on time frame and context, in order to truly affirm their cultural knowledge in the classroom. (Joe Kinzer)

Pedagogical Issues of Place and Space

When attempting to increase diversity in music education, we need to consider the different kinds of spaces in which musicking occurs. Classrooms, practice rooms, studios and performance spaces at the college and university level are most suitable for various kinds of art music, where Western classical music predominates. Fragmented spaces offer seclusion for private lessons and self-directed study, but they are not designed for more active and participatory styles of music. Larger, more open spaces would better accommodate and perhaps even encourage musicking activities that include movement and dancing. We might also consider multipurpose performance auditoriums that would have the option of using or not using a raised platform as well as options for re-arranging and removing seats in order to tailor the performance experience to fit a number of musical styles. (Jocelyn Moon)

Two Course Ideas with Musical Diversity and American Multiculturalism in Mind

Diversity proves a critical, central consideration in teaching music in the United States context. A course in “Music in the United States” might be organized thematically to explore approaches to the study of “humanly organized sound” through a cross-cultural perspective. Music expresses complex epistemologies and multivalent values. Themes might include how diverse contemporary musical expressions pre-date colonialism, have persisted with initiative by communities, and/or how musical forms illustrate the aesthetic and social priorities of the ruling class. Further, practitioners have relied upon music as a creative response to slavery, segregation, and oppression, and employ music to challenge American cultural narratives and assimilation. Lastly, consumer culture influences all manners of musical practice. Diverse approaches to music education provide a platform for considering issues of agency and representation, authenticity, disruption, and alterity in creative ways. (Maren Haynes)

With community-based, multicultural approaches in mind, “Music of the Multicultural Local” is a course designed to learn from multiple culture bearers from within local musical communities with the goal of exposing students to diversity. While sharing a breadth of musical experiences from either near or far will necessarily accomplish such a goal, there is certainly something to be said for demonstrating that musical diversity is a part of the students’ quotidian geography. That is, the opportunity to engage with musical communities nearby can not only make diversity feel truly relevant to the students, it also has the potential to connect students to musical experiences in which they can likely participate on a continual basis. This connection not only offers students musical and educational experiences, but also has the important benefit of strengthening the academic and the local community musical spheres, if not fusing them to some degree. Hence, this course could be useful in fostering an understanding of—and perhaps even a commitment to—diversity in the students’ own backyard. (Kait LaPorte)

Statements on the Community Component of School Curricula

As universities reach to communities and their schools, opportunities are available for university students to teach children and youth, and to facilitate their understanding of music and musicians across a broad spectrum of musical practices. The generally Western music perspectives of school programs do well with the infiltration of students who know and can perform jazz, African-American blues and gospel, Mexican American conjunto, son jarocho, banda, and mariachi, and Puerto Rican salsa (for starters). Elementary school programs often feature a variety of the world’s musical cultures that can be sung, danced, and played on drums, xylophones, marimbas and recorders; meanwhile, secondary school programs typically omit the world view on music and settle into the preparation of performances of standard instrumental and choral pieces. Music teachers will welcome the visits of strong university singers and players who have learned a broad spectrum of music, and are enthusiastic about sharing it with young students. Likewise, universities that employ culture bearers in their programs—whether on djembe, kora, koto, or ‘ud—could be interested in welcoming these artists to perform and lead participatory experiences with young students in elementary and secondary schools. (Julia Viherlahti)

The integration of musical diversity into community programs of leisure and recreation acknowledges an important reality of our humanity and embraces the concept of inclusivity in the content and approach of our pedagogical possibilities. An extracurricular world music immersion program ​is another potential way of connecting university students with schools and communities. Classes in, for example, Irish fiddle and flute tunes, Caribbean polyrhythms on available instruments, marimba music from Guatemala or Zimbabwe, West African dance styles, and global songs and singing styles could be offered in the post-school late afternoon hours by university students who know the music and who can gain greatly from the exercise of “passing it on” to young people. Classes at a school or community center could also feature experiences in rhythm, pitch and form as expressed in various musical cultures around the globe. Culture bearers could be scheduled to visit the class regularly to teach participants short selections of his/her musical culture.​ For long-term success and interest in the program, a participating after-school or community program could engage in an exchange with a sister school or center in a foreign nation. The discovery of “identity music” within the two locations could lead to a sharing of the musical expressions of the two places, home and sister-school (or center), with preparation of a festival featuring separate and joint performances. Such an event, within a world music immersion program, would foster diversity and understanding between societies, nations, and cultures and allow university students experience in providing encounters in musical diversity writ large. (Christina Kowalski-Holien)

Perspectives on Diversity in Non - U.S. Classrooms

For those who have grown up in under-developed countries, especially in the isolated circumstances of a country such as Myanmar (or Burma), diversity in the musical education of young students is a challenging notion. In Myanmar, music is not even an option for study at the university level, nor is it taught in elementary and secondary schools. The lack of experience by students in the music of their own culture, let alone in the expressions of diverse sonic cultures, weakens their ability to appreciate and understand musical others. The way to widen the scope of the musical experience, and to cultivate a resourceful musical foundation as well, is in creating an appropriate musical setting in academic and educational settings in which everyone can study regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, and learning modalities. The diversification of the musical education of students of various ages is akin to stretching the horizon of the ear, mind, and heart. (Ne Myo Aung)

Diversity not only enriches the educational experience of individual students, but also creates mutual understandings of people in cultures across the world. Teaching and learning diversity with music as the centerpiece is critical in global education, especially as many musical experiences (of the instrumental variety) do not require language in order to communicate feelings at the visceral level (nor, in some cases, at the social, emotional, and even cognitive levels). The expression of culture through music without words is enormously powerful, as is the case in Nepalese classrooms where students can learn a Bulgarian song or a Puerto Rican bomba rhythm by listening, viewing, and trying out some performance of these genres. A cultural diversity class within university programs may aim at the creation of a deeper understanding of diversity through a regard for the ways in which voices and instruments are expressed in the world. Discourse about the music and musicians, as well as uses and functions of the music, can be made all the more meaningful by offering hands-on participatory performance experiences in selected musical cultures. (Subhash Prajapati)

Recommendations for Diversity in Tertiary-level Music Programs

There are plentiful peaks and valleys in the musical world we facilitate for our students, and we play privileged roles in opening ears, minds, and bodies to the brilliant spectrum of expressive practices. We are no longer living out Western art music as the single artistic-expressive choice—certainly not in our diverse communities, nor should we do so in our tertiary-level programs of musical education and training. Attention to courses, curricular threads, pedagogical approaches, culture bearers, learning spaces, and university-community partnerships will reap the benefits of putting professed principles of diversity into active practice. Music majors, minors, and students of even a single course in music within their degree programs deserve a chance to think musically through the array of ways in which music is humanly expressed and experienced. As faculty of music know their specialized areas of study, be it on particular instruments or of specific repertoires, there is also their need to acknowledge the added responsibility of ensuring that their students are on the topographical journey of embracing the wider palette of music that belongs to all citizens of our contemporary world.


Mohd. Anis, Md. Nor, and Revathi Murugappan, eds. Global and Local Dance in Performance. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Cultural Centre, University of Malaya & Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage Malaysia, 2005.

Shelemay, Kay Kauffman, 2011. Musical communities: Rethinking the collective of music. Journal of the American Musicological Society 64:2, 349-360.

Solís, Ted. Performing Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Music Ensembles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Trimillos, Ricardo D. Performing Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Music Ensembles. Edited by Ted Solís. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 23-52.

5421 Last modified on March 7, 2019
Login to post comments