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Yes, but Can They Dance?: Changing the Canon in Music History

I was genuinely impressed with the diversity of addresses, panel discussions, presentations/demonstrations, workshops, exhibits, concerts/performances, and other professional activities at our annual meeting in San Diego in November. At one session I was caught up in music from the Age of Columbus; at another session I was fascinated with approaches to incorporating the concept and techniques of a great jazz artist into general music teaching; I witnessed the development of the Brazilian modinha at yet another session; while one evening I literally basked in the music of American women composers. This meeting made me feel very intelligent and learned. I was interacting with the best educated, talented, and dedicated college music teachers in the world.

And this was not an egotistical fantasy, because as I lunched, supped, and drank with those well-educated, talented, and dedicated people, I learned that they felt the same way. My membership in The College Music Society had been validated through the corroboration of my colleagues, and this meant that I knew what was important in music, and was a participant in the business of musically educating my students.

I did not realize that anything was wrong with this scenario until I heard an address by Suzanne Forsyth of the American Council on Education entitled "Who Speaks for Higher Education?" As would be expected, Ms. Forsyth gave a history of the Council and informed us of their efforts to relieve us of financial and other matters so that we could give our full attention to teaching and research. Several statements, however, piqued my interest. She mentioned, for example, that the Council was aware of and concerned with the small percentage of minorities and women in the higher educational process, that the Council was placing special emphasis on recruiting, including, and maintaining these groups in the process, and effecting changes in the curriculum that not only would reflect the contributions of the groups to the United States and the world but, more importantly, would recognize them as the catalyst for so much that is important and good in our society.

It was only then that I realized that we, as college music teachers, are eating the cake and leaving only the crumbs for our students. For one or two weeks each year we attend professional meetings and bask in the glory of such activities as listening to recent electronic music, music of the Americanism of Musica de Mexico, and piano pieces of William Grant Still. Yet when we return to our hallowed classrooms we feel obliged to resume our teaching as if our musical experiences had not been broadened, beginning in (or quoting from) Grout at the exact point at which we stopped before our meetings. This observation must in no way be interpreted as an attack on or dismissal of Grout, for most of the readers of this article, as I did, studied that master, for all three degrees. And we were well prepared to teach music history from a 1950 perspective.

Following the publication of Grout's A History of Western Music in 1960, a revision followed not too long afterwards, and there have been several subsequent revisions. It should be noted, however, that the subsequent revisions have innocently promoted the same kind of exclusivity that the first edition, perhaps also innocently, began. Thirty years after the standard in the field was published seems an appropriate time to consider a serious re-evaluation of that text, especially in light of a new century on the horizon.

Though it may be difficult to accept, there is evidence that the music we should teach in the twenty-first century, and the history of that music, will require a much more inclusive approach than any textbook has captured to date. Yet we know that the music, the academic sources, and the people who are experts on that music are now very much a part of the fabric of the music world. So let us not be concerned with the academic sources; instead let us consider, with the objectivity of a school teacher, how we can adjust what we learned as students and -- therefore teach -- in such a way that we can accommodate those cultures that are now recognized as a part of the cultural fabric of the United States.

Without doubt the most difficult aspect of this consideration is having to accept the fact that some of the historic materials so dear to our hearts will have to be replaced. It appears that there are two important questions that must be addressed if we consider changing the canon. (1) Is everything we teach at the present time -- from the Middle Ages to Steve Reich -- so important and necessary that we could not omit some aspect of it and still produce musically intelligent students? If the answer is yes, perhaps we could decide that as much as one-fifth of the course material is (really) unnecessary. We could then omit that one-fifth and, in its place, look at the music of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans, especially those living in the United States. The MENC has published an extraordinary source unit entitled Teaching Music with A Multicultural Approach, which includes a textbook and videos. (2) Would we actually be immoral if we omitted ONE period every other year in the music history sequence? Perhaps one year it could be the Baroque, since so much music and information from the period is available. At another time we might omit the Romantic period, since it is the most performed period in our schools today. In its place we could include the music of the four major ethnic groups in this country. (It is almost impossible for a student in our schools not to learn about Schumann, Liszt, or Wagner, though they could possibly miss Ellington, Celia Cruz, or the Hopi Indians.)

Think about it. If we are brave enough, we could even commission a group to prepare a scholarly music history textbook that would include both Wagner and the Hopi Indians.

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Last modified on Friday, 03/05/2013

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