Winter 2021: Questions and Answers
As educators, we hold so much power in the music we choose to teach our students. When we decide which curriculum to use, we are deciding which music is most important in the canon to help our students progress. We also hold power in the music we choose not to use with our students. Pedagogues must use that innate power to decide what is culturally appropriate or inappropriate for our students. It is imperative that teachers do not blindly use method books and collections without also addressing culturally insensitive material.
There are some pieces that I personally will not teach my students, however, I do not simply "skip" over the piece. I create a conversation around why we skip a certain piece for its racial implications and I supplement it with different material that fulfills the same musical/technical/analytical concepts in a dignified way. I often stress to students that as pianists, we experience a hands-on learning opportunity to learn about other cultures, time periods, and customs. With that opportunity comes an obligation to represent those cultures, time periods, and customs in the most respectful, informed, and artistic way that we can. This is a concept that students of all ages understand and appreciate.
There have been times where I wasn't even aware of material in the method books that was perceived as offensive until a student or family member brought it to my attention. I don't believe that any pedagogue needs to be an expert on religious or culturally insensitive materials, but we must be willing to learn from others. The more diverse our studios and networks are, the more expert we all become.
If a teacher wants to continue to teach a piece that has racial implications, simply changing the title of the piece could be justifiable after a conversation is had as to why the title is being changed. Although not racially derived, I remember teaching a Halloween piece to a student and the next week I saw that the word "holy" was added in front of the word "Ghosts" along with religious pictures. I had a conversation with the family and thanked them for creating a safe space in their child's musical studies that respected their own beliefs.
Ultimately, we, as teachers, want to create dignified and respectful learning environments for our students who will then go out into the world with a greater appreciation and informed understanding for various cultures.
I want to use this question to bring up an area in pedagogy that needs great attention. There are pieces that I have come across in my research that are fantastic pedagogical pieces that use spirituals as a means to help the young student progress. For example, Blanche Thomas' 12 Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements for Piano is a fabulous collection that all pedagogues need to have in their studios (Schirmer). However, it is now out of print. Many of us understand the importance of young people having access to music by composers whose own identity represents the folk idiom. If we, as pedagogues, create a demand for folk music from publishers and create spaces for living composers of color to address this issue, more diverse music will be available for our young students. We have great power as teachers; it is time that we use this power to ignite change in our field.