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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

World Cultures in the Music Room: accurate representation

This school year my primary focus is on creating a more equitable classroom for each and every one of my students, no matter who they are or where they come from. Over the course of a series of posts, I am focusing on particular people groups and perspectives that tend to be marginalized in US-American music education. Today I'm continuing the conversation about presenting world cultures in the music room with resource recommendations and other practical tips for incorporating music from around the world in a way that is reflective and respectful of, and responsive to, our global society.

No matter what your local neighborhood or student body may look like, we all live in a global world. Although chances are good that you have multiple countries represented in your student population in one way or another in this day and age, even if you teach in a completely mono-cultural setting, I believe it is important to help students understand and respect the perspectives of cultures around the world to give them the tools they need to be successful in today's society, and encourage them to be better humans who can empathize with a broader range of perspectives.

With all of that said, I know that authentically and appropriately representing cultures with which you yourself are not familiar is no easy task! I have talked with so many music teachers who are too scared to incorporate perspectives and material from other cultures because they're afraid they'll "do it wrong". If you haven't already, I encourage you to read my previous post on avoiding exoticism- that is an important component in improving representation! In today's post, I want to give more practical suggestions and resource recommendations for making sure our presentation of cultures around the world is as holistic and accurate as possible.

1. Use native script or no written language

Children, especially before they go through puberty, are much more capable of learning new sounds that aren't part of their native languages than we are as adults. They can hear and reproduce sounds that we as adults would need to study for years to learn. The problem with transliteration (writing out the sounds of a word in another language in your own alphabet) is that when students see familiar letters, they assume they should be pronounced with familiar sounds. The way it's written ends up being a stumbling block for them in many cases.

When you're teaching children a song in a non-English language, I suggest teaching it by rote rather than showing students written lyrics. Their ears will pick up the sounds much more accurately than we can, so if it's not a language you can pronounce well yourself, bring in a native speaker, find a recording, or spend some time learning it as best you can so that they can mimic the sounds rather than trying to read them.

The only time I show students written lyrics in a language other than English or Spanish (since my students are familiar enough with both of those to know how to pronounce them) is to show them a different script- it can be meaningful to show students Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Arabic, and other languages that don't use the Latin alphabet. And since they presumably don't associate those symbols with any specific sounds, it won't hinder their focus on listening to the pronunciation but does provide a visual cue for where they are in the song.

2. Study one culture more in-depth

Along with including material from a wide range of cultures in your regular lesson material, choosing one culture and studying their music in a more focused way is an important way to promote greater cultural understanding for our students. Just like we can't fully appreciate or understand a culture from a one-week vacation, our students (and we ourselves) cannot gain any real understanding from a cursory, "music around the world" overview.

Many music teachers feel pressure to make sure they don't leave any one region of the world out, so in order to avoid leaving any one country out they do a little bit of everything rather than focusing on fewer countries. We don't apply this same thinking to instruments or languages- we know that if you study one instrument in-depth, you will transfer many of those skills to other instruments and pick up new instruments more quickly. And can you imagine learning just a few words in every language but being fluent in none? The same principle applies to cultural study: learning to take on a new cultural perspective more completely will transfer to other cultures when students encounter them in the future.

Of course teaching this way requires us as teachers to have a deeper understanding of the culture we're teaching! I've written in the past about the lessons I teach on 9 different cultures, which are linked here, and you'll find more of my favorite resources at the end of this post.







3. Check your sources

This is probably the most important element for improving our ability as music teachers to reflect, respond to, and respect a broader range of cultures around the world: checking our sources to make sure they are accurate representations of the culture the material says it is representing. It is honestly maddening to see the amount of inaccurate material that has been published and widely distributed among US-American music teachers. No matter how much you may trust a particular source- be it a workshop presenter, a colleague, a publisher, a writer, even a TPT store- if that source is presenting material from a culture of which they are not a native, it is important for you to do your own research and check with a native source to see if it is an accurate representation of that culture (and yes, that includes me and my material!).

I hate to say this, but I have found completely untrue "facts" about countries, songs that are translated or musically notated incorrectly, and other inaccurate material in everything from music teacher workshops to textbooks published by large publishing companies (and everything in between). It took just a simple internet search to find out such content wasn't accurate. Even more shockingly, I have had far too many conversations with teachers, presenters, and authors who are unwilling to believe that their material might be inaccurate (or check to see if it is) because "that's the way they learned it". We are continuing to spread misinformation to more and more teachers and students with this unquestioning, uncaring attitude and that is frighteningly dangerous!

You can read more about my specific recommendations for how to find native sources without traveling the world in this blog post, but my #1 tip is YouTube. The internet is your friend in this regard- don't be afraid to use it! It's not hard to search for a song title for material you find in a textbook and see if you can find an example of a native from that culture performing the song.

4. Think beyond the music

There are more ways we present a particular world view besides the musical content we include in our lessons. Who do we include as famous composers / conductors / musicians when we study music history? What do we include when we talk about musical genres? What kinds of books do we use in lessons or keep in our reading corner? What kinds of faces are on the posters on the walls? How about in our textbooks, worksheets, slides, and other visual material? What do we include in our study of instruments? Which musical skills are we emphasizing in our curriculum (Is there a heavy emphasis on Western musical notation? Are students always expected to stand still in straight rows when they perform?)? These are hard questions, but they reveal definite biases of which we need to be aware and work to challenge.

Resource recommendations

As I have already mentioned, it's very important with any resource to do your own research, but here are some of my top recommendations for finding more ways to incorporate music and perspectives from a variety of cultures:

Smithsonian Folkways is a great resource for actual "field recordings" from around the world, along with a huge library of articles, lesson plans, and other resources. Again, I caution you not to assume accuracy, especially in the articles and lesson plans, but they are an excellent starting point and one of the best places to find recordings of music from a wide range of genres, cultures, and time periods.

Mama Lisa's World is another huge collection of songs from around the world- this is one of the biggest collections of children's songs I have ever come across. Many of the songs include audio and/or video recordings by natives of the culture, along with translations and musical notation. The source for the material is usually listed as well, which makes it easier to check for accuracy. The best part is you can search by location, language, and even some song types!

Tiny Tapping Toes is a great resource for cross-curricular lesson material, musical crafts (like make-your-own instruments), and other creative music lesson ideas using material from around the world.

*I need to talk about World Music Pedagogy here for a second because it is a common source for US American music teachers. While there are individual components of the WMP training and materials that are excellent resources (I've already mentioned Smithsonian Folkways recordings!), I think the framework itself can be problematic, mostly because of the way it often leads music teachers to exoticise non-Western music. The materials and workshops also rely heavily on non-native sources. I encourage you to explore their resources, but I want to caution teachers to be careful as they do so.

If you haven't already, I encourage you to go back and read my introductory post for this series on the topic of "reflecting, responding, and respecting" in general. Reading that post will help to frame the discussion and I have also included several reflection questions that I think are helpful for teachers as they begin to think about creating a more just classroom for all students and perspectives.

What are your thoughts? Questions? Experiences? Let's start talking! Share in the comments or send me an email.

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  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking suggestions in this post! I especially appreciated what you said in #2- I often feel the pressure of trying to cover countries as many as possible so I'm "fair" to all the different cultures around the world. But your comparison to learning an instrument or language is a good one!

    1. I'm so glad it was thought-provoking! I think that idea of needing to be "fair" to all the countries is so common, and it's certainly understandable.