Student researchers work to diversify classical music canon, curriculum
Since the summer of 2020, there’s been a rise in the performance of repertoire by composers of color at many predominantly white institutions across the country. As this rise is celebrated, it’s also accompanied by a concern that as conversations about the underrepresentation of composers and artists of color slip out of the news cycle, works by these composers and artists may drop out of circulation as well.
St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Music Emery Stephens and student researchers Elijah Leer ’22 and Jimena Fernández ’22 spent the summer examining ways to make this rise in diverse repertoires a permanent fixture of music programs and courses through a Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) project titled “Amplifying Composers of Color: Decentering Whiteness in the American Art Music Canon.”
“Especially since George Floyd and the nation’s reckoning on systemic racism, a lot of companies, arts organizations, and music departments are now centering on composers and artists of color,” says Stephens. “We remain optimistic that representation will remain sustainable.”
Through the project, Leer and Fernández worked with Stephens to understand experiences that musicians have had with works by composers of color and investigate different ways to diversify curricula and repositories.
“How do we keep this from being just another fad? I think there’s a worry among a lot of students that this will be the case, in the Music Department at least,” Leer says. “In the past year there was a lot of work by composers of color being programmed and performed, and that was really wonderful, but if you look at historical precedent, I think there’s a very realistic worry that it’ll go back to the way it was very quickly. And so I think part of our project is saying ‘No, don’t let that happen.’”
Academia can be cyclic — a canon, after all, is called such for a reason. Much of the time, the same lessons are being taught and the same music is played year after year, generation after generation.
“Usually the trajectory has been, for many teachers, to teach what they’ve been taught. And they pass it down. And they rarely expand that reach to underrepresented voices outside of what they know,” Stephens says.
Usually the trajectory has been, for many teachers, to teach what they’ve been taught. And they pass it down. And they rarely expand that reach to underrepresented voices outside of what they know.Assistant Professor of Music Emery Stephens
This cycle is one that Stephens, Fernández, and Leer are working to understand better and disrupt. By leading a series of focus groups with college students from across the country, meeting with experts in the field, and collecting survey data from performers and educators around the country, Fernández and Leer are interested in what work has been done to diversify curricula across the country.
As part of their work, they also attended a week-long virtual conference, “Singing Down the Barriers Institute,” hosted by the University of Michigan in partnership with the Hampsong Foundation, alongside educators, industry leaders, professional musicians, and students from around the country. Attending lectures, having conversations, and networking with others in the field enabled them to better understand what work has been done — and what work remains.
“It’s been really enriching to meet so many people and learn more about the topic and hopefully be able to use it in the outside world,” Fernández says.
Talking with both those who are seasoned professionals in the field and those who are new to the areas of study, these St. Olaf researchers have been able to capture both the fact that this work is nothing new, while simultaneously understanding the rise in attention paid to such work.
In the past year there was a lot of work by composers of color being programmed and performed, and that was really wonderful, but if you look at historical precedent, I think there’s a very realistic worry that it’ll go back to the way it was very quickly. And so I think part of our project is saying ‘No, don’t let that happen.’Elijah Leer ’22
Though there has been a large push in the last year for more diversity in music programming, many have been working to expand the classical music canon for much longer. The CURI project is informed by work that Stephens started as a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, where he also conducted a nation-wide survey in 2005 on African American Art Song. The St. Olaf students distributed a similar survey this summer in an effort to better understand where the nation stands on expanding music education.
Throughout their conversations, it seems that the largest barriers stopping today’s white educators from incorporating more work by composers of color into their repertoire is a lack of access and a fear of culturally appropriating a work.
“For example, in one of our expert interviews with a Latino man, he said ‘I don’t write my music only for Latino, heterosexual men to perform. I want everyone to perform it,’” Fernández says. “However, it is important to do your research. You just can’t play music by someone without actually knowing what it is about because that is disrespectful. We want to give them the resources to be able to perform respectfully.”
For Fernández, Leer, and Stephens, these assets take the form of curriculum recommendations, expert opinions, and resources such as databases and articles that they’ve found helpful. Learn more about their findings, resources, and methods through their project website.
“[We want to focus on] the importance of appreciating and learning about other identities as well. And if this can happen early on, like high school, middle school, elementary school, then this would funnel, hopefully, into higher education,” Stephens says. “So there would be some sort of saturation of repertoire, of learning multiple cultural experiences and expressing their stories through respectable music performance.”
While they hope that the resources they’re creating will be useful for educators around the country, they also hope that the work will have a real impact on the Hill as well. One of the focus groups that Leer and Fernández led focused specifically on the Music Department at St. Olaf, something that they’re both very familiar with.
“It was really interesting to see the breadth of experiences people have had studying or performing music by composers of color, just in a St. Olaf focus group,” Leer says. “It’s really case-by-case, and particularly teacher-by-teacher, what people’s experiences are. My thinking has shifted toward properly informing teachers so that they feel empowered to introduce this music to their students, and then perform it themselves as good models. There are pockets of good — which I wasn’t expecting — but we have so much work to do.”
This urge to improve the St. Olaf community is largely what drew Fernández to this project in the first place. “Through all my education in Costa Rica I played a lot of music by a lot of different cultures, it wasn’t just Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or dead white men. I was used to playing different repertoires, specifically Latin American repertoires because we’re in Latin America, but we also were playing some African repertoires, some Asian repertoires,” Fernández says. “And then I came to study in college, and I was part of the band, and we only played music by white people. And I respect a lot of those composers, but only playing that music ended up being a little boring for me sometimes, because I feel like I was playing very repetitive stuff. And that was frustrating because I also wanted to play music from my culture and other cultures. However, I noticed last year that my directors made a good start in programming a diverse concert experience.”
Looking forward as an aspiring music educator, Leer is hoping to shift the educational cycle — going beyond what he was taught in the classroom, and being informed by the knowledge he’s gained throughout the CURI process.
“I saw the project and thought about it contextualizing my own classroom a year from now. I saw it as an opportunity to expand my own knowledge of composers of color, and to be able to go into the classroom with a more developed background. That’s really important and helpful, because when I bring this information to my students, they’ll hopefully take it to heart and be able to spread it further,” Leer says. “As an educator, I think it’s so important to be aware of the history of marginalization of voices in your field, in any field. And then to let students know that you’re committed to continue working toward justice.”