Multicultural Music: Broadening Students’ Musical Horizons

Mike Lawson • ChoralPerformance • October 22, 2006

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By Dawn Allcot

In a recent survey conducted by MENC, the National Association for Music Education, 95 percent of 364 music teachers polled reported that they teach multicultural, or world, music in their curriculum. Eighty-four percent said they include this music in their ensembles’ performances.

In a separate survey, 25 percent of the educators questioned said that their choices of multicultural music included selections from the represented ethnic and/or religious groups in their schools. An additional 29 percent said that the selections “pretty much” included choices from these different groups.

While the MENC survey represented a cross-section of music educators – from instrumental music to choral and general music – the percentage of band and orchestra directors that actually incorporate world music into their ensembles could be much lower.

Dr. William M. Anderson, Associate Dean at Kent State University and author of several books on multicultural music, said, “Most of the work has really been in the general music area.”

He explained why this may be the case. “[In general music classes], you’re not bound by these Western idioms that you have to filter [music] through. In other words,” he said, “if you put it through the band or orchestra, you’ve got to filter a lot of music from a completely different part of the world into a different medium. They’ve got different instruments and different ensembles.”

However, that’s not to underestimate the importance – or prevalence – of multicultural music in middle and high school bands and orchestras.

“Once you branch out into another music,” Anderson said, “you come back to your own, hearing and thinking in a very different way. What we want to do is to encourage people to try to think broader. I’d rather give them a broader perspective than just European composers.”

Why Multiculturalism?

Of course, there are also social implications to studying the music of other cultures. Dr. Terese Volk of Wayne State University, Detroit, Mich., noted, “How better to understand another person than to understand his or her music? Music is representative of culture. Ethnomusicologists look at music both in, and as, culture.”

As American classrooms become more ethnically diverse, it’s important for music educators to teach and model tolerance; music is a logical way to create familiarity with other cultures.

“The American demographics demand diversity in the classroom, and students can learn about the people behind these statistics through the music the people make, listen to, and like,” Volk said.

Anderson agreed. “The thrust of multiculturalism has been systemic. It started with people thinking it was a fad and it would be here and gone. But it’s shot through and through the school music curriculum. People really do feel like you have to be representative of what American culture is, which is a series of cultures. We have 105 cultures in the Cleveland area. It’s normal that we would make it a part of the curriculum.”

MENC’s survey findings support Volk’s and Anderson’s assertions. Sixty-two percent of the 78 educators polled said that 10 percent or more of their total student population would be considered minority in terms of racial heritage or ethnic background. Fourteen percent said that their music ensembles reflect the overall ethnic or racial make-up of the school “to a great extent,” while 11 percent said the ensembles match the overall make-up of the school “to a moderate extent.” (Responses did not add up to 100 percent.)

Authenticity in Multicultural Literature

Fifty-six percent of the directors surveyed by MENC said that, generally speaking, it is difficult to find or obtain a good selection of multicultural music materials. This percentage is likely higher for band and orchestra directors.

However, Anderson said, “there’s a lot of literature, now, where music from other parts of the world is transcribed into works that bands and orchestras [can] do. Some of it fits pretty well.”

He noted that most Latin pieces usually transfer seamlessly to band and orchestra performances, while forms of Asian music don’t work as well.

“You end up changing the music into another idiom. You may be playing a Japanese tune with the orchestra, but it’s probably fairly different.”

MENC offers several resources for directors interested in expanding their multicultural curricula. Companies who specialize in multicultural works, such as World Music Press, provide a wide range of world music alternatives for the band and orchestra director.

When selecting multicultural compositions, Anderson said, “You want to try to be as authentic as possible, but sometimes it doesn’t work so easily, so you want to try to get as close to it as you can.”

Volk called this assessment of a work the “Levels of Authenticity.”

“Level I has no relation to any culture except the title,” she explained. “It’s something that helped inspire the composer, but does not use any musical elements from the culture. Level II is the standard ‘Folk Song Suite,’ or ‘Themes and Variations on a Song from [any culture].’ At least the melody comes from the culture, but the composition is purely Western. Level III tries to make use of other elements of music from the culture: original instruments, rhythms, melody and/or harmony, sometimes form. Level IV is either a close transcription from a piece in the culture, or is composed by a person from the culture, employing the elements of music from the culture.”

The Search for Authentic Pieces

Many high school and middle school band and orchestra directors, including Eric Melley of Belmont High School in Massachusetts, have successfully integrated multicultural music into their curricula.

Melley noted the difficulties inherent in finding authentic multicultural compositions for his three concert bands and his jazz ensemble.

“The challenge of finding music is that the band is a Western European and American tradition, and although it caught on around the world, most of the music from around the world was written for [other] ensembles, or for solo instruments that aren’t found in the band.”

Melley said that the study of multicultural music often starts with the composer. He often turns to European composers that have employed music from different cultures, including folk music from their own cultures.

“There are a few composers that have written music that fits in the band room,” he said. “The challenge is finding a composer who comes from a certain tradition or has researched a certain tradition, but is also trained to write music for the symphonic band.”

He cited composers such as Dana Wilson, who commissioned “Dance of the New World” for Belmont High School in 1995.

“That [composition] employed a lot of Native American syncopated rhythms, African drumming, and things like that,” he said.

Melley looks for works by composers who are native to a certain region but have also been schooled in the United States. Works from a composer of a certain ethnicity will, naturally, reflect that person’s culture.

“It’s such a personal thing, writing a piece of music,” Melley said.

Teaching authentic pieces from other cultures also presents a musical challenge for the director.

“A lot of music from different cultures also uses a different music language,” Melley said. “You can relate it all, but it’s a slightly different vocabulary.”

The ‘Culture’ in Multiculturalism

In addition to teaching a new form of music, directors can take the opportunity – when they introduce world music to the classroom – to offer history, sociology and geography lessons.

“I always give the kids a little bit of the background,” said Melley, adding that he also includes cultural references in the program notes for each concert. “When you have 90 to 100 kids sitting in front of you with instruments, it’s hard to lecture, but I do discuss it. I ask kids what kind of association they might have to the composer or the piece or the melody. Do they recognize it?”

Melley has managed to engage his students in the study of music from other countries so well that they now come to him with selections and genres.

“Students will come to me and say, ‘Have you heard this band? Have you heard this Klezmer music?’ They’ll introduce me to new pieces and new works. They’re out there listening on the Web or through their church group or other ensembles,” he reported.

Multicultural Music in Jazz Ensembles

Melley’s jazz band recently performed at the annual Multicultural Dinner, hosted by Boston METCO parents and held at Chenery Middle School in his district. Melley feels that jazz music is a prime example of multiculturalism (read: multiple cultures) in one art form.

“The music that our jazz band was playing was, at its core, the definition of multiculturalism,” he said. “Jazz comes from the African-American tradition. It came out of the blues, which came from the Spirituals. It takes Western harmony and puts it with African rhythm. It’s a great combination.”

Samuel Hankins, band director at Edison Middle School in Champaign, Ill., also uses the jazz idiom to introduce the study of different cultures into his band program.

“I might do some Caribbean tunes in my concert bands, but I pretty much stick with the basics,” he said. “The jazz bands are a different story. I teach a lot of different styles, a wide variety.”

Hankins often relies on Latin and Salsa arrangements to give his students an appreciation and awareness of the different cultures.

“It’s a different style from playing traditional Western music,” he said. “We’re so geared to the rock and funk styles; going into Latin is a different feel.”

To make it easier, Hankins plays recordings, both CDs and videos, of the different genres for his students. The experience, he said, gives them a better understanding of where jazz and swing comes from.

“If they understand it, they can play the music a little better,” he said.

Multicultural Music in the Classroom

For directors who are interested in introducing different styles into the music room, Hankins noted that it’s important to know the material before presenting it to the class.

“If there’s something you’re not aware of or you don’t understand how to teach it, ask for help,” he advised. “Ask someone who is familiar with that genre of music, and pick his or her brain about how to present it. You’re constantly learning in this business. [Nobody] knows it all.”

It’s also important to remember that the study of multicultural music should not be limited to any one ethnic group. The folk music of any country, be it Western European, North American, Middle Eastern and so on, has a rich cultural history. For instance, at a recent concert, Melley’s Belmont High School band performed selections from France, America, England, Norway, Czechoslovakia and Latin America.

“It’s always good when you can bring cultures together,” Melley said. “And the arts are the best way to do it. I go back to Duke Ellington’s band. He was one of the first band leaders not to care what you looked like. You could be a man or a woman, black, white or Latin, and it didn’t matter as long as you were playing serious music that everyone could respect.”

Dawn Allcot, the former editor of the former news magazine, Band & Orchestra Product News, is a full-time freelance writer covering the music and audiovisual industries. She is also the Broadway correspondent for, a Web site for adolescents passionate about the performing arts.

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