We Better Think: A Band Director of Color’s Perspective on Current Practices, Customs, and Ideologies on Teaching Band in the 2020s

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 1, 2020

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Balancing life and work gets so overwhelming that few band directors take time to critically analyze the macro- and micro-effects of how their program and teaching practices can impact disadvantaged people.

For most, the topic of diversity isn’t new. When I was a freshman in college seven years ago, I distinctly remember the profession calling for more diversity. Both music and education professors would discuss the importance of representation in your material, exposure, and pedagogy. That was the fall of 2013, and, in the summer of 2020, there is still a lot of work to do. People may point to emerging composers from marginalized backgrounds, or recent “high status” appointments of minorities and women. Yet, who is still dominating our classrooms and concert programs? Why is there a constant debate on the Facebook group, “Band Directors,” about programming? Why are our band rooms so homogenous when our country is not? These are a few items and considerations from one minority band director.


The notion that we “just pick good music” to teach our students and we do not consider the representation of the composer is inherently discriminatory. This perspective implies that marginalized people are not capable of composing high-quality music that will teach our students important concepts. We currently do not live in a world where a diverse background of people are standard in the repertoire. When you think of the great band composers, you think of Sousa, Grainger, Hindemith, Persichetti, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Holsinger, (Robert) Smith, Perrine, etc. If we continue to “just pick good music” with no diversity initiative, we continue to ignore the voices of BIPIC, female and non-binary, and LQBTQIA+ composers. To help remedy this, I recommend checking out Jodi Blackshaw’s list of female composers (www.jodieblackshaw.com/female-band-composers), Alex Shapiro’s list of resources www.alexshapiro.org/ProgrammingResources.html, and the “And We Were Heard” Project: www.andwewereheard.org.


While I don’t necessarily believe in an “all women, all black, all etc,” concert program, as it makes these composers seem like a novelty and not a serious musician who should be sought out more in the field, I do believe we need to come up with an active method for ourselves when we program. Due to budget constraints and timing, I made my attainable goal “One minority and/or female/non-binary composer for every concert cycle.”

This forced me to seek out fantastic music that otherwise lays in the shadows. Band directors must be the advocates for these composers and start learning their music so that names like Chandler Wilson, Kimberly Archer, Adrian Simms, and others are as recognizable as Brian Balmages, John Mackey, and Frank Ticheli. College band directors should be recording music by minority composers to lift their voices and expose the profession to great music we would otherwise miss. We must be conscious and direct about this. I call upon the most recognizable organizations (The University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Austin, Northwestern University, all military ensembles, The Dallas Winds, etc) in our profession to make a deliberate effort to record diverse music.

Clinicians/Guest Artists

Whether or not we teach in a diverse setting, all music teachers must show representation through their resources and modeling. Diversify your clinicians, guest conductors, and soloists. Make sure that when you do invite these people, you’re requesting their expertise and not necessarily just their perspective on being a minority in a cis, white, male-dominated field.

Instrument Selection

Instruments do not have a gender or race. Your female students are capable of playing the tuba. Your male students can play the flute. Black students can play instruments besides the saxophone. We should encourage students to play what they enjoy most (while also finding a way to put in place balanced instrumentation). Many of us recognize that, but few of us follow through. Band directors, especially beginning ones, must analyze and keep their own instrument biases in check.

School Customs and Traditions

Music classes must be open, safe, and celebratory spaces for marginalized people. Critically think about how every cultural background may interpret your band traditions. This is especially pertinent to schools that use Native American based mascots. If a current practice is racist, it is your professional and ethical obligation to stand up against it. You should not be encouraging students to partake in chants, songs, or school traditions that are discriminatory, offensive, or dehumanize people. Remember, your band room is a safe place for everyone and it must be all the time, not when it’s convenient for you or your community.

Program Demographics

We must find ways to reach students that are getting left behind. Latinx people like music. Trans people like music. Fourteen year-olds like music. Everyone likes music. If our band programs have a huge demographic discrepancy with the rest of the school population, you must reflect on that and find ways to reach those students.


We must continue to advocate for our students and their ability to participate in our programs; offer school-owned instruments and scholarships for private lessons and make participation affordable (no participation fees). While it may seem challenging, dismantling barriers to access will help bridge participation gaps.

Controversial Artists

I am still unsure of my position about programming composers such as Percy Grainger and Richard Wagner. I believe that both arguments could be adequately made about programming controversial artists. I will not compromise on the necessity of educating your students about the artists. In a student-centered class setting, you would actually have a discussion with students on whether or not it’s appropriate to perform this kind of music (although, time constraints could make this challenging). Hiding a racist past is negligent. Have a solid explanation of why students should still buy into the piece.


Band directors (and all music teachers) must be respectful to all genres of music. Notice how I did not say you must like or program every genre, but we must be aware of how our opinions as “music experts” can devalue a culture. I’ve heard both non-musicians and musicians themselves try to discredit the musical intricacies of black dominated genres such as hip-hop, rap, and R&B.

Saying that these genres lack musical integrity is almost always fueled by racism. These genres contain melody, harmony, rhythm, counter point, intricate instrumentation, text painting, and more. People who think these genres (not individual songs, genres) do not contain musical qualities have no valid argument and are perpetuating white supremacy. Sound extreme? How else would you describe someone who disowns the cultural output of Black people and puts the cultural output of Europeans on a pedestal? You can dislike these genres. You’re entitled to that opinion, but, there is no argument here. If John Cage’s 4”33 is music, so is every single rap song.

I know the list above challenges a lot of practices, customs, and traditions in our band community. Traditional music education structures use discriminatory practices and band directors cannot be color-blind. It has led to too many issues and neglects the challenges that BIPOC and other disadvantaged people face in this country and the education system. I also want to reiterate that this is the perspective of one minority band director. While I believe taking the above steps is key, you should be engaging with other directors with various perspectives on how to accomplish a more just and equitable classroom. I do not have all the answers and certainly do not speak for every minority.

I understand that being a band director is challenging. We are constantly juggling emails, administration, parents, students, deadlines, performance expectations, etc. You’re a busy person! Take the time now to think about who your program serves, and does it do so in the most inclusive way possible? Is it open? Is it accessible? Are you encouraging and empowering? Are you considering all the cultures that your school interacts with? What about the ones your school doesn’t interact with? Do you expose students to people and concepts that broaden their world understanding? Are you perpetuating racist and bigoted ideologies from the “golden” band era?

Utilizing a culturally informed pedagogical approach is another thing we have to do. But that’s the thing- we have to do it. This is no longer a debate. Not only is it the moral thing to do, but if we do not, we are contributors to systemic racism and are, objectively speaking, using poor teaching practices. We will lose students if they cannot see themselves in our band programs.

Eriq Vazquez is a band director at Stephen Mather High School. Prior to coming to Mather, he taught 7-12th grade band and music at Coal City High School, 4th-8th grade band in Mokena and student taught in the Joliet public schools (Joliet Central High School and Gompers Middle School). Vazquez received the Bachelor of Music degree in trombone performance and music teaching licensure from the University of Iowa.


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