Center for Instructional
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Amber Sudduth Bone
Heather Davidson
Lysa Rivera
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Department of Music

Incorporating Inclusivity in Music Education


In every class I teach, it is profoundly important to me to be inclusive with my curriculum design and communication with students. The whole point of my job as professor of solo voice and opera is to enable students to express themselves and literally develop their unique voices. So it’s critical that multicultural perspectives are recognized and respected, and that students know that I cherish what they bring as individuals to our community of learners.

Examining the Roots of Ideas about Musicianship

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I teach a number of subjects firmly rooted in the Western Art Tradition, Opera being a multifaceted form in this genre which encompasses music, theatre, literature, history, and visual arts. As issues related to multicultural perspectives arise, I do my best to call them to light and to help students articulate their beliefs. For example, we identify the roots of notions about what “art” is and “what should be studied and taught” and examine connections to imperialism and societal privilege (Wade, 169-171), and challenge these assumptions. We compare classical and popular genres, investigate the authenticity of “exoticism” in vocal composition, and seek out the music and poetry of traditionally under-represented groups. In performance, sometimes this means tying the theme of a recital group to a subject like colonialism, or finding songs in a language the student is studying or which is part of their heritage. We look at the standard Italian, French, German, or English repertoire for what it is: a body of work which they need to be familiar with as a bridge to graduate school, and one category of composition which will enable them to develop their skill as singers in a very specific way.

We explore music as a form of communication: even without words, music has the power to evoke feelings and memories, and can be used to motivate or persuade. Different genres use the building blocks of sound (frequency, amplitude, duration, and timbre) with different ideals and goals. For example, in opera, the melody and harmony are meant to mirror human emotion in the swell and arc of the phrase; it is a much more instrumental use of the voice than in more popular forms of musical theatre, where the acting is tied more directly to the delivery of the text. Both, however, require a virtuosic use of the vocal instrument and we’re careful to emphasize this: that it’s a matter of difference in style, not that one genre is “more evolved” or even “healthier” than another. It’s also important to realize that to effectively perform or even fully understand music from a specific culture, as with the nuances of language and nonverbal communication, it takes years of immersion in that culture before genuine comprehension can be realized.

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As students move through the program, music serves as a vehicle for delving into some of the big questions about the humanities and how skill is developed (Bain, 2004), such as:

  • Is musical communication an innate manifestation of human empathy or a learned aspect of culture?
  • Can anyone be a virtuoso? What does it mean to be “musical”? How long does it take to learn to sing?
  • Are some kinds of music “better” than others? Why should anyone be a singer?
  • How do you make “innovative” not equal “ugly”? Is it possible to produce art according to “rules”?

Each student is developing their identity as a musician and person as they develop facility on their instrument, and philosophical questions like these guide that process. A lot of what leads to success in the practice room has to do with a student’s approach to managing frustration–the willingness to spend time on the repetitive processes and small components that enable automaticity and unfettered expression. We spend a lot of time analyzing how the elements of music work together to tell the story at hand and to relate this work to the student’s life experiences. In any performance, we want to see the composition at hand, plus the student's perspective (Jory, 2002). And as their teacher, my role is to guide their development as learners, helping them find the most efficient and effective path to where they want to go. I can only know what this is by staying as tuned in as I can to their personal viewpoints.

Instructional Strategies

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In my instructional design, I try to create numerous opportunities for students to bring their perspectives to the table: to interact with each other in groups, to build collaborative resources such as Wikis, and to participate in peer reviews. I diversify assessments to enable students to express themselves in ways in which they feel comfortable (for example, hybrid designs which include written, online, and in-class components) and keep track of my interactions with them so that every student in the class gets a fair amount of air time. In the GUR classes I teach, I set myself the enjoyable challenge of drawing connections between Music and the range of other majors on campus, and it has been simply amazing to see what ensues, as the students have so much to teach me about what they are passionate about. They are so comfortable in the world of social media that using these tools to generate student-created resource compilations on our learning management system opens an ever-ballooning world of material that I’d never be able to provide them with just on my own.

I find that the more opportunities I set up for them to be in the role of teacher, the more deeply they understand concepts and transfer that knowledge to their independent work. When they explain their thinking about an interpretive or technical issue to a peer in performance class, they are articulating their beliefs about what is important and what has worked for them, and this is valuable processing in their working memory when the same issue arises in the future. In their individual lessons, creating the expectation that they can select their own targets for improvement and corresponding strategies facilitates rehearsal of their practice process with me in the role of coach. (Duke, 2005) I can really see how the challenges at hand appear to them as a person and how they will tend to go about addressing them and thus make suggestions in harmony with their approach and preferences. I have also noticed that peers have a powerful ability to empathize with the challenges in the various stages of becoming a musician–sometimes experts have become so automated that they have forgotten what it was like when everything felt clunky and awkward, and so neglect to point out the truly important things to concentrate on in the wash of information coming at learners. Opening up the discussion to more voices increases the possibility that someone will be able to explain the challenge in a way that makes sense.

Inclusive Direction

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In my opera directing, I try to use language and staging that leave options open for students with regards to gender and orientation. Often there is no specific indication in the script or score about character relationships, and it’s really none of my business or the audience’s business who a particular student wants to sing to in these cases. So I use words like “person” instead of “him” or “her.” I keep Human Rights Campaign and WWU Safe Zone signs on my office door so that students know that it is a space where they can express themselves as they wish to, but I don’t pry into their lives. We look at the stories and plots of the shows as expressions of ideas about interpersonal relationships and these can be potent vehicles for developing empathy with human rights issues. For example, if a character in a show behaves in a way that might be considered abusive, we work hard to fully understand the possible motivations for this, and not to caricature but to develop a nuanced and deep realization of what is going on in the relationship and society in question. We look for the good in the bad, and the bad in the good. (Hauser & Reich, 2003, p. 48) Developing this understanding of why people might behave in the ways that they do is a powerful catalyst for thinking about potential interventions and working as a force for social justice. When class- or gender-related restrictions on character behavior or interactions are critical to a realistic portrayal of public life in the time in question, we frame those choices in the anachronistic case at hand. These become an acting choice and a basis for discussion and comparison with a student’s own beliefs and thinking instead of the obvious way “everyone” behaves. We guard against lampooning characters for their differences but rather attempt to celebrate the beauty of variation in humanity and to find the psychological arc of the story; this shows how they are transformed by the events of the plot and how the music empowers our sense of empathy with their very thoughts. In that way, these rehearsal processes and performances are a vivid link with diverse perspectives for singers, production team, and audience.


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