Black Classical Composers and their Integration into Elementary School General Music Curricula

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Lauren Bagshaw

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Lauren Bagshaw is a junior studying social policy, music education and saxophone performance. In 2018, she received a Summer Undergraduate Research Grant to explore diversity in music education. Lauren is undecided about what she hopes to do after graduating, but may want to work or further her studies in graduate school.


What is your research topic, in a nutshell?

I studied the perspectives of elementary school general music teachers on integrating black classical composers into their curricula.


How did you come to your research topic?

There has been a movement in the Bienen School of Music to diversify the core curriculum. When people think of the classical music canon, they typically think of white males, while non-white and non-male composers are underrepresented. I was curious how a more diverse curriculum could be introduced to young students, and if it would be successful.


Where do you see the future direction of this work leading?

I found that teachers I interviewed were generally very open to the idea of incorporating black classical composers into the curriculum. However, a challenge almost all of them addressed was that they do not have enough knowledge or resources about the composers in order to teach about them. I think more research can be done on how to diversify music educator resources, as well as effective ways that black classical composers can be addressed in the classroom.

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The main part of my project was interviewing elementary school general music teachers in Connecticut. I asked the teachers questions about the content of their curricula, their objectives for student learning, their control over the curricula, their knowledge about black classical composers, and their opinions on how the composers could be incorporated into the classroom. Each interview lasted approximately one hour. I then transcribed the interviews, which allowed me to synthesize the main points that came up and absorb information or insight I may have missed or forgotten the first time. Guided by the information I gathered from the interviews, I read about the history of black classical musicians with a focus on black composers and their biographies and works.

The interviews provided me with insight that was useful as someone who has never taught in an elementary school setting. For example, I learned about the significant challenges that come with being a music teacher and some hesitations that the teachers had about integrating a topic like black classical composers into the classroom. Some challenges that teachers expressed having in general were a lack of time in the classroom and the priority of meeting other requirements. The teachers I interviewed had only 40 to 60 minutes a week with the students; on top of that, they mentioned how they typically go through several topics or activities within one class period, so they have to be particular about time. Also, although they expressed having a good amount of flexibility and control over their curricula, they brought up other focal points that they felt were a priority. For example, one teacher worked at a STEM school, and she felt that an overarching goal was to incorporate STEM into her music classroom. Every teacher seemed interested in teaching about black composers, but they expressed concerns about doing that while still meeting their other goals in such a short period of time. They mentioned some more concerns, specifically about teaching about black composers in the classroom. A major point that I heard from all the teachers was that they have a lack of knowledge about black composers and their music. If they teach something to their students, they want to teach it well, but they don’t have the resources or abundant time to research the topic. The teachers also mentioned that it is necessary to be careful when discussing mature or sensitive topics like race/racism with young students; there is a fear of being insensitive or offensive, and it is difficult for even the most experienced teachers to be very clear, prepared, and deliberate when approaching difficult topics with young students.

The interviewees also discussed ideas they had for overcoming these obstacles and approaching the integration of black composers into the curriculum. One teacher had the idea of working more closely with classroom teachers and specials teachers (art, physical education, etc.) to create discussions across classrooms. For example, when the students are learning about slavery or civil rights in their main classrooms, perhaps the music teacher could teach about black composers during that time and center discussions in the music classroom around civil rights. Or, when the teacher is already teaching about Mozart or Beethoven, perhaps they can also teach about their black contemporaries. Another idea that came up in some form in each interview was using a black composer’s music as a listening activity. Many of the teachers bring classical music into the classroom to teach the students how to move to music, to teach about musical form, or to enforce rhythmic or melodic motifs that the students are learning about in the classroom. So, if the students are learning about Theme and Variations form, or focusing on “so” and “mi,” and there is a piece by a black composer that successfully presents those elements, then the students can listen to that piece and enforce those elements through listening. The teacher could then give some information about the composer, or do something even simpler like show the students a picture of the composer and say their name and when they lived. Two teachers suggested reading a book to the students on substitute days about black composers/musicians or what life was like for black people during a particular time period that is being taught about in class. Even if the content is not musical directly, it can help students contextualize the music or composers that they learn about in the future in a fun and engaging way.

My research on black composers consisted of compiling the names and works of composers mentioned in The Music of Black Americans by Eileen Southern, Black Composers, Black Performers, and the American Symphony Orchestra by the Center for Black Music Research, and A Historical Study of Black Music by Tilford Brooks. I took notes on the history of black musicians and how people of the African diaspora became involved with classical music. Something I found particularly notable was the impact that slavery had on black classical musicians in America. For example, many slaves were allowed to play instruments like the fife and violin, and being a classical musician was considered a rather respectable career for free blacks at the time. It was also interesting to me that at first, many black musicians wanted nothing to do with spirituals because they wanted no reminder of slavery; however, as African American music became more embraced as an important part of their culture, more black composers started integrating African American elements into their works. A great example of a composer who was successful at bringing African American elements into the symphony setting is William Grant Still.

This research experience was also educational to me in terms of the logistics of research itself. For example, it was more difficult to arrange interviews than I expected. I think this occurred for a few reasons: for one, many teachers check their school emails less frequently over the summer or are away on vacation. Also, I did not offer an incentive for participating in my research, other than offering to meet in a convenient area for the teacher and providing coffee. I also noticed that teachers had a higher response rate when I mentioned that someone had recommended them to me. Additionally, there were some miscommunications and cancellations that I did not account for. This experience taught me the importance of communicating with potential research participants far in advance and arranging more interviews than necessary in case some do not materialize, as well as anticipating lower response rates as a result of lower incentives. As I anticipated, it was also difficult for me to manage my time and work on this project independently. I struggled with a lack of self-confidence and motivation because there were no schedules or specific guidelines to follow. My faculty mentor, Dr. Hickey, guided me and helped boost my confidence, but I must keep this experience in mind when doing future research and ensure that I schedule my work more strictly or approach the project differently.

My project differed a bit from my proposal because I ended up focusing on the interviews more than the composers and educational materials; however, I feel that I have a better background now for the kind of research I need to do in the future. It was difficult to determine what information and educational materials about the composers would be most relevant for young students because I haven’t taught in that setting yet, but I think that this will come more naturally once I get more experience teaching. I am taking General Methods I in the fall, which will give me some real world experience in the general music classroom that can guide the way I teach. The next step for me is to continue studying black classical composers and their music, as well as the history of black musicians involved in classical music. I will continue listening to the composers’ music and reading their biographies, and I will keep having conversations with faculty and colleagues about diversity in music education. Based on the suggestion of one interviewee, I have created a Teachers Pay Teachers account and will create and post materials about black composers that teachers can download and use in their classroom. Ratings and feedback on those materials will help me improve them or give me ideas for other kinds of materials. I bought a collegiate membership for the National Association for Music Education which comes with a subscription to the Music Educators Journal. The membership will allow me to stay up to date on findings and happenings in music education, and I will read articles from the MEJ to learn about the writing style in the field. My goal is to write something for the MEJ in the future, whether it is about the findings from this project or findings from further research.

This project was important to me because black composers and musicians are underrepresented in classical music even though they have valuable contributions. By integrating more black composers into the elementary school general music classroom, kids can start to see classical music as an art form that all kinds of people can contribute to, not just old white men. My hope is that I can be a teacher who advocates for the representation of black, Latin(x), female, and LGBT composers/musicians in the music classroom.