Strummin’ on the Old Banjo

About twenty years ago, I served on the team of teachers who crafted the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification assessment for music teachers. The 16-member team was carefully drawn from an array of music education specialists, with an eye toward balance. Balance between K-12 and higher ed, vocal and instrumental music, male and female, geographic—and ethnic balance.

Everyone on the team took the work seriously. All of us were experienced master music teachers. We were trying to lay down valid and reliable assessments that could measure a music teacher’s pedagogical skills and content knowledge. It was good work, based on a set of standards drawn up by another diverse national team of teachers.

The National Board Certification process has changed since then—we were the first teachers to tackle these tasks—but the assessment consists of portfolios of the candidates’ classroom practice, including videotaped lessons, and a set of on-demand content assessments. It was our job to design the assessment model, then provide alternate items so the assessment could be used for many years.

The content assessments were designed to be rigorous—for example, composing, in 30 minutes, a short piece of music for specified instruments, voices, key and time signatures and in a prescribed style. If you’re not a music teacher, that might sound impossible, but music specialists compose and arrange music to fit their musicians all the time. A music teacher who couldn’t sketch out a quick composition meeting certain parameters could not be considered accomplished.

In addition to assessments around music teachers’ curricular knowledge, rehearsal skills, theory and composition, there was an exercise to assess teachers’ knowledge of music history. Four members of our team were Black; three had attended an HBCU. And they thought that ‘drop the needle’ exercises, where teachers listened to discrete samples of traditional Western composers and identified the composer, historical period and other compositional or historical features were—not to put too fine a point on it—baloney.

Two team members (both white and male) were music education professors at well-regarded universities. And they believed this knowledge was music history. They refused to entertain the thought that music majors anywhere were not well-grounded in the Western canon. They kept saying things like ‘you’re telling me you can’t identify all nine Beethoven symphonies? That you didn’t study them in college?’

The Black teachers said things like ‘Can you tell me what a field holler is? Can you sing one, right now? Can you trace hip-hop through its various incarnations, back to New York City and the Caribbean? That’s what I studied in college!’

The conversation grew heated at times, and eventually boiled down to this nugget, the thing we’d said we were considering, all along: What knowledge is essential for any music teacher to be effective and accomplished?

There were two distinct schools of thought:

  • One, there is an established canon of Western-generated art and folk music in the United States that represents music of worth. These are the materials we should be teaching our students. The rest is somewhere between inconsequential and trash.
  • Two, our students are immersed in popular music, nearly all of which can be traced back to African roots, in some aspect. Jazz, in fact, is the first truly American art music. To avoid what came before and after jazz in the realm of popular music—or to set it aside as ‘less than’ dead, white, Eurocentric composed music—does our students, black and white, a terrible disservice.

At that point, I had been a music teacher for nearly 25 years and considered myself an exemplary practitioner. Many of the points raised by the Black teachers were new to me. I spent the weeks between the team’s meetings studying ‘multi-cultural’ music. What was the same? What was different?

More importantly, what did my students need? Was I just following in the footsteps of white music educators, using the same music, teaching the same sterile skills, pursuing the same goal of ‘excellence,’ without really considering more important questions about music and human creativity in a culture? The first aha moment for me? Noticing that the method book my beginners used featured ‘Jump Jim Crow’ in a lesson about dotted rhythms.

The ultimate outcome for the National Board music certificate was designing two different assessments—one called Western Music History, testing teachers’ knowledge about the traditional, Eurocentric canon and another called World Music which drew on samples from around the globe, and occasionally tossed in a ragtime or swing tune. It was a decidedly imperfect compromise. By the time our work was done, three of the four Black team members had quit.

When the certificate was rolled out, I was a scorer for the World Music assessment, where it was obvious that many American music teachers didn’t know a lot about non-Western music. In working with candidates—white candidates, especially secondary band and orchestra teachers—I was likely to hear that they found the World Music assessment irrelevant or unfair. Make-work, even—not knowledge they needed to have or use. Those conversations between team members rang in my ears.

Thankfully, these issues have not gone away. Dialogue between music teachers has become richer and digging into folk music and popular standards has revealed a lot of low-level, unrecognized or underestimated racism, in addition to the blatant, out-there stuff. There is significant scholarship around the value of non-Western music—and pushback as well; this piece and the comments are a good example.

I frequently read threads now on music educators’ groups, as well as journals, articles and casual conversations about musical literature and how to re-think habitual literature choices. Nine out of ten preservice music teachers are white. This is a big deal.

For white teachers, reading through compilations of music with racist roots that they’ve sung as children and used in their classrooms is similar to teachers who love Dr. Seuss learning that his books carry some racist baggage.  I’ve been working on the railroad? How can that be racist?

The trick is to ask, and to listen, and not behave as if your favorite pancake syrup has filed for a name change. White people have been in charge of music classrooms, instructional materials and evaluating what ‘good’ music is for centuries. So what if you ‘always’ used Oh Susannah! to teach sixteenth note pickups? Do better.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in ‘How to be an Antiracist’ says that racism doesn’t spring from hate and ignorance. Racism is a result of racist policies, policies that form racist systems, and encourage and maintain racist behaviors. That’s a hard concept to understand, at first.

But when I think about all the white music teachers defending the songs that make light of slavery, and enslaved people, it is clear: choosing music that I prefer is making policy. Teachers make this kind of policy in their classrooms all the time. Being an antiracist music teacher begins with our most fundamental responsibility: making the best possible musical choices.


    1. Thanks for the re-post. And for sending me Hogeland’s essay. I’ve read some of his stuff, but this was priceless. I went through nearly all the stages he did, being close in age, wherein I felt that my friends and I were the real abitrars of ‘real’ soul / folk / rock etc. music. Remember the anti-disco movement–burning albums? I think it’s just more of the usual ‘I’m a white kid, therefore my opinion counts’ stuff.



  1. This is great! I’m not a music teacher, but as I’m getting back into piano playing and breaking out the old “learn to play” books I had as a kid, it’s *shocking* how many racist songs creep into the beginner books, especially. I can understand the struggle of “I need a song to teach RIGHT NOW here is one in the resources I’m sure the school purchased thoughtfully in 1972” (I’m an ELA teacher, so I’ve certainly done similar with literature choices).
    The second part, though, I don’t understand as well; when someone points out that a book/piece of music has a racist past, there’s this automatic cringing shame of “oh, crap, I made students read/play WHAT type of racism?” that leads way too many people to deny the racism at all, so as to avoid feeling that shame.
    But…my question is, how do they forget that? How do they not feel an inward cringe when assigning it the next year? How are they able to completely ignore the validity of the points made?



    1. Thanks for a good comment. It *is* shocking how many racist songs are presumably included in beginner books because ‘everyone knows them’ (which isn’t true, at least any more).

      I am reading threads on this topic–tons of them. There’s a lot of defensiveness. And I get that. People think they’ve been doing the right thing, teaching the right stuff and all of a sudden (not really suddenly, but it feels like that) someone questions their very integrity!

      And then they make the classic defensive responses: I’m not racist! That song isn’t racist, either–prove it to me! I’ve always used that music to teach __________. It’s good music–because I’m a trained musician and I know good music. I’ve been teaching for ___ years and nobody’s ever mentioned this before! Last year, I did a whole unit on spirituals!

      And on. And on.

      I get this, because I’ve made some of these arguments (out loud or internally) myself. Nobody wants to think that the curriculum they have been following or made up includes racist elements. It takes a lot of strength to say ‘maybe I was wrong–I can do better.’



  2. As and elementary school music teacher, I’ve been grappling with this as well. It goes beyond literature choice as well. The heavy emphasis in school music on music notation and the sense that “playing by ear” is an inferior way of approaching music is quite Eurocentric and dismissive of many musical practices. I strive to have my students experience both approaches, but always put sound before sight!

    David Olsen Pietrowski



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