Decolonizing the Music Room

Black History Month

Music educators are often asked to prepare programs and lessons for Black History Month. Many of us are unsure or unaware of the best way to honor and best represent Black culture and heritage. Brandi Waller-Pace asked several Black music educators to share their thoughts and advice. Brandi is the Founder, Executive Director and Editor of the website “Decolonizing the Music Room.”

Click here to read the discussion.

Brandi Waller-Pace

Brandi teaches elementary music in Fort Worth, Texas, where she has taught for 9 years. She writes elementary music curriculum for her school district. Brandi holds a B.M. and M.M. in Jazz Studies from Howard University and has completed Orff Schulwerk certification, Kodály level I, and Music Learning Theory levels I & II. She is a member of her district’s racial equity committee and in 2019 completed a Campus Voices Fellowship with Leadership ISD, focusing on educational equity. Brandi performs and presents on jazz and the Black roots of early American music. She seeks to de-center the dominant white American narrative in music education to make teacher training, pre-service coursework, resources, and classroom practices more reflective of the many voices and traditions that exist in our schools.

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  1. Marjorie Pollard on February 14, 2020 at 12:05 pm

    Excellent article. I heard some recurring themes from the various educators you interviewed. I am taking their suggestions to heart. Thank you for sharing your insight as well.

  2. Stacy on February 14, 2020 at 12:34 pm

    Most of what these educators say is absolutely true. Like any music we teach, we must be mindful of context and properly accepted history. We just cannot teach music in a bubble. We must relate it to the students’ experiences and our current society. But the music classroom, like any other subject in a school, should not be a forum for anarchy. I disagree with Ms. Waller-Pace’s last comments to agitate racism and separatism.

    • Brandi Waller-Pace on February 15, 2020 at 12:39 am

      I don’t understand your response to my comments-please elaborate on what you consider about them to be anarchy and agitating racism.

  3. Doug Goodkin on February 15, 2020 at 12:15 am

    Thanks to all for sharing their ideas and perspectives. Indeed an essential topic for all year around. I’m a bit surprised that jazz was barely mentioned—for me, a central theme is not the music of enslaved people, of which we know so little, but the strands that grew out of the work songs, spirituals, field hollers and led to the blues and ragtime, which in turn led to New Orleans collective jazz, boogie woogie and big band swing, which in turn led to Louis Jordan’s music which led to rhythm ‘n’ blues which led to rock ‘n’roll which led to…….well, it’s a long list! And not to mention the Great American songbook which was informed by blues and ragtime and included composer/songwriters like Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Andy Razaf and others. I think one of the great lessons we music teachers can offer teachers is the “blacks make it, the whites take it” syndrome. Let kids hear the difference between the recordings by the white Original Dixieland Band, whose unearned privilege got them to make the first jazz recording, and compare them to the King Oliver band. Ken Burns has a fabulous excerpt about a battle of the bands between Chick Webb and Benny Goodman when you can hear so clearly who swings the hardest (hint: it’s not Benny, dubbed by mainstream press as the “King of Swing.”) On it goes. With the help of Youtube, compare and contrast Fred Astaire with the Nicholas Brothers, Elvis singing Hound Dog with Big Mama Thornton singing Hound Dog and so on—aural evidence that the black creators of the music almost always played with more integrity, authenticity and soulful musicality then the imitators—and yet, the imitators are still more famous than the people they learned from. Not to entirely disparage the white contribution to jazz and rock— there were many who brought something new and worthy to the mix and often with great respect for their teachers—but to put it in the context of the way things have worked—and often still do—in this country when race enters the picture. From my perspective, that’s useful information for the kids to be aware of. Just wanted to share some of the successful lessons I’ve done with kids (mostly 8th graders, but some with all ages with modified information) and yes, all year round, not just February. Thanks again to Brandi and all who shared their thoughts and bringing these important issues and their good suggestions to the table.

    • Brandi Waller-Pace on February 15, 2020 at 9:11 pm

      Yes, the whole point of the article was to center Black voices and what *they* have to say in discussing Black History Month. We are familiar with experiences of our colleagues asserting their own knowledge rather than just sitting and listening to our own, and our goal is to disrupt that cycle.

    • Tyler Shepard on February 17, 2020 at 9:56 am

      Thank you for sharing this perspective. I would be interested in an expanded listening list if you have one!

    • martin urbach on February 22, 2020 at 9:47 am

      It is mindblowing that a White man who has made a career and a living out of teaching jazz would say this statement: “for me, a central theme is not the music of enslaved people” Really? You (I imagine) went to school for jazz, bought thousands of dollars worth of records to play along with, spent thousands of hours transcribing the greats, spend thousands of your own dollars paying people to play jazz with you, and you can’t see that indeed the principal theme (not the only one of course, because a people should not be defined by single narratives) of jazz is enslavement. It is literally how the music came to be. I assume you’ve read the autobiograhies of Miles and duke and books on Monk and Ella. I imagine you know all these things. As a White person who has put food on your table by teaching and (performing?) Black American Music, it is your duty to not white wash it, especially with a mansplainy post on a Black woman’s article. We men can do better. We white folks can do better. We White men can do better. It is time.

  4. Lorelei Batislaong on February 15, 2020 at 1:27 am

    One of the driving tenets of Decolonizing the Music Room is to center non-white voices. To listen to lived experiences and let those experiences drive the conversation forward following whichever emerging direction. The lived experiences of 5 Black music teachers sharing their approach to BHM does not necessitate editing. Their thoughts should stand on their own, as they see fit to express, because they live it every day in ways we, who are visitors or spectators, could never fully understand, even with the best intentions. The best we (those who are not Black) can do is to stop talking, listen, and endeavor to behave in ways that do not take up space better represented by someone who lives it everyday.

    • Natasha Thurmon on February 17, 2020 at 6:36 am

      One of the best things I have learned since being in the DTMR facebook group is the fact that my voice, opinion, and perspective, are not always meant to be the loudest in the room. In fact, it often shouldn’t. I am working on listening to hear and understand, not to respond. So I read this article to hear what the contributors were, well, contributing! And not to quickly jump to give a reaction back. Thank you to those who took the time to craft thoughtful and honest responses in this article.

    • Mars Caulton on February 20, 2020 at 11:26 pm

      Grateful for this fantastic response!

  5. Peter Siegel on February 18, 2020 at 11:28 am

    This is a very helpful thread and piece. Thank you. As a music educator in a mostly white community in New Hampshire, it is a challenge to create a cultural context for our families. Presenting, participating in, and performing African and African American songs, dances, stories and games does very little to engage our elementary school children in a context to which they can relate. Over the last 15 years, I have developed a way through story telling and activities to tie styles of music in pop culture back to African American origins. The hambone and early rhymes to step, beat box, hip hop; old time blues and spriituals to rock and country, New Orleans brass and Caribbean Rhythms to jazz. However, none of this means a thing if I JUST do it in February. I use the month as an excuse to focus on Black history in music but I do it all year.

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