Music Department Working to Support Anti-Racism Initiative

Meredith College’s Department of Music is taking a number of steps to address a desire for change by music students and alumnae, who expressed concerns about race and equity following the death of George Floyd and as a part of the consequent increase in racial justice advocacy efforts. The music department’s efforts are part of a larger anti-racism initiative being undertaken by Meredith College.

The music department hired a consultant, Lorna Hernandez Jarvis, Ph.D., to meet with BIPOC students and alumnae to allow them to have a safe and confidential conversation. The conversations revealed concerns that included a lack of diversity in the curriculum; lack of sensitivity in delivery of the curriculum, in particular in relation to international students; assumptions made by faculty about students of color and their background and experiences; and inappropriate selection of “cultural songs.”

Jeanie Wozencraft-Ornellas, music department head and associate professor of voice, then met with the consultant to discuss the best ways to move forward and address the concerns.

She takes this work seriously.

“Racism is abhorrent,” said Wozencraft-Ornellas. “As department head, I am responsible for ensuring a safe, quality, inclusive education for every one of our students. Having been aware of systemic racism in housing, banking, education, etc., I have to admit that I was not truly aware of how that systemic racism was built into our curriculum in music and music education.”

Since coming to Meredith over four years ago, she has worked to address individual incidents of racism and inequity as they came up, but she was not aware of how deep and widespread the issues were. To receive ongoing student feedback, she is developing a way for students to anonymously report issues as they arise.

“I am grateful for the assistance of our consultant in having an honest, safe conversation with our students,” she said. “I am equally grateful to our students for their honesty and willingness to work with us on creating a more inclusive music department.”

Steps Being Taken

Wozencraft-Ornellas and music faculty members discussed the concerns in their faculty retreat held at the beginning of the academic year. While those discussions will continue, both with faculty and with students, some important steps have been taken or are in the process of being taken, including

  • Redefining the music department’s mission. The new mission statement has been approved by faculty and will be shared on social media and placed on the departmental webpage.
  • Revising the music history curriculum to include a global music component and more inclusion of marginalized musicians. The new sequence provides significant opportunities to increase the inclusion of the contributions of BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ musicians, many of whom are being “rediscovered” in research after having been left out of previous history books.
  • Collecting songs from multiple cultures to use in teaching scales and intervals in music theory. European tonal scales/intervals will be compared with other cultural tonal systems in the theory classes, and be further investigated in the global music course, including harmonies, tones, rhythms, and notation not used in western music. This change will carry over into music education courses to prepare teachers with multi-cultural resources to use in the classroom.
  • Being more intentional and transparent in choices of “cultural” songs, and in communicating both the context and the importance of those songs and composers to performers and audiences. In addition, definitive steps are being taken to purge ensemble libraries of inappropriate selections, such as “Chinese folk songs” that include neither Chinese poetry nor harmonies, and are written by white composers.

Changes in Practice

According to Jim Waddelow, associate professor of music and director of instrumental studies, Meredith has increased the amount of minority and under-represented composers in orchestra concerts from 20% to about 40%.

“Our first concert featured three women composers, and we performed works composed by musicians from Japan, Turkey, and Chile,” said Waddelow.

He noted that most textbooks are still not inclusive or reflective of the work being created by all musicians, particularly music written and performed after World War II. This requires the department to go beyond the textbook to teach and perform what is being written by all composers.

“Beethoven and Mozart are great, and they are continuously performed for a reason,” said Waddelow. “However, if we ignore the music written by the current generation of musicians, many who struggle to have their voices heard, then we risk classical music becoming a museum of music of the past. This has been a problem in the classical music field for 100 years. We will continue to honor the greats of the past while at the same time we will champion the under-performed music of the minorities of our generation.”

Shannon Gravelle, director of choral activities and music education coordinator, said it is key to move away from the notion that music is static.

“Music is cultural, it’s responsive, it’s human. And the more we can contextualize music (history, theory, performance, etc.), the better musicians we will help teach,” said Gravelle. “This also allows us to better open music as a career for every single student at Meredith. Our students should leave Meredith being leaders and proactive, and revising the curriculum to more accurately reflect the reality of a global world is both aligning with best practices and creating a platform for our students to succeed in a more informed world.”

Gravelle also noted that anti-racism work is moving at a different pace in different areas of the music discipline.

“Music education has multiple scholars that are involved in anti-bias, anti-racism work,” she said. “The music education textbooks try to be “multicultural,” but this can be problematic if it tokenizes a style, composer, or concept. There is no definitive text right now on anti-bias, anti-racism (ABAR) work in the music education field, but there are a lot of great resources available; from textbooks to articles to scholars.”

Wozencraft-Ornellas said the department will continue to work with the diversity consultant to develop strategies that will ensure a safe, welcoming, and productive community for all music students.

“Although the Department of Music offers instruction rooted in the canon of Western European Classical music, we extend the exploration of music history and practice to include musical traditions and styles around the globe,” she said. “As an evolving department, we continually seek to increase through our curriculum inclusion of marginalized composers, musicians, and practices from the past and present.”

Learn more about these efforts in this Q&A with Shannon Gravelle.

Melyssa Allen

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