The Department of Music has been working on a variety of efforts in support of the College’s larger anti-racism initiatives. In this Q&A, Shannon Gravelle, director of choral activities and music education coordinator, shares her thoughts on this important work.
Q: How is this anti-racism effort affecting your particular area of teaching?
I teach a variety of different areas. My primary specialty, of course, is choir conducting and conducting pedagogy (so, choirs and conducting classes). I also have additional training in music education, which is another area in my load (music education classes). The Music Education field tends to be more proactive in anti-racism discussions and curriculum design than the choral field, although there are some amazing leaders in the choral field. In addition, these two fields sometimes overlap. All this to say: anti-racism work is moving at a different pace in different areas of music.
Music education has multiple scholars that are involved in anti-bias, anti-racism work. 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.
Q: What is the “canon” and why is it important to this discussion?
In choral music, it’s been tradition to program music in the “canon,” which is a problematic term because it assumes that the “canon” is somehow bias-free. When I talk to students about this, I always use this example: List some of the biggest name composers throughout history (the answers tend to be J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and maybe a few others). Then I point out that Bach wasn’t popular in his day. He was actually considered outdated, and when he passed away, his music fell into oblivion. UNTIL Felix Mendelssohn brushed off his St. Matthew Passion in 1829 (actually, a few years before that, but the performance was in 1829) and revived this work, and there was a renewed interest in Bach. Suddenly, with all the new research on Bach, he was considered the pinnacle of Baroque music. And thus, 80 years after his death, the historical narrative around him was changed. This happens because people made a decision about the quality and importance of his work, and these decisions are made through personal lenses.
This is why it’s so important for us to critically engage with who and what is included in the “canon,” because someone made a choice to put them and that music there. With this information in mind, I believe we need to name the problems within the choral field, and share this with the choral students when we are talking about the music we are singing. It’s also why, when I examine our own choral library, we have to make changes to what’s available. The composers, in general, offer a very limited perspective. If we don’t search for and sing other compositional voices, who will? Meredith is in a unique position because we are a unique institution, and can and should be exploring a multitude of compositional voices, both historical and current.
Now, a lot of other things factor into this: access to the music, publisher choices, budget (which affects access to the music), correcting bad scholarship (which I can’t do on my own, and the students can’t do on their own), etc. This is a collective, choral field effort.
Q: Why is it important to change the curriculum?
Right now, we are working on the notion that music is static. But music is not. 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. This also allows us to better open music as a career for every single student at Meredith and every single future 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. The goal is for them to understand the role that the Western European traditions have played, as this will likely remain the basis for a lot of what they do. But it’s a disservice to our students to limit the curriculum.