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  • Writer's pictureJanis Aston

The Power of Music

I do not profess to have all the answers although my family would say differently. Not that I have all the answers but that I think I do. LOL

I have been reading the articles about the songs we teach and the songs we shouldn't be using in the music class. I want to weigh in on this current topic of racially-motivated songs.

I will preface what I'm about to say by telling you that I am white, 71 years old, retired after over 30 years in the elementary music classroom, and I was born and raised in the Southern United States. I am writing this in January 2021, one week after our country's capitol was taken siege by protestors. After the tumultuous year of 2020—pandemic, protests, school closures, sheltering in place, synchronous/asynchronous learning. And the list goes on.

My mother grew up in Alabama, my father in Oklahoma. My mother did not really experience the devastation of the Great Depression. My father did. In the 1920s-30s. My mother's parents were extremely prejudiced, especially my grandfather, toward anyone of color. My father and his parents were prejudiced toward Native Americans and, of all things, sheep farmers. I grew up hearing my dad sing Cowboy songs and "learning" that certain instruments were not appropriate in church.

I also grew up with history books that presented only one version—the white version. I did not go to school with any students whose skin color was different from mine. But I read books. Books my parents would probably not have approved of. Books that spoke of injustice, books where I discovered that not everyone had the freedoms that I enjoyed. I discovered that not everything I had been told as a child was actually true. And I began to question. Not very loudly because there was no one to talk to. It's difficult to change a mindset. Especially within your own family.

So . . . What does this have to do with music? With the songs we teach to children?

History cannot be erased. Much of history is dark, full of regrettable actions and decisions. But we must learn from it and move forward. All genres of music are created to evoke response and whether it be to incite or inspire, we, as teachers, have a unique responsibility to help children understand and be discerning of their choices. In other words, let's be intentional about the songs and music we include in our repertoire. We cannot assume that because a song has been included in a textbook or posted on Teachers Pay Teachers, it's OK.

Music is created to evoke response, to incite or inspire.

I discovered, early in my career, that including age-appropriate discussion with students about the difficult times in our history, the real history of our country, was essential to their learning experiences about the wealth of our musical heritage. I would look into the vast array of colors of faces, eye colors, hair colors, and ask—

"What if I told you that I went to a school where everyone looked pretty much the same? I could not go to school with children who had dark skin."

They were shocked. They would look at me with new eyes, full of questions. We talked. I told them about my experiences of growing up in a divided city and how I eventually learned that I had missed out on being around children from other cultures. They then felt more comfortable sharing their thoughts and our conversation became rich and full with teachable moments.

Children's songs exist that were used to make fun of people of different races, religions, cultures. These are songs full of hate. Many nursery rhymes and Mother Goose rhymes have questionable and even terrible backgrounds. But there are also songs and literature that encourage diversity and respect. It's important to know the background and intent of the songs and music used in the classroom, just as it is to know the background and intent of literature and all other art forms.

Teachers must know what they are teaching and why.

If young children are introduced to the possibility that not all music is acceptable or appropriate, then they become discerning listeners and performers. That can be done without teaching them a song that would create fear in a child and be offensive to their family if they were to sing it at home. When they are older, they will be better able to articulate their preferences if they have been able to have these discussions as younger students.

Music is powerful

My granddaughter who is ten, is listening to a variety of pop culture music. I asked her if she ever really listens to the lyrics. She proceeded to rattle off a long section from one of her new favorite songs. The lyrics were totally inappropriate and I, of course, pointed that out to her. She was very surprised. There was an "attitude" being expressed in the song that I had observed in her at other times of "I can do what I want, when I want." My thoughts? "Ah, ha! Now I know where she got that!"

Finally . . .

Maybe the criteria is that we teach truth in age appropriate ways that encourages students to be discerning and respectful of others. And the key is to model those attributes every day in the classroom.

What do you think?

For further reading, I recommend —

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