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Music Teachers and Cultural Appropriation

By January 1, 2023Music

“To avoid cultural appropriation, music educators need to take the time to explore the source culture and approach the traditions of others in a respectful manner…” writes Karen Howard, professor of music at University of St. Thomas.

     The issue today is that some music teachers and choral directors are having a difficult time teaching music from other cultures without being accused of cultural appropriation. How can they address this topic?

How have music teachers taught in the past?

     Although today, teachers and students who wish to learn about other cultures can use the internet to find vast amounts of cultural information, in previous decades it’s been music teachers who have opened the doors for students to explore other cultures through listening to, learning, and performing music and dances.

    Years ago, when I lived in Hawaii as a kid, our May Day program included songs from Hawaii, New Zealand, Japan, Samoa, and Niue Island (at the time a self-governing state), as well as the Tinikling Dance from the Philippines. Another year, the music teacher presented a cultural tour of the world and included genres pieces from the USA as well as songs from Germany, France, Finland, Ireland, Israel, South Africa, the Balkans, Greece, Haiti, Japan, Philippines, and New Zealand. Not only could students place these songs and their countries on a map, but I came away with an interest in cultures due to this immersion, which in turn, has influenced my whole life.

     The point is that music teachers of the past have greatly contributed to the understanding of cultures.

Should teachers only teach from their own racial background?

    Professor Howard, whom I quoted at the beginning, brings up an interesting point. She says, “The sensitivity surrounding the teaching of a spiritual [for example] differs depending on the race of the music teachers….in a field of approximately 90 percent white teachers.” She makes the point that white teachers don’t have the connection to spirituals that a black music teacher would have.

     Does that mean that automatically, white teachers have no historical or emotional understanding of African culture and thus shouldn’t perform that music? Is teaching music from other cultures now deemed exploitation?

Are music teachers culturally aware?

     As previously mentioned, much is owed to music teachers who, because of their own passion, draw students into other cultures. Performing music requires an intimate understanding of the piece and directors at all levels delve into history and culture in order to bring that piece to life.

     Recently, a choral director in Oregon said he studies cultural music with the same intensity as Mozart so as not to misrepresent that piece. He also reaches out to people from that culture for advice before performing. Singers learn much about a country and its people due to the director’s research.

     It seems that what music teachers do is encourage music and cultural appreciation.


     So, what can music teachers do when confronted with parents, students, and administrators who attack their choices of music? There is no easy answer and perhaps no new answers. To begin with, a conversation could include the tradition of respect and interest music teachers have toward others. Then, everyone can reflect on the point that as a global society, music is part of the glue that holds us together.

Music Teachers and Cultural AppropriationREBECCA LOCKLEAR is a PK12 music teacher and professional choral director and pianist as well as an educational writer and author.

Visit her website to join her email list and to find cultural materials: Unusual Music Notation, The Angel – Crusader Knight and Celtic Christianity, and Joha the Wiseman: Folk Tales as Drama Skits (pub.2023)