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Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Cultural Diversity in Music Education

When did the world change so, from the predicable and familiar to the surprises and uncertainties of diversity? The white-washed fence, every skinny slat in a uniform size in its picket row, is gone from the American landscape, even as a colorful and energetic graffiti of multiple languages and images has recovered and replaced it. Similarly, the “all-American burger,” while inarguably hefty, is bland when compared to the array of seasonings in a spread of burritos and tamales, stir-fry chicken, lamb kebabs, and Pad Thai. A half-century ago, diversity was to be had somewhere across the ocean, or was yet contained within isolated American communities, with no mandate to bring it into the societal mainstream. Now, citizens of a contemporary society and its schools understand that they need to know about the world in all of its surprises and uncertainties, so as to be better equipped to handle the needs of all who comprise the planet.

Enter music, one of the glorious celebrations of cultural diversity the world could ever know. Because people are wired in ways that manifest their human-ness no matter where they live, music is important as a means of allowing aesthetic experiences that mirror the beautiful, the sorrowful, and the sublime. Music is that mirror, and every man, woman, and child can think and feel in music and through music. Yet depending upon their cultural conditioning, the climate of their communities, their environmental surroundings, and their cultural values, music will take on different sounds and social meanings. Given the hundreds of nation-states, and thousands of cultural-linguistic groups, the musical diversity is considerable. It is wondrous to behold, the sounds of fiddles and flutes, bagpipes and balalaikas (triangular-shaped lutes from Russia), and sitars and sarons (small bronze xylophones from Java). It is breathtaking, the extent of music’s sonorous reaches.

Diversity, both cultural and musical, is very real. How does a teacher respond to the new reality of so many varied cultural values and musical expressions? The familiar adage,“thinking globally, acting locally,” may be a useful guideline. We’re connected across the planet. We can know the breaking news via CNN and countless cable networks, and we can share the views of people on music, the arts, and culture (as well as politics) via a wide array of Internet-available netscapes, blogs, and interactive venues. We can access the musical world easily, purchase it, download it, iPod it. We can learn it by listening to sources, and asking questions of it, interactively. We’re also connected to cultures living locally—at home, within our families, schools, and communities. There we can quite easily make the effort to know the children we teach, the human resources that are available to give support to our teaching efforts, and the music-makers that range from the occasional and recreational to the seriously professional. Thinking globally and active locally are well within our reach to do.

Teachers looking to thread diversity into their classrooms and rehearsals would do well to keep several action-items in mind: (1) Recognize each musical culture for which it offers in the way of understanding music as music, as human experience, as culture, and in context; (2) Study unfamiliar music cultures by listening, reading, viewing, tapping into the expertise of local musicians, culture-bearers, and scholars as resources; (3) Teach in culture-specific units, for example the music of East Africa or Samoan choral music, so that students can become immersed in the music and its cultural meanings and functions; (4) Teach in a comparative manner, selecting “lutes,” “triple meter,” “drones,” “court ensembles,” “protest songs,” finding multiple examples across cultures, and (5) Honor the pedagogically system in which the music is embedded, for example, teaching via oral/aural techniques (and not with notation) if they are traditional to the musical culture. These action items are played out in Teaching Music Globally (Oxford University Press, 2004), in which lessons and resources for K-12 music education are detailed. Suggestions for learning world music expressions by listening, performing, and creating are supported by a CD of 59 tracks that offer everything from Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum’s “Aruh li min” and Chinese Confucian ritual music in Korea. The book is one of multiple volumes in Oxford’s Global Music Series whose intention it is to provide teachers and students with print and recorded material on musics of the world’s cultures. Book/CD packages in the Series include Bali, Brazil, Bulgarian, East Africa, West Africa, North India, South India, Japan, Ireland, Trinidad, Mariachi Music, even music in America. Still to come are volumes on music of Egypt, Java, the Andes, and First Nations/Native Americans, among others.

Music education has become a more dynamic field in recent decades, due in no small part to the diversified curricular content that is now available. We are wont to do something about the global village and its musical expressions, and that desire is worth its weight in gold. Publishers are rapidly responding to our needs, too, so that not only the traditional music textbooks but also a vast number of start-up groups are making tracks to supply substantive support for our interests in advancing diversity and bringing it fully to the attention of our students. Even as the world so rapidly changes, we can take comfort in knowing that there are tried-and-true ways now and in development for us to clarify our confusions and stay on course for making diversity meaningful in music education.

Just out of curiosity, have a glance at:

Campbell, Patricia Shehan, 2004. Teaching Music Globally. New York: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Patricia Shehan, Huib Schippers, et. al., editors. Cultural Diversity in Music Education: Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century, 2005. Brisbane, Australia: Australian Academic Press.

Lew, Jackie Chooi-Theng, and Patricia Shehan Campbell, 2006. Games Children Sing: Malaysia (Malay, Chinese, and Tamil-Indian Children’s Songs). Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publicating Co., Inc.

Patricia Shehan Campbell is Donald E. Peterson Professor of Music at the University of Washington, where she teaches courses at the interface of education and ethnomusicology. She is a specialist in children's music and the pedagogy of world music in K-college learning and teaching. Her books include Songs in Their Heads, Lessons from the World, Music in Cultural Context, and Teaching Music Globally, along with co-authored books like Music in Childhood and Traditional Songs of Singing Cultures. She is co-editor of the Global Music Series and contributing author to the K-8 Making Music series, and serves as a member of the advisory boards of Smithsonian Folkways/Global Sound and American Routes (radio program).


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Published: 08/27/2006

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