Ed Sarath
Raising the Bar for Diversity in Musical Studies: Personal Reflections
Nov 2010

“I’m pro-diversity!”


While it is easy for practitioners in most any field to make this claim, it is another thing to actually “walk the walk.” I would like to delineate some criteria by which a genuine commitment to diversity in musical study might be measured. In so doing, I will interweave salient points that were raised in the first DMA Think Tank and set the stage for continued dialogue and action steps. I presume everyone reading this has read the general overview of the DMA project. I also presume that everyone regards any of these points as subject to continued examination. At the same time, the articulation of a conceptual platform, even if provisional, that gains some sort of consensus may lay groundwork for further progress.   Let us thus raise the bar together in  exercising our full critical faculties as well as visioning abilities as we chart the next evolutionary strides in our field.

1. Diversity writ large

Let me begin by emphasizing the importance of including two facets of diversity within our vision:  demographic diversity and knowledge diversity. Demographics pertains to the all-important need for representation of ethnic, racial, gender, and other kinds of diversity within the population of a given community, institution, and field.  Knowledge diversity pertains to the variety of processes and content that different constituencies bring to learning, teaching, and research.

2.  Diversity as a high stakes endeavor

Next is what I call the high-stakes principle, by which I mean: The urgency level could not be higher, the challenges could not be more formidable, yet the end result could not be more exciting when it comes to the diversification of musical study. There is also a paradoxical aspect to this, in that music is unmatched in the extent to which it embodies humanity’s highest ideals of diversity, yet musical study lags far behind in this regard and arguably even perpetuates ethnocentric tendencies at a time in human history when the need for multi-ethnic/cultural/national etc. awareness in all sectors of the population has never been greater.

3.  Diversity as win-win

To be sure, there is a tendency for battle lines to be drawn as soon as it is suggested that a field is deficient in a given capacity. Which is why I am hoping our deliberations will continue to emphasize that diversity, particularly when approached in its broadest sense, is a win-win proposition.  Diversification of musical study is not a matter of compromising, or watering down, conventional musical training in order to align curricular, research, and other facets of the field with contemporary musical and societal landscapes.  Rather it is the expansion of the skill and aptitude set of the current generation of aspiring musicians (and faculty!) in order that they will be able fathom more deeply any area of the musical world they encounter, and navigate their ways across genres. 

Improvisation and process-breadth

Which is where improvisation, as part of a broad process scope that also includes composition, performance, and wide-ranging technical, theoretical, historical, and other kinds of study, has the capacity to play a key role.  Perhaps ironically, then, we are talking about a return to the comprehensive process scope of the European masters—which is embodied in more recent times in the pantheon of jazz masters—as the guiding template, applied to the contemporary landscape, for preparing today’s musicians.   And it is this wide-angle, creative engagement in the developments of our times that serves as a lens into the treasures of the past.

5.  Paradigmatic vs. cosmetic change: curricular, organizational, and cultural transformation

If this vision is to be realized, or even be accepted as more than a utopian dream, there is no denying that a kind of educational change unlike anything that most of us have ever experienced will be needed.  The kind of musicianship we are talking about will not be achieved by wedging in new coursework atop the existing curricular foundation, what might be called cosmetic change.  Rather, it will require paradigmatic change that involves overhaul from the curricular foundations on up.  It will also require entirely new organizational structures in our musical schools: The conventional division of music schools and departments into fragmented silos—e.g. theory, history, performance, which by the way is not only pedagogically/cognitively problematic, as commonly acknowledged, but also ethnocentric—is ill-equipped to provide the comprehensive and integrative skills and aptitudes needed.  

6. The need for individual and collective “work”

In short, we are talking about the transformation of academic musical culture, in which the notions that guide day-to-day thinking and action shift from a mono-cultural pedagogical-aesthetic orientation to a cross- and trans-cultural orientation.   This will require individuals to commit to penetrating deeply into the layers of assumptions that they have inherited from the conventional model about music, musical worth, and musicianship development, and recognize that while these may be relevant to a given tradition, they might not be relevant across traditions.  For example, many of the object-mediated, or work-centered aesthetic and pedagogical premises that have evolved around European classical  repertory, while entirely valid and useful for that tradition, exclude improvisatory, interactive, what might be called process-mediated aesthetics and pedagogies that are rooted in, and thus required  to understanding, African and African-American traditions.

7.  Common patterns

A kind of vigilance is thus needed on individual and collective scales whereby limiting patterns are identified and critically examined.   Several patterns that commonly come up in reform dialogues in the field might be noted here as important examples.  I have provided a possible response where appropriate:

“Our field is already diverse.  Look at all the coursework and programs that have been established in jazz, music technology, popular music, and world music in the past decades”
Response: These areas remain marginalized, a primary indicator of which is that they scarcely factor in the core curriculum, and are inaccessible to many music majors (particularly Music Education students seeking Teacher Certification). Mission far from accomplished.

“I appreciate your aspirations for diversity.  But students have their hands full just to master conventional requirements.  Diversity will dilute their studies, at which they end up with a lot of nothing; ‘an inch deep and a mile wide.’” Response: This is a valid concern as long as integrative models are lacking.   Integrative models will promote a broader skill set in which synergistic interplay allows students to excel in diverse areas.  Furthermore; specialized musicianship, as in the interpretive performance that conventionally predominates, is questionable in terms of depth of penetration even within the area of focus, with cross-stylistic understanding, let alone practical skills, notably limited. 

By this I mean a tendency evident among curriculum reformers who have come up through the largely European classical conventional model and then experience a kind of awakening as they realize there is more to the musical world.  These individuals are to be commended, and in a sense, may be the most fervent advocates for change.  On the other hand, there is a tendency—having finally liberated from one monolithic orientation—to reject the idea of the musical landscape having any sort of contours in the form of prominent traditions.   Often neglected, however, in this orientation is the importance of African and African-American practices in the contemporary musical world. 

Closely related are the limitations inherent in musical labels.   In the Preface to my musicianship book (Music Theory Through Improvisation, Routledge, 2010), I urge that we think of the musical world first in terms of processes and structures, and then deal with styles only when we seek the most viable sources for processes and structures.   Most creative artists (e.g. Coltrane, MIngus, Ellington, etc. re the term “jazz” ) have loathed labels because of their inadequacy in convening the category-transcendence inherent in the creative process.  It is incumbent on curricular thinkers/designers to proceed similarly.

8. Music education as a key arena for diversity inroads and the transformation of musical academe

I find myself increasingly convinced that Music Education—the training of aspiring music teachers—is a pivotal field for not only exemplifying diversity in musical study but education and the world at large.  The urgency level for diversity here could not be higher when one considers the broad backgrounds and musical horizons of today’s youngsters.

9.  Jazz, music education, music technology, ethnomusicology alliance

These four fields have much to gain through an alliance.

10. Diversity as celebration of music, the arts, and contemporary culture

What guides us in this work?  Needless to say, each of us will have to answer this for ourselves.  For me, the prospects of a diversity-driven approach to musical study are nothing less than an opportunity to celebrate the transformational and unifying power of music and the arts, to go deeper than ever into the treasures of the past—whether we are talking about Palestrina, Ellington, Mozart, or Monk—as well as the untold riches of the present.  Diversity is not some external feature of artistic engagement that is unique to our time, it is a central aspect of human nature and creative development that has, along with creativity, been marginalized in music learning models.  What is unique to our time are both the unprecedented need and unprecedented opportunities to restore this aspect of musical study and, by extension, the educational world and society.