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Community Music Schools as Advocates for Social Justice

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As music educators we know that music serves multiple functions across society. Music helps a community mourn the loss of a friend, it serves as a chant at a sporting event, it gives space for self-expression, it inspires a cause, and so much more. Music is found across all cultures, social strata, and races. It might be hip-hop, rap, orchestral, jazz, blues, or liturgical in style. Each genre is a voice that needs to be heard, communicating its story to the world. Because music is so important, it is vital that music and music education be accessible to everyone regardless of social status, class, or financial capacity. There are many organizations and individuals who are able to provide access to music education, including non-profits and independent music teachers. Community music schools play a particular role in this effort. They have the privilege and responsibility to be facilitators in the communities they have the joy to serve.

Before we dig in, we need to share our definitions of community music schools and social justice. The term "community music school" describes exactly why these organizations exist: to provide music education to the community. Over 400 community music schools of varying sizes are located throughout the United States. They serve critical roles in addressing the needs of the community of which they are a part. These roles may include the following: providing general music education in a local school district that is understaffed; utilizing distance learning for private lessons for students in remote areas without music access; creating a choral or orchestral program to supplement other programs already in place in the area; and, enhancing adult education programs. Each school creates a consortium of teaching artists and administrators united in the mission to serve its community. Their business model is usually as non-profits. Many of these schools value strongly their abilities to reach underserved and underrepresented populations with their programming and faculty.

We have chosen to define social justice in the following way: the equal distribution of resources and opportunities across society. While some might argue, rightly, that our definition does not go far enough because it does not address equity and equality, this is the baseline that we are going to use for the purposes of this discussion.

Strength of Network  

One of the greatest strengths of a community music school is the breadth and depth of connections within the organization that reach beyond the confines of the school. Take a moment to think about your world and the people with whom you are connected. You have connections through school, family, partner's family, work, civic organizations, and religious organizations. Now think of how you have built your studio, whether independent or collegiate. How have you met your students? How much has been by word of mouth through the people you know or are indirectly connected with? If we had to make a guess, it is probably mostly by word-of-mouth—people connecting with you or with others connecting them to you. This interconnectedness is vital when paving the way for college admissions, getting a job interview, and other important milestones. Knowing the right people is important. In Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point he defines a group of people as "connectors."1 These people know the right kind of people to help them move forward or get a job done. Of course not every musician is a connector, but having contact with larger faculties at community music schools can be critical for students. The right connections enable entrance into a music program, meeting the right teacher, or getting the good gigs.

This does not diminish the social network that students or families already have in place, but as they join a community music school they become connected, in another way, to their community. The students have the opportunity to grow in two ways. First, coming in for a private lesson can be intimidating. A student might feel out of place, because she might be the first person in her family to take music lessons. When a student walks into a community music school, there is a greater possibility of meeting someone with a similar background. Inversely, a student from privilege might come in contact with a student who is receiving music lessons for the first time. These types of interactions are important. It is vital for our society that each side connects in a real way with each other, creating a capacity for understanding in the music world and beyond.

Regardless of the setting in which a student receives music instruction, the first circle of influence she is a part of includes the student and the teacher. This one-to-one relationship forms the basis of a student's experiences and exposure to music education. Regular interactions allow for personal and musical growth through discovery of new ideas, reinforcement of skills already learned, encouragement in challenging boundaries, and trust in a personal relationship. As educators know, growth happens not only for the student—but also for the teacher.

In a community music school we can widen the circle. One example includes school administrators—people with a drive to make music accessible. Some are musicians who have found their way into administration, others come from business, marketing, finance, and fundraising backgrounds adding to the breadth of connection. They know how to produce events, book artists, work with city planning, acquire instruments, and manage human resources. These are people with the day-to-day capacity to make music education happen.

Widen the circle again. Because many community music schools are non-profit in nature, they also have board members who connect the school to the world beyond the music field. These supporters of music education frequently have high-profile connections in their community as corporate leaders and political influencers. They often have access to the financial resources that can make a significant impact on programming and constituents served by the school. They make donations that fund students who cannot afford lessons or the purchase of an instrument. The value of these connections is more than just financial in nature; their social and professional circles add to the connectedness of community music schools.

Within these interconnected circles of faculty, administrators, and board members, there are two ways in which these leaders have the ability to advocate for social justice. First, is what they do with their skills and influence to impact the behavior and experiences of others within the school. Faculty have many opportunities through some or all of the following avenues: establishing a curriculum that is inclusive of many genres and diverse composers, creating a physical space that allows flexibility for those with various needs, facilitating meaningful connections among students with different backgrounds, encouraging an environment that allows for the individuality of each student while also creating a shared identity among students.

Administrators advocate through their broader understanding of processes and systems. They work with city officials for the placement of a bus stop to make a location more accessible or provide bilingual staff to assist with registration. Processes are designed to make it easier for students to join classes or lessons. Administrators assess the needs of the community and ensure they are meeting the needs of their community.

Board members use their influence to bring issues forward to the larger community. They guide administration with their knowledge to create accountability to social justice, equity, and equality within the organization. They often provide a vision that is then put into action by administrators and faculty. 

A second way that faculty, administrators, and board members advocate is by how they bring others into their circles. How do they invite those who may have been overlooked or whose voices have not been heard? How do they make sure that all are part of the conversation? How do they mentor future leaders? How do they use their influence to build others up? How do more students gain access to music education? These are questions that community music schools address every day.

A very specific way that community music schools bring others into the circle is through their hiring practices. Hiring practices such as Equal Opportunity Employment and Affirmative Action Plans are frameworks publicly stating how an organization will include people with more diverse backgrounds. As with any policy, development and use of a community music school's hiring practices needs to be intentional and thoughtful. You cannot simply put a policy in place and then expect it to do the work. It has to be a tool used by the organization for social justice purposes.

Related to the hiring of faculty is the capacity to hire faculty with a variety of musical backgrounds. A community music school can be proactive and hire faculty with expertise in World Music, gamelan, bodran, and didgeridoo—to name a few. This helps give these instruments a wider voice and the wider background will benefit students and faculty.

Another way is to think about the question: How do I find a job as a music teacher? Often in the independent studio one has to have the means in order to actually set up a studio. Community music schools are frequently able to offer employment positions to teachers, eliminating the start-up costs for early-career teachers. Organizations have clear hiring practices that assist teachers in finding positions and filling a need in a community more quickly than starting their own studio. 

It is this increased diversity of interactions and connections that make community music schools—in an intrinsic way— advocates for social justice. But another possible view of this diversity of voice is as our conscience. Having multiple voices as a part of the conversation helps us make sure that our feet match our words. Our deeds must match what we say. If we say we want different voices to speak, then we must be sure to give them the opportunity to speak and listen to what they say. If we want to serve the underserved, we need to have locations that are conveniently located for those populations. Organizational processes have to be clear so that all can participate. As individuals we have blind spots, mores, and prejudices that can unknowingly get in the way. Having coworkers who call us out on these errors serves everyone.

A final aspect of the strong network a community music school provides is that of longevity. Several schools in the United States are well over 100 years old. The continuity their presence provides is critical in the musical and educational life of their constituents—as well as the broader community. Their reputation and history, in and of themselves, advocate for music education. College administrators, employers, and teachers will be familiar with the strength of an organization even if they are unfamiliar with the entire faculty at a given time. As Karen Brooks Hopkins referenced in her keynote address at NCKP in July 2019, community music schools serve as an anchor for other arts organizations around them. 2 A strong school will send ripples of influence into a community, creating an environment that is ripe for exploration and artistic expression.

Accessibility

Community music schools achieve accessibility in a variety of ways. One way is physical accessibility. The physical location of teaching and programming space is vital. This may include having multiple locations within a larger urban setting. Public transportation is important so that the public may access the space through the bus system, roads, and safe walkways. Entrances, bathrooms, and performance spaces are designed to be barrier free. Young and old alike need to feel that they are in a safe space that welcomes them. Schools take into account current needs of their students, but also anticipate future needs as well.

Another aspect of accessibility is the actual experience of having an instrument. Students may not know where and how to obtain a musical instrument, or where to go to rent an instrument. Some school programs have instruments available for students, but if a student does not have a school music program she might have no idea where to start the process of getting an instrument. Remember those administrators who were mentioned before? These people know how to get instruments and they already have relationships with music stores and vendors that can be used to help students obtain instruments.

Some music schools take instrument accessibility even farther. Some have instruments provided with classes; others have their own rental programs. The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee runs its own instrument drive. They collect instruments from community members throughout the year, repairing donated instruments, and then giving them to students who need an instrument. A student having her own instrument— instead of a rental—eliminates another barrier for study. We are looking forward to seeing how many of the instruments will come back to this school, because the culture of donating instruments is instilled into the students from the start.

Community music schools are often able to look at broader musical and educational needs within the communities they serve, thus improving access for everyone. For example, a public or private school might be without a music teacher. A community music school then develops general music programming to address this need. Perhaps there is a need for string teachers in an area, and a community music school has the capacity to recruit and hire a teacher from outside of the area to address that need. A community music school might be able to offer lessons directly at a school, community center, daycare center, or senior center with a variety of instruments to supplement existing programming.

Consider one of our goals as music teachers: we want each of our students to have a lifelong love of music. We want them to continue to make music throughout their lives—whether it is through formal study or their own continued enjoyment. For some students piano will serve as a gateway to other instrumental study. Community music schools, with access to a variety of instruments and programs, allow students to find the instrument that will become their lifelong love. Today's piano student may be a future trombonist. Because of the diversity of instruments offered, these schools are able to expose students to a wider variety of music, thus advocating for instruments and genres that may be lesser known or represented in the broader music world.

Putting Intention into Action

So now you have a bit of homework! Whether you are part of a community music school, an independent teacher, a college faculty member, or someone who is invested in music education, we would like you to think about your role in this conversation. Do you think social justice plays a role in music education? In what way? Take a moment to reflect on the ways in which you are an advocate for social justice in your professional life. What do you do that opens the door to music education to a variety of people? And what more can you do to open that door a little further? How do you create the circles of influence within your studios and communities? How do you bring others into these circles? We have loved exploring this topic, but know that we are just beginning to scratch the surface. Please join us in continuing conversations on this topic within your studios and communities.

NOTES 

1 Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002). 

2 Hopkins, Karen Brooks, "The Power of 88 Keys: Unlocking Hearts and Minds," National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, July 25, 2019.

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