Bridging Cultural Divides with Modern Music

‘Culture and community’: How educators are bridging cultural divides with modern music

Jason Rawls, a music producer and educator, speaks alongside others involved in hip-hop at a roundtable discussion Thursday during the 11th annual Modern Band Summit at Colorado State University's Lory Student Center Grand Ballroom in Fort Collins.

Determined to modernize music education and make it more accessible to a wider range of students, 400 music educators from across the country gathered at Colorado State University last week for the Modern Band Summit.

They heard Bootsy Collins, one of the all-time great funk and R&B bass players; Jason Rawls, a top hip-hop producer; hip-hop artist Queen Herawin; community activist Martha Diaz; and two-time Emmy Award-winning musician Toki Wright speak about the culture and community surrounding different forms of music.

And they shared ideas, strategies and curriculum to bring modern music into their classrooms to get students who might not otherwise connect with school excited about learning.

“There’s great value in being able to communicate with your students in a language they understand — whether that’s playing a similar song that they hear on the radio in the room or just acknowledging how they receive information and utilizing that same medium to communicate other things,” said Wright, a hip-hop artist, producer and educator.

“So, if it’s through song, if it’s through creative writing, if it’s through playing, if it’s through dance. We miss so much connection with our young people, because we teach them in a way that’s unnatural to their nature.”

Modern Band Summit is put on by Music Will, previously known as Little Kids Rock, a national educational organization supported by the Fort Collins-based Bohemian Foundation and others.

“Music Will believes that when kids participate in music programs and receive teaching that reflects who they are, they are better equipped to bring positive change to the world,” the organization said on the introductory page of its Modern Band Summit program.

Wright, now chair of professional music at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, shared that message during a hip-hop roundtable discussion that was one of the highlights of the three-day conference for music educators that ended Friday.

Joined on stage in the main ballroom at the Lory Student Center on Thursday afternoon by Rawls, Herawin, creative artist Y? — all music educators themselves — and Diaz, the hip-hop panel described the role the uplifting form of street music played in each of their lives.

Then they brought up a drummer and two guitar players to demonstrate not just their musical talent with a sing- and dance-along performance, but also the simplicity of expressing themselves through hip-hop music. Y? went into the audience and asked random people to share what they were thinking in a single word, then sang that word musically to a hip-hop beat as the room full of music educators sang, danced and clapped along.

Music, the panel reminded their audience, is an art form that can be used to communicate, teach and learn.

And modern music, be it rap or hip-hop, pop, Latin or R&B, often speaks to those who would otherwise be left behind in our education system.

Toki Wright sings while gathered on stage with other music educators from the hip-hop genre during a roundtable discussion Thursday at 11th annual Modern Band Summit at Colorado State University's Lory Student Center Grand Ballroom in Fort Collins.

That struck a chord with Lacey Kinsey and Jessica Wagoner, two graduate students in music education at the University of Akron. They both grew up in predominantly white, middle-class communities, learning music the traditional way through participation in one of the three disciplines schools focused on — choir, band or orchestra.

Three separate worlds, at many schools, several of the music educators said.

The Music Will curriculum, which one of their college professors embraces, is designed to break down those silos and bring the kind of music people are listening to — on their radios, smartphones, from street musicians in their neighborhoods — into their schools.

It is designed to help reach students who might otherwise “fall through the cracks,” Kinsey said. And it seamlessly brings an important element of “cultural inclusivity” into the classroom, Wagoner said.

There were breakout sessions at the Modern Band Summit on Arabic and mariachi music; folk music from the Dominican Republic; digital music production, including an iPad ensemble; songwriting; guitar playing; drumming; prioritizing student voices in the classroom; creating and teaching a course on modern band; and dozens of other instructional opportunities.

There were 400 music educators attending in person and 115 more participating virtually, Music Will interim CEO Janice Polizzotto said.

“There were all kinds of fun ideas to incorporate into my classroom to help all students be engaged and have fun in music for life,” said Shelly Peterson, who teaches in Fort Collins at McGraw Elementary School. “I haven’t even had time to process them all. I’ve had some really outstanding sessions.”

Others came from all over the country to participate in the annual event, now in its 11th year overall and eighth at CSU.

Many have attended previous Modern Band Summits, which count toward the professional development hours many states require for teachers to retain and renew their licenses. They reconnected with colleagues they met at previous events, shared ideas and gathered each night for jam sessions in the dormitories at Laurel Village where they were staying.

Willie Minor was attending the summit for the fourth time. The highlight for him this year was meeting Collins, the keynote speaker who got his start leading James Brown’s backup band in the 1970s.

“I grew up listening to him and to actually meet him and get to shake his hand and even take a picture with him was great,” Minor said. “This is my fourth year coming here. This whole experience has been great.”

Others were first-timers, excited to learn how they could energize their students and schools with a new approach to teaching music.

David Miller, a high school music teacher from Burlington, Connecticut, was seeking input to help expand the modern music curriculum in his state from the organization that pioneered that curriculum nationally, he said.

Aamon Richardson, an elementary school teacher from Brooklyn, New York, was furiously scribbling down notes during the hip-hop roundtable, exploring ways to expand on the lessons he created from attending previous professional development sessions closer to home through Music Will.

“I teach in east Harlem, and the kids are so talented,” said Nicole Levin, a longtime teacher from New York City who is launching a new music program at her elementary school in New York City. “They can’t read or write, but they would probably be able to if they had enough people who understand who would let them show their talent. In my room, I let them do that. It’s pretty cool.”

“… I like what music allows, what music facilitates, the way you can see kids just blossom. But they all have their own take on it. They wouldn’t get a chance from their families, they have no theater etiquette, they have no experience. But they do know hip-hop; they get it.”

The inclusivity of the Modern Band model was a big hit with Chris Lee-Rodriguez, a music teacher at a school serving mostly immigrant families in East Boston. About half of his students are English-language learners, mostly from Central and South America, who really struggle to find connections at school.

“What music is, at its bare minimum, at its essence, is culture and community,” he said. “In my community, the kids don’t want to be there. Our schools look old — our building is over 100, maybe 120 years old with huge infrastructure problems — and the teachers don’t look like them.

“What music does is provide a way to develop a culture and bring community together, and it really contributes to the school community.”

Read more by Kelly Lyell at The Coloradoan.

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