Do You See What I See? An Underrepresentation of Musicians of Color
Written by Erin Charles Perez, Ed.D., Lecturer in Musical Arts Teacher Education Program, Blair School of Music
A peculiarity exists within music education programs that contradicts the very essence of our American heritage: a lack of diversity. America is known as the “melting pot,” a nation influenced by regions from around the world resulting in a population of nearly 320 million people of various backgrounds, beliefs and traditions. We are cowboy hats and hijabs; Christians, Judaists and Muslims; zealous fans of baseball, basketball and football; and our music is country and western, pop, jazz, gospel, rock n’ roll and hip-hop.
In the professional realm, diversity exists within the very structure of the ensemble. For example, a philharmonic orchestra consists of four instrumental families – woodwind, brass, percussion and strings – and each family consists of numerous instruments that provide their own distinctive sound, timbre and color. The blend and balance of these instrumental families is the fundamental quality of the orchestral sound. Ironically, this heterogeneous sound is often created by racially homogenous musicians.
An underrepresentation of musicians of color also exists within the K-12 realm. Schools require students to take general music in elementary school. By default, these classrooms are highly diverse as the racial profile of the music classroom mirrors the racial profile of the elementary school. In middle school and high school, however, students elect to participate in band, choir and orchestra, and participation rates of minority students often decline. Moreover, diversity levels decrease within competitive, performance-based music programs. It is more common to see a top-performing ensemble consist of predominantly white students rather than a racially diverse student population.
My personal inquiry about this topic began while I was in high school. I was one of the best clarinetists in my school and one of a few African-American students in the band, but that did not hinder me from continuing in the program and feeling a sense of belongingness. I was also an All-State clarinetist for three consecutive years. This is where I became undeniably aware I was racially outnumbered. Only a small percentage of students who competed for All-State were musicians of color and a dismal amount earned a spot in the All-State band. The underrepresentation of students of color was so common, discussing it became a new family tradition – each year my parents and I drove home from the concert reflecting on the performance and ruminating over the prevalent question, “Where are all the kids of color?”
My experience as a music educator only exacerbated my curiosity. Thanks to funding from the Research Scholar Grant, the Diversity and Inclusion Office and the Blair School of Music, I created a mixed-methods study to explore whether white and non-white students are motivated by different factors to continue in band. My study consists of a survey, comparative analysis of race/ethnicity profiles and interviews with band directors and former band students.
The survey investigates the following research questions: What are the primary factors that motivate continued participation in band amongst white and minority students? What is the effect of sociocultural factors on white and non-white students as measured by participation and/or retention rates? The comparative analysis targets the following research question: Is there a difference between the demographic profile of the school and the demographic profile of the band program? Lastly, interviews gather opinions about minority student retention from current band directors and/or students who recently decided to quit playing in band.
Based on an astounding interest from Florida, I decided to conduct my study in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tallahassee and quite possibly Gainesville and Miami. I look forward to sharing my findings with you! In the blogs to come, I will highlight survey and interview responses from high schools within each school district. Diversity begins with discussion; I encourage you to leave your questions and comments below.
Erin Charles Perez, Ed.D.