The Quiet Protest of Including Music by Black Composers in Our Teaching

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, 1901

Striving to create a racially equitable world can feel overwhelming until we discover a way that we, as individuals, can effect positive change. As a violinist and teacher, I have an opportunity to fight tiny battles with white supremacy every day. Including music by Black composers in the repertoire that I teach is a tangible contribution to improving the landscape.

The canon of western classical music is, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly white. My own music education was filled with the European folk songs of the Suzuki method followed by the standard classical repertoire written largely by white men. Thanks to my piano teacher, I had the delight of playing Scott Joplin’s ragtime music during my teens, but that’s the extent of the racial diversity to which I was exposed in music. It’s so easy to carry on within the confines of the standard repertoire without questioning our approach, but then we would be missing not only a chance to diversify the canon but also the opportunity to play some wonderful, largely unheard music and share it with our audiences.

During the 2018-2019 performance season, I was the soloist with the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra on the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto. Many people hadn’t heard of Coleridge-Taylor, and virtually everyone who had was shocked to learn that he had written a violin concerto. During that time I decided to include, as a matter of course, music by Black composers in my teaching. I’ve since taught music by Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Juwon Ogungbe, Florence Price, Godwin Sadoh, Ignatius Sancho, and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and I’ve had students include this music in their recitals. I also perform it myself whenever the opportunity arises.

My students enjoy this music! They also enjoy learning about these composers of whom they had never heard. It’s exciting to be learning about marvelous composers like Sancho, a former slave and the first Black person in history to have music published, and Saint-Georges, an expert swordsman whose compositions inspired Mozart. Audiences have been delighted to hear this music and have responded enthusiastically.

It is our responsibility as music educators to tear down the fortress of white supremacy, even if only one brick at a time, when we go to work each day. The next generation can grow up with these fabulous composers as a part of their musical upbringing. It’s something we can do – every day – to create a racially equitable world.