What kinds of change do we want to see in musical spaces?

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Professor Antía González Ben discusses her research and hopes for the future of music education


Article by Camille Rogers, Doctor of Musical Arts candidate, University of Toronto Faculty of Music & Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, and Co-Artistic Director, OperaQ

What kinds of change do we want to see in musical spaces? It’s a question that has collected more and more momentum in the past year. For Professor Antía González Ben, however, it’s long been a central focus of her research. Within the field of music education, González Ben has most recently been investigating silence—in particular, the racial politics of silence in schools. Although a quiet environment is often presumed to be a prerequisite for successful classroom learning, González Ben suggests that perceptions of silence as neutral or positive are usually based on white definitions of the concept. This, she argues, leads certain styles of communication (call and response, for example) to be seen as distractions rather than legitimate methods of learning. This emphasis on white learning styles in educational institutions can lead students who grew up sharing knowledge in other ways—especially ways associated with communities of colour—to be labelled as disruptive.

Part of what González Ben hopes to point to in her research is that, as the field of music education reckons with its exclusionary past, efforts to expand its borders often start and end with repertoire selection. Although González Ben agrees this is an important piece of the puzzle, she would also like to see educators shake up other aspects of their curriculum and methods. As an example, she points to high school students’ engagement with global cultures in the International Baccalaureate program: although students explore music from around the world, the way students learn about and analyze that music is still very Eurocentric. Harmony is often prioritized over other aspects of music when viewed through a western lens, leading important features such as rhythm and timbre to be dismissed. “They look for chord progressions, they look for melodic lines, so that's still a very Western-centric approach to what constitutes musical knowledge and musical expertise. So…we're being inclusive in some ways, but also…still very ethnocentric in others.”

How can music educators move beyond this limited perspective? González Ben suggests that teachers might begin by further exploring the field of sound studies, which combines knowledge and methods from musicology, physics, neuroscience, technology, philosophy, and other fields. “Music education is moving toward more and more expansive understandings of what it means to teach music....So I see as a natural fit to engage with sound studies.” González Ben describes the scope of sound studies research as “humbling,” as it puts into perspective just how narrow the expertise of a classically-trained musician usually is. But as overwhelming as it may initially feel, she argues, the field holds enormous potential “both for research and for practice,” because it “offers a lot of perspectives to engage with.” Music educators and students alike can benefit from “learning how to listen…more expansively or reflecting on what it means to be a part of a sonic world.”

Of course, there is work to be done in other areas as well. While music education as a field has devoted significant energy to making primary- and secondary-level programming more accessible to students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, entrance requirements to music education as a profession remain prohibitive. Often, teacher populations are much less diverse than the students they serve, reflecting training institutions which expect expensive prerequisites. “Just implicit is an expectation that students would be taking private lessons or having particular kinds of certifications, and that keeps many people out.” Therefore, in addition to acknowledging gender and race in the classroom, González Ben would like to see “more entrance pathways for people who are experts in different musical styles and…ways of making music. It doesn't need to be always…instrument performance or vocal performance.”

“For González Ben, an ideal school music program would focus less on achievement and performance credentials, and more on providing knowledge, skills and problem solving strategies students could use to become “life-long music makers.””�

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How might all of these steps shape the future of music education? For González Ben, an ideal school music program would focus less on achievement and performance credentials, and more on providing knowledge, skills and problem solving strategies students could use to become “life-long music makers.” Instead of making decisions for students about how they should engage with music, teachers could encourage more self-exploration by “presenting a broader palette,” allowing students to “find…their niche.” For example, González Ben suggests that each individual student could be guided to discover how they most like to interact with music—whether through dance, DJing, interpretation, improvisation, composition, or creating in other ways.

To make music programs even more accessible, teachers might tap into surrounding neighbourhood and community music practices, ideally creating a curriculum balanced between exposing students to unfamiliar music and grounding them in what is already happening in their homes and social spaces. For González Ben, “allowing for all those different ways of engaging in music to flourish” would foster a classroom where students didn’t need to “choose one or the other.” In particular she would like to see music programs move away from emphasizing the “prestige” of classical music. “There's a lot of people that just don't feel qualified to do music or they see themselves as unmusical”—when in fact they just don’t excel at one very particular type of elite western music-making.

Such an interdisciplinary and community-based approach comes naturally to González Ben. While growing up in Spain, she studied violin and nurtured a love of collective music-making by participating in conservatory string ensembles alongside traditional Galician music. “In both places…what drove me most about it was making music with friends. I don't think I would have pursued music education if I had chosen a more solitary instrument.” As she began to teach beginner strings and English at the elementary school level, she found her favourite part of the job was building relationships as she got to know students and parents. Now, González Ben has found working with graduate students for the first time “very fulfilling,” and describes her new U of T students as “thoughtful people, critical thinkers, very open to being challenged.” Over the next few years she is most looking forward to deepening connections within the U of T and wider Toronto communities—especially since starting a new position during a pandemic has made forging those connections more difficult than usual!

Watch Professor Antía González Ben’s Toronto Music Entrepreneurship Exchange (ToMEE) session “Stepping Into the Unknown,” a conversation with Angela Wellman, co-founder of the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music.

Photo of Professor Antía González Ben by Katie Scheidt