Working Towards a Culturally Responsive Bandroom

culturally responsive

Emerging research in the identity development of our students – and its impact on motivation and engagement – suggests the importance of using a culturally responsive pedagogy. But what does that mean? What might it look like in an ensemble rehearsal? I’d like to begin exploring these issues and provide you with resources to learn more on the subject.

Defining “Culturally Responsive”

According to Geneva Gay, one of the leading scholars in culturally responsive teaching, the approach refers to “…using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them” (2010, p. 31).

In essence, culturally responsive educators consider the total student, including their background and ways of understanding, when planning and implementing curriculum. However, to fully incorporate such an approach requires the teacher to also understand their own cultural background. For the ensemble director, this involves addressing questions that get to the heart of how we approach the music classroom and understanding how our background has influenced our answers. What is music? What is good music? In what ways/contexts should music be performed? In what ways/contexts should music be enjoyed?

Once we have a grasp of our own biases and background, it is easier to evaluate our classrooms for ways in which we may be attempting to acculturate students rather than honoring their backgrounds (i.e., being culturally responsive). As Lind and McKoy state, this can be problematic because “…in cases where the school curriculum doesn’t value or reaffirm the cultural ways of knowing demonstrated by specific groups of learners, access to knowledge is limited and the means of cultural transmission become a barrier to learning and to learners” (2016, p. 20).

As ensemble leaders, we know that any barriers, whether physical or psychological, inhibit the musical growth and potential of our students. Adopting a culturally responsive lens in our ensemble can help to remove such barriers. So, what might this look like in a music classroom?

It’s a Mindset

It is important to realize that culturally responsive pedagogy is not a list of things to teach. Rather, it is a mindset about teaching (Lind & McKoy, 2016). There isn’t a checklist of pieces to perform that make you a culturally responsive teacher, nor is there a list of topics to address.

Being a culturally responsive music teacher, as the label implies, will look at least slightly different in every classroom, because no two classrooms will have an identical student body. We must respond through our curriculum and our teaching to the students in front of us. While there isn’t a list of pieces labeled “culturally responsive,” our programming decisions are absolutely one way that we can signal to students that we value their musical identities.


One way to do this is through the consideration of composers whose music we program. In 2017, NPR published an article that discussed a high school band program near St. Paul, Minnesota whose director regularly posts pictures in the band room of composers whose works are being performed each semester.

While such a practice can serve a variety of purposes, it immediately lets students visually identify a person who is traditionally limited to a name in the upper right-hand corner of the music. This practice also might highlight how non-diverse and how non-representative our programming practices typically are, especially when compared against the student demographics of our ensembles.

The “Quality” Argument

A common rebuttal against a practice of considering the composer is the assertion that the primary criteria in considering repertoire should be quality. And I agree. But to accept the idea that all composers from every background have had equal opportunity to be heard (and to have their pieces proliferated) is naïve. When considering the “canon” and who is considered to be a great composer, it is our responsibility to also consider what social, political, and economic systems may have factored into these designations, disadvantaging some composers not on the basis of quality of musical composition, but of their status within these systems.

It is with this in mind that I provide a list of resources for you to help amplify the output of diverse composers. Music educators are busy and may not have the time to try to find works outside the typical avenues of distribution.


And We Were HeardThis website, started in November of 2018, is a work in progress. With the goal of pairing minority composers with band directors who can make a quality recording of their work, the organizers of the group are attempting to make a repository of reference recordings to help offset the lack of programming. While there are not currently any recordings, there is a large Resources section of the website to various composer databases and articles on relevant topics.

Jodie Blackshaw’s List of Female Band Composers – A composer herself, Jodie Blackshaw has assembled an incredible resource. The list focuses on wind band music for grades 1-4 and provides clickable links, where available, to recordings, score samples, and email addresses for female band composers.

BandQuest series from the American Composers Forum – This curated series consists of music for wind band from some of the country’s leading composers, including Libby Larsen, Jennifer Higdon, and Chen Yi. Pieces range from grade 2.5 to 5 and are accompanied by audio recordings with a follow-along score video.

The Wind Repertory ProjectThis database enables directors to search and view repertoire through a variety of filters including grade level, ensemble type, form/style, soloist, and composer nationality/ethnicity/gender. The database includes thousands of compositions.

Bravo Music, Inc.  – Bravo Music, Inc. offers music for wind band from Japan. Consisting of original works, transcriptions, and arrangements from popular anime series, this website offers a variety of composers and music that may be difficult to find from other vendors.

Your Responsibility

Of course, it is still your responsibility as a music educator to approach each composition with care and an attitude of discernment. However, I am confident that you will find works on these lists that stand up to measures of quality just as well as pieces already programmed within the profession.

It is my hope that you will be able to find pieces and composers that enable you to be a more responsive educator to the students sitting in front of you.


Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College.

Lind, V. R., & McKoy, C. L. (2016). Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education: From Understanding to Application. New York: Routledge.

Matthew L. Williams is an assistant professor of music education at the University of Arizona. He teaches courses in undergraduate and graduate music education and advises graduate theses and dissertations, in addition to directing the UA Outreach Honor Band and Tucson New Horizons Band. Matt regularly presents at state and national conferences and his work has been published in journals such as Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, the Journal of Band Research, and UPDATE: Applications of Research in Music Education. He holds degrees from the University of Kentucky, Boston University, the University of Louisville, and Florida State University.

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