The Elephant in the Music Room

jazz violinist christian howes

I’m going to address a factor in music education that is like an invisible elephant in the room.

Warning– While I’m not going to take a political position, some people have strong reactions to this topic. I have no way to determine whether it is relevant for you.

Whether you read or close this article, just remember that this is not an attack on you or your beliefs.


Imagine- Someone you love will die unless you raise a million dollars soon.

You can steal diamonds to raise money, and you won’t get caught.

Would you steal the diamonds?


This dilemma was posed in a psychological study 100 years ago.

  • Most men responded “yes”.
  • Most women asked for the question to be reframed. They did not want to answer yes or no.

These results were used as a basis of proof for the widely held belief at the time among psychologists that women have an inferior sense of morality.

That argument made sense in accordance with a view that morality is defined according to a hierarchy of rights.

Feminists pointed out that a hierarchy of rights is a patriarchal way of defining morality. Men generally see their place in the world on a ladder of one-up/one-down (status/power/rights). Women generally see the world as a web of interconnectedness, placing responsibility/empathy above rights.

The way women view the world caused them to respond differently to the dilemma because they have a different view of morality; not an inferior one.

By defining morality through a male lens, psychologists skewed the definition of morality in a way that subjugated women.

In order to improve psychology, the definition of morality needed to be reconsidered. Since this was a basis for many other theories and practices in psychology, they all needed to be dismantled and rethought.

Do you follow this? If not, maybe read it again, because understanding what happened 100 years ago is important for understanding a debate people in America are having right now.

Like the field of psychology, music education is shaped in part by patriarchy and European colonization.

Formal training in classical music has been posed in a white frame like the study of psychology conformed to a male frame 100 years ago.

In order to improve music education- like the field of psychology was corrected to no longer claim that women are inferior- the standards and methodology of music education can be dismantled and reimagined.

This same debate about education as a whole is currently playing out around Critical Race Theory in the U.S.

The Dilemma above is an example of how some of the ideas within critical race theory apply to gender.

How critical race theory plays into Music Theory and Music Education:

Music education, like psychology, has relied on a narrow, colored lens to answer big questions and, in the process, subjugated other views. Specifically, music education and music theory are Eurocentric.

Proof: part of why you read my emails or watch my videos is to learn things you weren’t taught in music school. The reason you didn’t learn these things is that no one taught this stuff. Because our field emphasizes European musical values at the expense of others.

I get that many people feel protective of classical music because it’s sort of endangered in its own right. And I love classical music. But that doesn’t change the fact that we lose out on skills and perspective by being taught music in a lopsided way. In fact, having a broader perspective will help, not hurt, anyone’s ability to be a classical musician.

What would it look like to do things differently?

Start by considering this statement: ” All American music is Black American music”.

Country, Rock, Pop, Appalachian…… not just Jazz, Gospel, and Blues.

Before you spit out your coffee or cuss me out, this is not claiming that these forms of music were Solely created by Black Americans, or that white people have no right to play or teach them.

In the same way that to say “believe women”, or “Black Lives Matter”, is not saying “don’t believe men” or “white lives don’t matter”.

The statement, “all American music is Black American music”, is not an attack on you or me.

It could be a cause for celebration. A righteous and joyful expression of love.

Acknowledging we are influenced by racism and sexism could similarly be an expression of Love.

Because we want to love more than we want to hold onto things we’ve been taught to believe- so much that we are willing to experience uncomfortable conversations.

You don’t have to agree. But it’s my job as a teacher to offer what’s true for me.

There are many non-male, non-white scholars who have written on this. Try the free Facebook community called Decolonizing the Music Room.

The point of talking about Critical Race Theory and Music Education

1. Method behind the madness. This is a subtext of how I look at music and teaching. When my violin students ask “how to play blues on violin “, this is part of the answer. It’s only fair that I share it straight. (You can also learn more about critical race theory from a trusted source like Wikipedia here.)

2. Credit where credit is due. I couldn’t teach or play what I do without the generosity of the musicians who shared their perspectives with me and helped me broaden mine.

3, Encouraging you. Engage in uncomfortable conversations. Join a jam. Go to a different church or coffee shop. Make friends with the rhythm section. Open yourself to learn without trying to prove anything.

The theme of the 2022 American String Teachers Association national conference is “Celebrating Diversity”.

I understand how many feel an aversion to this conversation and/or wish it would go away. I’m not “comfortable” with the conversation. But I’m more comfortable with it than I used to be. It starts with being open to the possibility.

We have the opportunity to lean in without guilt or defensiveness for the purpose of growing individually and collectively.

We get to summon a loving awareness, aka a deeper listening.

Listen to show compassion for others.

Listen to your own pain and stress to show compassion for yourself.

Listen beyond defensiveness to uncover fear.

Soothe that fear and find Love.

Music is about learning to become better friends with ourselves. From that, we can more fully connect with others.

It’s all personal development. “It starts with becoming a better friend to yourself.”

(My therapist told me that…)





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