HomeInterviewsArtistsHow Black History Month Can Inspire All Your Students

How Black History Month Can Inspire All Your Students

Nate Holder BA (Hons), MMus is a musician, author, speaker and music education consultant based in London. He is an advocate for decolonising music education and has been speaking, writing and consulting on the subject internationally for the past few years.

Nate brings his passion and skill in public speaking into leading CPD training and workshops for schools, hubs and universities; helping address bias, underrepresentation in music classrooms, departments, hubs and boards internationally. He is currently serving as Professor and International Chair of Music Education at the Royal Northern College of Music

He has written four books including, I Wish I Didn’t Quit: Music Lessons, and Where Are All The Black Female Composers?.

Learning an instrument is an incredible way to discover ourselves, connect with others and gain a spectrum of skills that can help us to become rounded individuals. As a teacher, you know that the journey can also be a frustrating one, with students often citing a lack of interest in the music they are told to learn as a reason for wanting to quit. Diversifying repertoire is one way of injecting motivation into the learning process. Highlighting various points in the year such as Pride Month or Black History Month can catalyse engagement, focus and achievement.

For many, Black History Month is a polarising time of year. There are some who don’t agree with the concept of a month to celebrate the achievements of the Black diaspora, whilst others look forward to sharing personal stories, expanding their students’ horizons and critically engaging in conversations around various Black histories. From a musical perspective, Black History Month presents a great opportunity to dive into music, performers and composers with whom you may be less familiar. With music, the learning never ends. Mastering a piece or studying a transcription may take months but learning about the traditions behind the music is a lifelong process. Black History Month is an opportunity to diversify repertoire, highlight Black musicians and begin decolonising music education, our environments and ourselves.
Some may think that having greater diversity doesn’t matter. Research shows that it does. Many young people have difficulty seeing themselves or their cultures represented in the musicians, music-makers and performers featured in their formal education. If you are white and male, the chances are that you have seen those who look like you presented as the classical composers of the musical canon that everyone learns. While there may be Black classical composers whose works have recently been heralded as “good art,” greater accessibility to their music and stories is needed for young people. There may be more options in jazz music for Black students to identify with but work needs to be done to represent the breadth of the Black experience in the UK and Europe. Artists such as Skepta, Dave, Celeste and the biggest selling pianist in 2020, Alexis Ffrench, all have music available to learn.

Recently, the British musician and broadcaster YolanDa Brown published a series of books for clarinet, flute, alto and tenor saxophone featuring music of Black musicians, including Stormzy (“Blinded By Your Grace”), Fela Kuti (“Lady”) and YolanDa Brown (“TokYo Sunset”). The cello virtuoso Sheku Kanneh-Mason also published a collection of pieces for cello, giving us an insight into the music that has helped to shape him into a world-renowned musician. In addition to these resources, many publishers have a catalogue of music by established Black musicians. Many jazz musicians have cited the Charlie Parker Omnibook as the “Bible of bebop,” with his celebrated solos on tunes like “Donna Lee” and “Anthropology” showcasing the wonder of his genius. Artists such as Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and Lizzo all have books in the Hal Leonard catalogue, making their work accessible for a variety of instruments in western notation and TAB. There are also many free Spotify playlists featuring Black musicians to be found in YolanDa Brown’s recent children’s music book The ABCs of Music and my own Where are all the Black Female Composers? Organisations such as The Musicians Union and I Can Compose have curated playlists that may encourage some students to learn to play some of this music by ear.

When Black History Month passes, continue to learn about the music and musicians of the Black diaspora. There are many published resources and books to support you and many more that will be emerging over the coming months. Use Black History Month to fuel a year of discovery, not as a tokenistic, 31-day exercise. Learn, not just because these artists are Black, but because their music and stories will inspire individuals to express themselves and empower the communities around them.

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