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Globalizing the Instrumental Music Classroom: It Can Be Done!

July 14, 2016 7 min read

Adding a global dimension to the music classroom is easier than you might think according to Kate Mitchell, Department Chair, Director of Bands: PHS and Horizon Elementary, Pewaukee, Wisconsin.

By guest blogger Kate Mitchell

Falguni Shah, a musician born in India who now lives in New York, believes, “If there is anything that brings together people and not divide them, it is music. When people of different backgrounds become united by valuing the same ideas, I think it is very easy to fight anything. Radicalism and racism can be fought with a message of peace through beautiful music and inspiring lyrics.”

Isn’t that the truth! So, how can we get our music students to dig deeper into making these global connections? How do we make it meaningful while still meeting the demands of rigorous rehearsal and performance schedules? Global education is a dimension that runs through all curricular areas; no more so than in music.

Over the past 13 years as an educator, I have witnessed more and more students travel abroad through family excursions, volunteer vacations, and study abroad opportunities. Most students have easy access to a world of information through the internet, with social media connecting people all over the world. Even with these experiences and access to technology, students still need to be guided through the process of discovery so they can have a deeper understanding of how other people experience the world as well as their own place in it.

I started the journey to globalize my classroom with my high school band students this past school year. After comments from school administrators like “Doesn’t that work belong in the social studies department?” and “Our students already learn that stuff in their foreign language classes,” I forged ahead; one teacher to help make a tiny dent in teaching for global competence. It came in four parts: listening examples, composition projects, concert programming, and a virtual exchange with a school in Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine.

Starting Small: Listening, Reflecting, and What ... Is ... That?!
Each weekend, I listen to “Higher Ground: World Music With African Roots and More,” with Dr. Jonathan Overby, on Wisconsin Public Radio. Dr. Overby’s wealth of knowledge about world music and broad programming is the perfect playlist for weekly listening examples. Students describe the musical characteristics of the pieces (tempo, melody, harmony, instrumentation), make hypotheses about the composer’s/performer’s intent, and deduct the country of origins based on their listening analysis and previous listening experiences.

Just listening to music from around the world can introduce students to different sounds. It’s always fun when I get the question, “Where is that?” For example, I played a piece of techno music from Kampala, Uganda. Students were thinking it was from France, Germany, or the United States. When I told them it was from Uganda, they were shocked: “There’s pop music in Uganda?!” Interestingly enough, that particular techno group has become quite popular throughout the school.

Concert Programming: Growing Through Performing
Concert programming, rehearsals, and performances make up most of my job. I have found multiple ways to globalize our various concerts. In our winter 2016 concert, I chose music to represent a quote from Deepak Chopra:

“Think for just a moment: If we looked around and could see the ribbons of people from every nation standing in unity. Smiling, hopeful, inspired. We are all one. With greater compassion, understanding, joy, love, equanimity, peace, abundance, we can have a more just and sustainable world community.”

The concert, Conflict and Resolution, featured:


  • Mother Earth” by David Maslanka: A piece to challenge us to be aware of the needs of our planet;
  • Overcome” by Bill Locklear, a piece based on “We Shall Overcome,” (75 percent of the students had never heard of that song).
  • The Dream Catcher” by W. Francis McBeth, a piece that celebrates the Native American traditions.
  • Khan” by Julie Giroux, a piece based on Genghis Khan’s words, “It is not sufficient that I succeed-all others must fail.”
  • Walking into History” by Richard Saucedo, a piece based on the Clinton 12.

The full program included quotes for each piece and full program notes tying the theme together. The concert became a powerful message for both the students and the audience.

After sight-reading the music, students completed a “Questions for Understanding” worksheet, where they free-write questions they want to know about the pieces. Here is a compilation of the questions developed by the students for “Khan.” As a class, we used those questions to guide our study of the music. Students researched the works and the historical significances with each piece.

Using the same activity for Walking Into History, I discovered that only one student in the class knew about the Clinton 12. Through structural analysis, deeper historical understandings, and personal interpretations, the students became more engaged in the music and were able to perform with greater expression and intent.

Composing: Taking Action through Music
Surrounding the International Day of Tolerance, students began a year-long composition assignment. Students worked through the Beginning Activity document to gain a better understanding for how composers take a stand for peace, tolerance, and social-justice issues. I used a combination of folk, pop, and classical music/musicians to open the eyes of my students.

Once students worked through the document, each student chose an issue (e.g., discrimination, women’s rights, education). Students researched their respective topics and wrote narratives reflecting on their research. From those narratives, students began to compose. Although some of the final compositions were stronger than others, all of the students gained new ways to listen to and appreciate music and alternate ways to express their beliefs.

Exchanging: My Go Big or Go Home Experience
In January, my high school ensembles were chosen to participate in a virtual exchange program with a school in Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine, with the goal to build mutual understanding and enhance student-to-student partnerships between the United States and the Muslim world. Since many schools outside of the United States and Canada do not have music classes as a part of the curriculum, our focus is a combination of multiple curricular fields with music as the underlining theme.

When I polled my students, only 42 percent of the students had heard of Palestine and only 2 percent could locate Palestine on a map. I also got comments and questions like:


  • “I thought Palestine didn’t exist.”
  • “How are we going to talk to them, they don’t speak English?”
  • “Isn’t that where terrorists come from?”

We all have work to do as educators in an increasingly connected world.

Throughout the next eighteen months, students will learn about the social aspects of each other’s culture. Through video lessons, Skype, Google classroom, and a website I developed, students will explore popular and traditional music and the functions of music in society. Students will communicate and build connections with peers in Palestine and hopefully create lifelong friendships. The focus is on two main components:

Cultural connections
Through the virtual platform, my students will explore the complex social, political, economic, and religious divides in each area. Through sharing perspectives and engaging in dialogue, students will learn the political ideologies and complex religious and economic systems that drive each country. We will explore what connectedness looks like and what it will be in the future for social and economic global sustainability.

Social Responsibility
One of the main goals is to have our students define and model what it means to be a global citizen, whether they are in Ramallah or Pewaukee. I want to break down the stereotypes and encourage social entrepreneurship. Throughout the next 18 months, my colleagues in Ramallah and I will have students develop a proposal to solve global issues—perhaps in the form of a non-profit organization.

I hope this experience will encourage my students to travel abroad to learn more about people while giving them a sense of how much work still needs to be done around the world—that they can be agents of change.

Does this process mean more work for me? Yes. Do I believe in the opportunities I am giving my students? Yes. Did I run into roadblocks with administrators? Yes. Did I ignore or not teach parts of my music curricula to do this work? No.

Global education is a way of approaching everything we teach and how we teach it. It broadens horizons and encourages exploration of all subjects from a global perspective. It contributes to the whole curriculum and enhances our understanding of the world. I want to be a part of bringing people together through music.

How do I top the 2015-16 school year? I am already starting to plan new global perspective lessons tied through music education. This process has renewed my energy in education.

Connect with Heather on Twitter.

Photo credit: Caleb Morris on StockSnap.io.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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