SRU students research cultural context in music education


Children playing instruments

Cultural differences in music education classrooms is the subject of two research projects conducted by Slippery Rock University students.

June 1, 2022

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Awareness of culture and context are important in any classroom, but they particularly need to be assessed by music educators who might consider incorporating anything from Beethoven to Beyonce in their programming. Faculty-student research projects at Slippery Rock University are examining the social and emotional aspects of music education, as well as the differences between types of school districts for which programming is implemented.

"As a music educator, it can be difficult to predict how students are going to experience music or respond to something," said Kathy Melago, SRU professor of music. "There are huge differences from school to school and it can be valuable for our students to explore the different cultural impacts and learn more about them."

This summer, Michael LaBella, a junior music education major from Glenshaw, is studying the differences between music education in rural, suburban and urban school districts. This comes after Hannah D'Egidio, a junior dual music education and political science major from Industry, recently completed a research project that started last summer about the social and emotional learning and culture in music education. Both projects were funded by SRU's Summer Collaborative Research Experience grant program.



"Both of them are go-getters because not many undergraduate students want to spend their summer doing research," Melago said. "A lot of students dread having to do research papers for class, but Hannah and Michael want the opportunity to learn about something that means a lot to them but is not necessarily part of the curriculum. To get certified in Pennsylvania to teach music in pre-K-12, they need to be able to do all these things such as direct an orchestra, choir or band, and that doesn't leave too much time outside of class on projects that are meaningful to them."

"This is something fun for me to do," LaBella said. "But it's definitely going to prepare me well for graduate school and allow me to network more with current music teachers."

For LaBella's project, he plans to survey and interview music educators from rural, suburban and urban school districts and evaluate the support for their programs based on national standards provided by the National Association for Music Education.

"We want to know how their community supports music education and how their music education programs support their community," LaBella said. "This will help them advocate for their programs by knowing if they meet certain criteria on a checklist and then they can go to their administrators to make sure their programs are adequately funded and are sustainable to the best of their ability."

Another part of LaBella's research is studying the different teaching methodologies and what is needed to support a modern music education classroom.

"A lot of programs are stepping away from the classical instruments and teaching music to younger kids through their own means, because not every student is going to resonate with (traditional methods)," LaBella said. "Some students might want to learn music from Beyonce or Pitbull. The goal is just seeing how we can best prepare our future musicians and keep music as a part of everyone's lives."

Last summer, D'Egidio studied the impacts of culture and how it influences the way people teach by interviewing music educators who are either Hispanic, Asian, Native American or African American or teach classes with a majority of students from these populations.

"A big thing is we (as educators) have to ask our students and have that line of communication as to where their culture fits into the classroom," said D'Egidio, during her poster presentation as part of the SRU Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity. "Before we do that, we have to create a safe space for them to talk about things like culture, emotion and social awareness. We have to meet students where they are. Everybody's response might be different (to a piece of music), but it's important that we understand why our students are reacting the way they are to things that we play and sing."

D'Egidio said she hopes to build upon her understanding from her research to be a better educator for all students, not just the majority groups.



"People in music education right now are realizing with a greater emphasis, the importance of both honoring the music that has been part of the tradition (throughout the history), and that a lot of people's voices weren't always a part of that," Melago said. "That doesn't mean throwing away all the works by white, European composers, but it means that we need to be more mindful when looking at what programming matches the students we're serving."

Approaches of honoring tradition and embracing the interests of current students are also being practiced by SRU professors, as well as in their initiatives to recognize the voices of musicians and composers who might have been previously silenced or omitted from popular culture.

"When I teach Exploring Music, a music class for non-majors, the students always ask, 'When are we going to learn about our music?,'" Melago said. "But I say, 'You already know about your music.' Instead, I like to trace where their music came from historically and trace linkages."

Also, Jonathan Helmick, an SRU associate professor of music, was recognized on the Yamaha 40 Under 40 list for 2022 for curating a space for students to grow and embrace their vulnerability, as well as explore music by diverse composers, including a project for the SRU Symphonic Wind Ensemble to write grants that commission underrepresented composers.

While it might seem that tailoring programming to students' musical interests to get their attention further separates genres and cultures, LaBella instead sees a greater understanding from this approach.

"The way we look at music education for each school has to be individualized," LaBella said. "But I feel like if we're able to draw different themes from each (culture) then we can understand where the similarities and the differences come from."

More information about SRU's music programs is available on the department's webpage. More information about SRU's SCORE grants are available on the Office of Grants, Research and Sponsored Program's webpage.

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