A flute student recently brought in a cakewalk tune their school band is playing, and I sighed and thought, this is what happens when music gets divorced from its culture.

Look, as a flute teacher, I love the way that students’ eyes light up when they play music that’s meaningful to them. In my studio, I often invite them to bring in anything they like – because frankly, if Smells Like Teen Spirit inspires a Nirvana fan to stick with some of the daily work of building fundamental technique, I say, here I am now. Let’s entertain ourselves…

I guess something similar is what motivated band method book authors to start putting all kinds of supposedly culturally relevant melodies in their texts. Sometimes the plan works. But often, I’m not really sure how much meaning most of these tunes have left for students today. Most of the books I see might have worked back in the 1950s; but without updates (and I recognize public domain limitations pose a challenge) it pretty much makes the standard band=dorky association a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, I know lots of band (and orchestra) directors who run dynamic programs where they pick out music that taps into that teenage thriving on challenge and expression. I also see students’ reactions when they bring me yet another arrangement of songs from bands or musicals that haven’t been popular for decades – the kind of programming that makes a semblance of Appealing To The Young People without taking the risks that real relevance would require.

But that’s music that still has a connection to its context – melodies that can be meaningful either by being recognized or as an opportunity to open up a slightly bigger world. What I’m thinking about now are the little tunes that we couldn’t really place, but everyone seems to know.

You know, things like Camptown Races, Oh! Susanna, Polly Wolly Doodle, Jimmy Crack Corn, My Old Kentucky Home, Dixie, Arkansas Traveller… It turns out that a surprisingly high number of these – every single one I just listed, actually – are blackface songs from minstrel shows. IMG_7357Now, minstrel shows were something I didn’t learn about in high school history; if I heard the phrase, I probably would have associated it with some sort of charming Renaissance Faire scene. But the truth is that they’re part of an ugly racial history that we’ve tried to forget without necessarily working to expunge. If, like me, you need more information, educate yourself here (where Missourians like me will find Mark Twain’s quote particularly eye-catching) or perhaps here (brace yourself before clicking either of these). You might want to check out the related history of the cakewalk too.

So now we’re in a situation where our band books are littered with these tiny reminders of our un-reckoned-with past. And to what end? When you know their history, it’s hard to argue that these melodies are culturally relevant, or that teaching them offers an opportunity to broaden students’ knowledge.

And I get – and am thankful to get – students who initially start private lessons to raise their band grade. I try to transition them to a broader set of goals eventually, but at first, we’ve got to solidify those lines that turn into playing quizzes.

So I find myself coaching them through Swanee River (the title itself a slight update of its original, Swanee Ribber, and all of it a mocking corruption of Suwannee River) while reassuring myself that what we’re really doing is learning proper breath support and the intricacies of fingering patterns, and surely it can’t hurt them when they don’t know the history of what they’re playing. It’s not like we’re playing Jump Jim Crow itself, after all. Right? (…right?)

But in the back of my mind, I’m teasing out a vague memory of the time my high school English teacher had me play the Horst-Wessel-Lied, otherwise known as basically Hitler’s national anthem, in class. I think it was during a unit on Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum; he put the sheet music in front of me and I obliged. It’s a shameful memory, really, because I knew full well what I was playing. But I did it because A Teacher Told Me To and maybe I could win his approval by showing how accurately I could sightread. (Like I said, shameful.)

As far as difficult-but-valuable lessons about collusion and oneself go, I suppose I did eventually take away some insight. But I don’t think that was his intended lesson plan, and I’m sure other powerful implicit messages were sent to the other students in the room that day.

Here’s what I see as the similar-yet-different aspects of these stories: as far as I can tell, the minstrel songs in school music programs are unconsciously present. That’s a far cry from my English teacher’s conscious decision to bring a Nazi anthem into his classroom.

But it’s possible the received messages might be similar.

Because, look, I’m not saying that the band directors or method book authors are doing any of this on purpose. What’s going on here isn’t intentional but inherited.

But I really wish we’d value the history of and meaning of the music we play a little bit more, because surely then we could agree it’s worth questioning the wisdom of teaching minstrel songs to middle schoolers.

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