Introducing Multicultural Music to Your Music Program

Theresa Jenkins-Russ and the Carolina Cool Jazz Orchestra
Theresa Jenkins-Russ and the Carolina Cool Jazz Orchestra
Theresa Jenkins-Russ and the Carolina Cool Jazz Orchestra

When veteran music teacher and South Carolina American String Teacher Association president Theresa Jenkins-Russ found herself teaching the same pieces to her string students year after year, she decided it was time for a change. “I was getting bored teaching them the same thing over and over again,” says Jenkins-Russ, who teaches both string orchestra and private students. “And, if you’re bored, you can imagine the kids who are playing the same music day in and day out—they won’t want to stick with the program or practice at home.”

To keep students interested, Jenkins-Russ started looking for music outside the standard repertoire, seeking out works and composers that draw from African, South American, and Cuban cultures. A palpable rhythm rendered by the addition of piano or drums to pieces for string orchestra sets these works apart from the old standbys.

A big benefit of teaching multi-cultural works with a strong ethnic rhythm is that you may be able to introduce students to advanced concepts that wouldn’t otherwise be learned until later in their music education. “With multicultural music, you have that added rhythm that is different from classical music, so you can tie in things like duple meters that you might only introduce to kids when they’re a junior or senior in high school,” Jenkins-Russ says. “You don’t have to go into all the details, but you can give them the information briefly and let them play.”

So where do you start when you want to integrate multicultural music into your standard repertoire? And how do you ensure that students are getting the same level of quality music instruction?

Browse Sheet-Music Retailers Online

Jenkins-Russ started at J.W. Pepper, an online sheet-music company. Aside from being a respectable source for traditional music for students of all levels, the company publishes a variety of pieces composed with a multicultural flair. Eventually, Jenkins-Russ was able to build up her own library of new music, but she found that sometimes it can be hard to tell which pieces would be appropriate for a specific group of students. Looking at the level designated by the publishing company or reading the score isn’t always enough, she says.

“The cool thing right now is that most of the music that’s coming out also has a CD track you can listen to so you don’t have to guess as to what it might sound like,” she says. “But sometimes you just have to play it yourself first and try it out.”

Looking for music for students who take private lessons? Jenkins-Russ says finding music for private lessons is more of a challenge because many of these multicultural works are arranged for larger groups. “You have to be creative,” she says. “I look at band music, especially the flute part, and see if I can adapt it to violin or viola. If it’s for cello, I look at an alto sax [part] and see if I can transpose it for cello.”

Commission New Multicultural Music

Finding composers in your area to compose music for your string or full orchestra is another option if you’re having difficulty finding something suitable. When Jenkins-Russ had trouble finding pieces that were appropriate for her high-school orchestra, she took matters into her own hands and commissioned a local composer.

“I got a PTA parent who was good at writing grants, and we wrote a grant so we could get music written for the group,” she says. “We had four or five pieces written for our orchestra.”

Make the Music Lessons All-Inclusive

Introducing multicultural music also allows more room for the curriculum to overlap with other classes; and working with teachers in other disciplines, if you’re able, will add another way for your students to engage with the material. For instance, one year, Jenkins-Russ coordinated with a history teacher to integrate lessons on the rainforest with some pieces she was teaching her students.

“It was a whole ecological study with music,” she says. “My kids played a piece that depicted the rainforest, so everyone could hear what the music would sound like. We talked about the animals that were in the rainforest and the vegetation.”

Another song suitable for interdisciplinary studies that blends American history and music is the African-American hymn “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which directed runaway slaves fleeing the Deep South on the underground railroad to look for the Big Dipper constellation and the North Star to guide them to freedom in the north.

Jenkins-Russ now integrates multicultural works into school concerts, continuing to rotate the curriculum so her students stay engaged, interested, and open-minded.

“We live in a global society and, as a nation, we are exposed to people from all over the world,” she says. “Music is one way to help people relate to each other, respect each other, and understand each other.”

Keep Them Playing

Your students will want to know a little bit about their new music, but when you’re introducing these pieces to any group of students, the best thing to do is give them a short background and then let them start playing before their eyes glaze over.
“I decorate the class with pictures and information on the composers so the kids can go look at it at their leisure. They’d rather play than listen to me talk,” Jenkins-Russ says. “I also try to ask them questions like, ‘Why is this different from your traditional Bach piece?’ And they know. They’re smart.”

See the article in Strings magazine