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  • Writer's pictureMahaliah Edwards

Decolonising Music Education

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Diversity. Equity. Equality. Inclusion. These are the buzzwords which have had lots of airtime recently. Similarly, the concept of decolonisation has been a topic of discussion particularly in the education sector for some time, sparking protests and movements from students and the general public worldwide. (Think the #RhodesMustFall movement at University of Cape Town which spread to Oriel College, University of Oxford, UK - plus the toppling of Edwards Colston's statue in Bristol 2020).

During the year 2020, Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd initiated a more widespread inexorable awareness to structural inequalities in society i.e. institutionalised racism, socio-economic barriers etc. The aforementioned events instigated conversations within every industry including the music industry and its education sectors.

As a musician-educator myself, I continue to have many thoughts around what decolonisation means and how it features in music education and specifically my practice as a violin teacher. For me, some key areas are:

  • improving the visual and sonic representation of artists and performers in teaching resources and examples. Addressing colonial legacy and allowing multiple perspectives and context to music that we already know and love in addition to championing forgotten works/composers and "new music".

  • further developing more diverse exam syllabuses; course content; curriculum and schemes of work.

  • working towards a diversity of faculty staff in institutions and their workforce (particularly in conservatoires but at all levels of music-making and education) and the idea that the vast majority music teaching and learning prioritises Eurocentric thinking, championing Western Art Music over other outputs.

  • how music of diverse provenances is taught and how it can be sustainably integrated as an integral part of music education rather than being a supplementary add-on.


Decolonisation is a heavily weighted term with denotations of social control and perhaps violence and struggle.

One of Jansen and Osterhammel’s definitions of decolonisation is the “irreversible delegitimization of any kind of political rule that is experienced as a relationship of subjugation to a power elite”. The Oxford Dictionary defines decolonisation as “the withdrawal of the colonies of the colonial power; the acquisition of political or economic independence...”. For me, it is important not to amalgamate nuanced issues i.e. the conflation of the Black Lives Matter socio-political movement protesting against police brutality and racially motivated violence with all issues concerning diversity, inclusion, equality etc. In the same way, I therefore agree with Tuck and Wang who, in their article Decolonization is not a Metaphor, comment on how language of decolonization has been superficially adopted into education and other social sciences, supplanting prior ways of talking about social justice”

This can be a scary word for people to reckon with - especially when talking about practice within education. Perhaps there is absolute right term which encompasses Essentially, for me it is about addressing colonial legacy within the music we teach in addition to challenging our own perceptions in they way we value music and develop music tastes outside of and including the dominant culture (typically Western Art Music). Some practical steps which I have begun to implement are below:

  • Listening to music from a variety of cultural traditions and provenances rather than perhaps constantly returning to the same canonical examples.

  • Discussing the music in a way that champions the native tradition's perspective if it has been changed through colonisation or imperialism. Being respectful and accurate in our descriptions i.e. using the term gaida rather than saying the Bulgarian bagpipe or saying "African Drumming"when referring to music made by djembes from several West African countries on the continent.

  • Try learning music in the way it may be traditionally learned i.e. by ear, passed through many different people, by symbols or different forms of notation.

  • Using the expertise of the learners in the room - allowing my children to become the teacher...By subverting power roles in the classroom/learning environment, this enables the "learner" to feel more empowered to share their own experiences from their cultural backgrounds - only if they wish to!

  • Diversifying - teaching using a variety visual and auditory resources which are diverse and come from a range of sources to be representative of lots of artistic outputs in the industry i.e. using videos with female conductors, ethnically diverse players and traditionally diverse instruments – all where appropriate to avoid a tokenistic manner which is common. The same goes for any protected characteristic.

I think it is important to say that decolonising and diversifying the curriculum in my own teaching has only been the beginning of what must be a long-term and sustained and systemic change in music education at large. My own existence as a black person in the Western Art space could be seen as an act of decolonisation - many of my forbears were not allowed to participate in music making of any sort, particularly of their own culture. As a teacher, many parents and teachers have told me that it is important for some children to see themselves (ethnically or culturally) represented in teaching staff in school or just as a role model in my performing, community work and work in education. I have seen in my work that giving children and young people a chance to express themselves in their learning through them teaching others about their culture and own musical values has been transformative for their sense of belonging in music. In addition, teaching music which is varied in provenance, genre and across timespans whilst teaching them from a variety of viewpoints rather than a single Eurocentric on is central to dismantling colonial legacy in the music we teach; how we teach it; who gets to participate and how they participate. Kerz-Welzel says we need to address superficial understandings of what music education is for12. However, decolonisation is also not an action for educators alone but for the music industry at large. Conservatoires must engage and challenge their teaching traditions and include a more multiplicity of perspectives and the same goes for opera companies, orchestras, publishers and equipment manufacture etc.

Ultimately, decolonisation for me is not about absolutely dismantling everything we know and love about music but it is about allowing multiple perspectives to live and breathe in the same space, looking truthfully at the past and how we can use it to shape and equitable future for all to thrive.

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