Why This High School Band Is Only Buying Music From Composers Of Color

Feb 18, 2017
Originally published on February 18, 2017 9:47 am

There's a bulletin board at the front of the band room at Spring Lake Park High covered in portraits of the composers who wrote this year's music selection.

The bulletin board isn't new, it's there every year. What's new are the faces: Instead of primarily white men, there are faces of women and composers of color.

This is intentional. The band directors at Spring Lake, outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, have pledged to include at least one piece by a female composer and one by a composer of color in each concert, for each of the school's bands.

"We made a commitment this year to only buy music from composers of color," says Brian Lukkasson, one of the directors.

He says it's been hard, but not because those composers aren't writing for band. They are.

"It's really hard to find music because there's just not a lot of composers of color that are being published," Lukkasson explains.

Composers of color and women are shut out of the canon, and often stereotyped, so Lukkasson usually has to network with his colleagues to find their music.

Like Viet Cuong, a Vietnamese-American who wrote the piece "Diamond Tide," inspired by the scientific process of melting a diamond.

"I really, really want other students of color to be able to feel like they are welcomed and appreciated anywhere," says Kia Muleta, one of Lukkasson's students, "that they don't have to check themselves at the door."

Muleta is a junior, she's been playing the clarinet in since fifth grade and she says the students sitting around her are usually white. She is black. And she says it bothers her that the composers they used to play were usually white.

"There's a kind of an ideological segregation of who can and cannot be in band, based on who the composers are, and what the music is like."

This year they're playing "Of Honor and Valor Eternal," a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, African-American military pilots. It's by Ayatey Shabazz, a black composer from Mississippi. Shabazz says his grandfather knew one of the airmen, and stories he heard as a child inspired the composition.

"The more you practice talking about race, culture and ethnicity the more comfortable you are," says Nora Tycast, one of the other band directors at Spring Lake. She and her students wrote to Shabazz to ask about the composing process.

Kia Muleta says the mix of composers on the bulletin board may seem like a small thing, but it's not to her. She says new faces up front are a signal difference is welcome here.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Students at one high school outside of St. Paul, Minn., are getting ready for their next big band concert. They're busy studying the music, of course, but also the composers. And this year, those composers don't look like they have in years past. Solvejg Wastvedt from Minnesota Public Radio has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOLVEJG WASTVEDT, BYLINE: A bulletin board at the front of the band room is covered with photos of composers, the composers the Spring Lake Park High School bands are playing this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASTVEDT: Kia Muleta plays clarinet She's a junior, and she's been playing since fifth grade. She says in band, the students sitting around her are usually white. Kia is black. And she says the composers they play are also usually white, and they're usually men.

KIA MULETA: There's a kind of, like, ideological segregation of who can and cannot be in band based on who the composers are and what the music is like and what the experiences of those composers are like.

WASTVEDT: But this year, some of that changed. The bulletin board has several pictures of composers of color and women. Brian Lukkasson, one of the school's band directors, says it's an intentional pledge - include at least one piece by a female composer and one by a composer of color in each concert. And when ordering new music...

BRIAN LUKKASSON: Yeah, we made a commitment this year to only buy music from composers of color.

WASTVEDT: How's it going?

LUKKASSON: It's hard. It's really hard to find music because there's just not a lot of composers of color that are being published.

WASTVEDT: But that's not because those composers aren't writing for band.

YOLANDA WILLIAMS: In the United States, there's a very tight hold over who are the accepted composers.

WASTVEDT: Yolanda Williams teaches at the University of Minnesota, and she says that composers of color and women are shut out of the canon. They're also often stereotyped.

WILLIAMS: Rather than assuming black people wrote spirituals and wrote jazz pieces, they also wrote operas and symphonies and string quartets.

WASTVEDT: The Spring Lake Park selections defied those assumptions. Lukkasson's group is learning a piece called "Diamond Tide" by Vietnamese-American composer Viet Cuong. By their March concert, it should sound something like this recording Cuong provided of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Wind Ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIVERSITY OF MARY HARDIN-BAYLOR WIND ENSEMBLE'S PERFORMANCE OF VIET CUONG'S "DIAMOND TIDE")

WASTVEDT: Lukkasson networks with his colleagues to find these new composers.

LUKKASSON: They're not being forced to write music that sounds like their own culture or their own history. They're able to just use that culture and that history as a lens to interpret the way the art is going.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIVERSITY OF MARY HARDIN-BAYLOR WIND ENSEMBLE'S PERFORMANCE OF VIET CUONG'S "DIAMOND TIDE")

WASTVEDT: Nora Tycast, the other band director, raises her baton for a song called "Of Honor And Valor Eternal." It's by Ayatey Shabazz, a black composer from Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRING LAKE PARK HIGH SCHOOL BAND'S PERFORMANCE OF AYATEY SHABAZZ'S "OF HONOR AND VALOR ETERNAL")

WASTVEDT: The piece is a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen. And Tycast takes the chance to educate her students about that history.

NORA TYCAST: Think those triplets through di dah di (ph).

The more you practice talking about race and culture and ethnicity, the more comfortable you are. And we have this platform in ninth, 10th and 11th grade and 12th grade in order to allow students to practice those conversations.

WASTVEDT: Kia Muleta says the mix of composers on the class bulletin board may seem like a small thing, but to her it's clearly not.

MULETA: I really, really want students of color to just feel like they are welcomed and appreciated anywhere, that they don't have to check themselves at the door wherever they go. And I'm sorry, I don't mean to get emotional, but I feel like that's what happens everywhere, like whether - even in a place like band where it doesn't seem like a big deal, it feels like a big deal.

WASTVEDT: She says new faces up front are a signal that difference is welcome here. For NPR News, I'm Solvejg Wastvedt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRING LAKE PARK HIGH SCHOOL BAND'S PERFORMANCE OF AYATEY SHABAZZ'S "OF HONOR AND VALOR ETERNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.