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Building Curriculum Diversity: Stereotype Threat
Photo: Syd Wachs

Building Curriculum Diversity: Stereotype Threat

My mother was excited when she was accepted into music school on the mainland in the late 1960s for cello performance. She’s told me stories about moving to Michigan from Hawai‘i: almost getting frostbite, eating her first bagel. But, beyond the quaint stories of an islander learning how to survive in winter, there are more somber ones—friends who were told they had to change instruments (“women don’t play trumpet—you’ll have to switch to French horn if you want to stay in music school”) or her own experience being told repeatedly that women can’t conduct.

These seemingly benign comments of dismissal are ones that often wear students down. The extra energy it takes to stand up to someone takes away from focus on one’s craft. In fact, to be self-conscious about fulfilling a stereotype of not being as skilled as another group has been shown to decrease the performance of otherwise equally matched individuals (see Steele and Aronson’s 1995 study Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans).

Last winter, I had the opportunity to see Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera House. The production got a lot of attention in the media because it was the first time the MET had programmed an opera by a woman in more than 110 years. Susanna Mälkki was conducting—only the fourth woman conductor in the MET’s history—making the production even more noteworthy. The lights dimmed, and when I saw Mälkki walk up to the podium to begin the opera, I was overwhelmed. Why was I suddenly so emotional seeing this woman conduct? In an interview for NPR, when pressed to comment about the state of women composers in opera, Saariaho said, “You know, half of humanity has something to say, also.”

Spurred by the dramatic lack of diversity in orchestral and opera programming, scholars, performers, and critics have responded in different ways. Some have created databases showing the numbers so that the discussion is not just conjecture. Some have created playlists or written articles featuring women and nonbinary composers. Some have spoken out about the difficulties in making their way in music. Many of these people faced harsh criticism: that their efforts were too extreme, or not extreme enough, that they made everything about sexism, or that they were merely scratching the surface of a deeper issue. Taking a stand does not always mean doing so in extremes, but it does involve concrete action. All of us have to find our own way of addressing social issues: in our careers or not, in our personal lives or not. For me, as an educator, this discussion always comes back to curriculum.

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Photo by Redd Angelo

One of my favorite things about teaching is that curriculum is alive, and therefore must be nourished so that it may change over time. That means constantly reading and learning from my colleagues and students about new music and new approaches to sound. In this series, I will share the stories and voices of scholars that have inspired me in the past year as I continue to develop my voice as an educator.

Part One is an in-depth interview with Tara Rodgers, a composer/performer and the author of Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound. The book grew out of the website that Rodgers created, Pinknoises.com, a collection of interviews with women working in electronic music.

Part Two is an interview with the editors of Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers, Laurel Parson and Brenda Ravenscroft. The first volume, Concert Music 1960–2000, explores the work of composers such as Chen Yi, Sofia Gubaidulina, Joan Tower, and Kaija Saariaho.

Finally, Part Three examines music history and performance resources through Anna Beer’s Sounds & Sweet Airs, performing organizations such as The Dream Unfinished, and performance practice resources like Maria Chavez’s Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable.

Students need role models, but beyond that, permission. I heard this same message from many of the scholars I interviewed: that just seeing the idea of success in the present was not the only important element, but also understanding that there is a precedent. The only way to show students this precedent, both historically and currently in the field, is curriculum that reflects the gender and racial diversity of our society. Relating back to the Steele and Aronson study on Stereotype Threat, when students were not worrying immediately about the stereotypes of not performing as well, they in fact performed equally. I believe another way to counteract “stereotype threat” is to show a precedent of strong historical models representing a variety of people who achieved, so as to build a student’s confidence through new, positive associations: the permission to thrive.

Developing any curriculum, especially one that achieves balanced representation, is a lot of work. We all need resources that help guide us so that the work is less daunting. Whether you’re using the summer to update an academic course curriculum or interested in your own continuing personal research for programming concerts, this series aims to encourage further investigation and continue the conversation. Furthermore, if you feel comfortable sharing reading lists, syllabi, or other resources that you’ve used in the past that you are proud of, please feel free to link to those in the comments below.

All the writers I spoke with for this month’s posts saw a void in curriculum/scholarship that they wanted to begin to fill. Through the network of scholars outlined in these articles, I strive to continue to develop my own classes, knowledge about assigning repertoire, and ability to advocate for all my students.


Anne Lanzilotti

Anne Lanzilotti is a composer, performer, and scholar of contemporary music. In the fall, she will be joining the faculty at University of Northern Colorado as assistant professor of viola.

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