Can the subaltern sing?

Something doesn’t sit right with me about this blurb in my alma mater’s website. I grew up in that area, and I know what kind of poverty those kids face. I can’t get out of my mind how incredibly colonial the author’s being.

What strikes me about it is how jubilant she is to learn that her students are capable of learning something like how to read music. Her comment about them sticking with music so they can get scholarships to college reminds me of the comments about PoC playing basketball so they have a shot at college. Not for their own merits or abilities. They’re not studying western art music for a well-rounded education or to participate in culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, although I was a music major, I was on mostly academic scholarships.)

I grew up with teachers telling me that although I was in honors and AP classes, my coursework wouldn’t mean much and that I would never be able to keep up with college-level work, since my school didn’t have the opportunities that other more well-off schools did. I was also told that I’d never be able to compete musically because I couldn’t afford lessons from the best people, like other more economically-advantaged people could.

I object to her perpetuating power and class structures, as if western art music is only the realm of the financially elite. Instrumental music isn’t the be-all and end-all of western art music, either. There’s music theory, music history, musicology, historical musicology, and composition. All of which don’t require any financial backing beyond a library card and basic research skills. Yet she’s holding up an expensive instrument as their only exposure to the vast discipline of music.

I’m all for helping the less-advantaged out. But if the so-called help is only to keep existing power structures in order, then it’s worthless. I don’t see any empowering going on at Lakewood.


~ by Jen on July 13, 2007.

2 Responses to “Can the subaltern sing?”

  1. We are a part of a really good music program in our Middle School — it’s relatively economically depressed with lots of gangsta wanna be’s. I am impressed with the quality of the music that the kids produce. The school provides a lot of really good instruments for the kids to use — the system values it and the kids get a lot of time in class to practice.Music is indeed a universal language. I heard the colonial overtones, but I hope that her heart is in the right place and as she teaches she will seem the kids less as “underpriviledged” and more as just kids.I’m glad you liked the geek snacks!

  2. Yeah that’s it…you give kids a chance–a real chance with the same opportunities as everyone else–and they’ll fly with it. I forgot the name of the person who runs hte music school in Harlem (there was a really lousy schlocky movie based on her story), and she gets good results.

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