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‘A re-imagined Music Curriculum’: Jeremy Strong interviews PhD candidate Natasha Hendry

Authors: Jeremy Strong (University of West London) , Natasha Hendry (University of West London)

  • ‘A re-imagined Music Curriculum’:  Jeremy Strong interviews PhD candidate Natasha Hendry

    Article

    ‘A re-imagined Music Curriculum’: Jeremy Strong interviews PhD candidate Natasha Hendry

    Authors: ,

Abstract

Professor Jeremy Strong (University of West London) interviews PhD candidate Natasha Hendry whose research seeks to formulate a framework for more inclusive, diverse, and equitable music education for black pupils in the UK.

Keywords: Inclusivity, Diversity, Equitable Music Education, Black Music Pupils

How to Cite:

Strong, J. & Hendry, N., (2024) “‘A re-imagined Music Curriculum’: Jeremy Strong interviews PhD candidate Natasha Hendry”, New Vistas 10(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.36828/newvistas.251

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Published on
07 May 2024
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Can you tell the readers of New Vistas about your career before you set out on a PhD at the University of West London?

As an eighteen-year-old school leaver I went straight into the music business. Mostly I worked as a backing singer, either on recording sessions or touring with bands. After several years I began doing vocal coaching as well, which I absolutely loved. I became particularly interested in the psychology of performance. After the birth of my first child, I realized that the touring aspect of my music career was not compatible with the stability I wanted to provide as a mother, and I was looking for a change. Around this time, I also set up a community choir, which is still going strong, and I wanted to do something that could bring together these interests. So, the day before the UCAS deadline expired I applied and was accepted onto the Psychology degree at UWL, starting the course in 2015.

So, was it at UWL that you began linking psychology and music in terms of research?

Yes. By the third year of my degree, I had realized that I did not want to be a psychotherapist, but I was enthused by the research I did for my undergraduate dissertation on the benefits of group singing. It made me realize that I did not have to choose between psychology and music, that I could combine them, developing new interdisciplinary knowledge. This, in turn, led me to an MA in Music Psychology at Sheffield in 2019. The two years that I was there coincided with the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement and associated discourses. Those events prompted me to see how prevalent issues around ‘race’, identity, power, and structural inequality really are; that they resonated with my own life experiences, even if I had previously been reluctant to fully accept or express this. Even studying in a friendly music department, I realized that the works and musicians who were held up as exemplars never looked like me. This started me down the path of research into inequalities in music education, interviewing staff and students on their perspectives. It was this MA dissertation that ultimately led me back to UWL to undertake a doctorate.

Can you give us the potted version of your PhD research, perhaps beginning with the ‘problem’ that you would like your research to fix, through policy and/or practice?

Research from the United States indicates that a culture of whiteness in western music education, which favours Eurocentric ideals, creates barriers for Black students and ill-prepares future music educators to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse studentship (Bradley, 2007).  However, research on race and music education in the UK is lacking.  My earlier research (Hendry, 2021) revealed that Black music students, music professionals and music educators in the UK experience several adverse psychological consequences arising from barriers in music education and the music industry. These include having to adopt multiple identities, low self-belief, stress and mental pressure and a strong sense of ‘not fitting in’.  Educators for social justice note that the curriculum has not adapted to the multiculturalism that exists in post-colonial England (Gillborn, 2005, Alexander et al., 2015). Music, like many subjects, excludes the experiences, history and culture of Black Britons, perpetuating systemic racism.

So, in this sense, music education in the UK mirrors the issues that may be affecting outcomes for ‘global majority’ students within the wider education sector?

Yes. A growing body of research postulates a strong link between classical music and the white, middle-classes (Bull, 2019; Nwanoku, 2019; Ross, 2020). Simultaneously, a domination of classical music in the western music curriculum is widely reported (Bradley, 2007; Westerlund et al., 2017; Warwick, 2020). It seems necessary to contemplate what this may mean for the personal and musical identities of Black students, however, few studies have focused on race issues in music education, highlighting a gap in the literature which my research seeks to address. Music education, like the rest of the national curriculum, has some way to go to be considered diverse, inclusive and reflective of today’s pupils in the UK.

Whilst some of these arguments point to issues of intersectionality regarding class and race from a socioeconomic perspective, Scharff (2015) posits that bigger than issues such as not being able to afford musical instrument lessons, is the cultural incongruence that students of colour experience between music education culture and their home cultures. A culture of whiteness in music education may well cause non-white students to either conform to norms incongruent with their own culture or opt out of music altogether (Bradley, 2007) suggesting that personal and musical behaviour can also be affected. Their sense of belonging is challenged, and their mental health and wellbeing impacted by the barriers that a Eurocentric music curriculum presents (Bradley, 2007; Hendry, 2021).

Why study Black children and not all ethnic minority groups?

Black pupils have the lowest pass rate for GCSE English and Maths combined. In 2018/19, across the Black major ethnic groups, 59% of pupils attained a standard pass in these subjects. This is the lowest rate for any major ethnic group (Roberts & Bolton, 2020). Although access to higher education has increased for people from Black ethnic groups, their access to ‘prestigious’ universities is the lowest of all ethnic groups and Black students are also less likely to stay in higher education (Roberts & Bolton, 2020) or continue to postgraduate level, in particular to PhD (Office for Students, 2020). My previous research (Hendry, 2021) identified that whilst the studied population came under the umbrella term BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), the experiences of participants in relation to music education within various categories of BAME were very different. For example, children from an Asian ethnic background tended to sit within a higher social class according to the measure used and have more access to instrumental lessons than those from a Black African or Caribbean background. Results suggested that the needs within BAME groups are different and require individual focused research and subsequent interventions. For this reason, my research has focused on Black secondary school children.

This seems like an opportune juncture to discuss your ‘positionality’ as a researcher.

In addition to the evidence in the literature, which suggests that Black children’s personal and academic development is adversely affected by the status quo, my own personal experiences as a Black mixed-race female who grew up in the UK education system and works professionally in the music industry are relevant.   Researchers examining the personal experiences of mixed-race people have shown that they have historically received much of the same type of racial discrimination as Black people, including name-calling, differential treatment and stereotyping in their everyday lives (Tizard & Phoenix, 2002). Positionality can both help and hinder research. Obviously, reflexivity has been a necessary process for the duration of the project. Work carried out by interpretive researchers can never be value-neutral, not solely because by its nature the researcher’s own interpretations are necessary, but also because qualitative researchers often have personal experience of the area of study and practices being researched. However, this can be of benefit.  Being an outsider-insider, that is studying from the outside a context you have inside experience with, can be valuable in that it opens doors and allows greater understanding and empathy (Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).  

How do you perceive the best way forward in terms of music education?

I contend that ‘racial literacy’ is key. Research suggests that proposed solutions for a more diverse and inclusive music curriculum should take a departure from pluralism, widening musical styles to add other genres such as modern pop music (Green, 2002) and multicultural perspectives, which have been criticised as tokenistic attempts at a more inclusive and socially-just music syllabus (Bradley, 2006; 2007). Both strategies buy into a kind of colour-blindness theoretical framework. A colour-blind perspective can cause further damage to diversity practices and the students they seek to serve (Zamudio et al., 2010).  Morrison (1992) claimed that though often thought of as a gesture of grace and liberalism, leaving race and colour unacknowledged simply discredits difference. Academics in support of promoting social justice in US music education believe an anti-racist stance is necessary. They posit that only then will the door be opened to wider representation in music education pedagogy, content and teacher workforce to reflect and validate the current studentship (Bradley, 2007; Bates, 2019).  

Whilst investigating race in Britain, Twine (2004) offered the concept of racial literacy which she determines as a kind of anti-racist language based around direct and open discourse. Racial literacy encourages students and educators to examine their own experiences and beliefs as well as the wider institutions they operate within to identify and explore the existence of racism and to consider the effects of the constructs of race (Sealy-Ruiz, 2021). Racial literacy empowers educators and students to recognise and interrupt racism on a personal and systemic level (Sealey-Ruiz, 2020 as cited in Sealy-Ruiz, 2021). Fundamentally, the concept of racial literacy is to encourage open and direct discourse on race and in doing so promote action that is anti-racist.

My research has sought, firstly, to find out about the experiences of Black pupils in UK music education from the pupils themselves, as well as from music educators and other stakeholders in music education. Secondly, I have analysed the experiences gathered alongside the strengths and pitfalls of previous interventions, to form the basis of a meaningful blueprint of recommended practice for a racially literate and equitable music education system. The primary purpose of this research is to construct a framework informed by pupils, educators and stakeholders, grounded in racial literacy to promote a sense of belonging and identity for Black children in the music classroom, but in actuality is likely to benefit all children. Recent research has shown for example that learning outcomes of all children, not just those from an ethnic minority background, are positively affected by a diverse teacher workforce (White et al., 2020). This study hopes to produce a dynamic and flexible framework that can potentially be used in other educational contexts, though purposed for music education.