Growing a Core Repertoire for Violin that Embraces Diversity

May 30, 2020, 9:27 PM · I don't want to say the wrong thing. But these days, staying silent can be the equivalent of saying the wrong thing.

So, here goes: I'm sad, horrified, disgusted, and angry the more I learn about the pervasive, systemic racism that has shaped our country from its beginnings. I feel woefully uneducated, and ashamed to have been part of something so destructive and unfair.

As a teacher, it makes me sick to think that some of my students are at greater risk walking down the street, or might be asked if they belong somewhere, or given fewer opportunities, or any other number of injustices, simply because of the color of their skin.

And as a teacher who teaches students starting from a very young age, I'm very aware that they look up to me, copy me, and take their cues from how I respond to things. Many of my students have been with me for years and in many cases, I am their first and primary influence when it comes to understanding the music world.

Classical music is an art form that is overwhelmingly white, male, European, and deceased. While many efforts are being made to change this, they are not yet mainstream. These are the Black History Month concerts, which feature a few representative works by a Black composer, possibly a Black soloist, and then we never hear those works or see that soloist again. We have yet to see a majority of concert series present more diverse programs in months that aren't February or March.

There are many, many activists and scholars and people who can speak more knowledgeably about systemic racism in America than I can. And there are many amazing musicians who have been championing the works of composers of color and women for longer than I've been alive. I encourage you to seek these people out - on social media, in their published books, in their dissertations, in their recordings.

If the concert hall (or the Facebook Live stream, these days) is the place audiences regularly encounter new pieces of classical music, the elementary school classroom and the private teaching studio is the first place children encounter music. We teach them what music is important. And for many of us who teach using the Suzuki method, we are trying to cultivate beautiful hearts in our students, and to make global citizens, not just violinists.

But how can we do that when the repertoire in the books is almost entirely written by dead white European men?

The answer: we can't. We have to turn the "supplemental" repertoire into "core" repertoire.

diverse repertoire

How do teachers go about revising and expanding our performance teaching repertoires?

As respectfully, thoroughly, and passionately as we attended our own lessons and Suzuki trainings and pedagogy classes.


First, performers and teachers need to reflect on how and why we choose repertoire for ourselves and our students. Here are a few questions to start our reflections:

It can be intimidating to know where to start. Preparing teaching repertoire, especially, requires time and thought about how that repertoire will teach skills and fit into a student's sequence. But we have to start somewhere.

Here is a short (and not comprehensive) list of teaching repertoire that I use with my own students. I offer this as a place to start:

  1. Music By Black Composers

    This is a wonderful collection of resources, including a violin repertoire book that can be integrated with Suzuki Books 1-3, a composer timeline, coloring book, and a directory of living Black composers.

  2. Violin Music By Women, edited by Dr. Cora Cooper

    This four-volume anthology starts with pieces at a Suzuki Book 1 level and goes well past the Suzuki repertoire. Professionals will want to pick up the fourth volume of pieces for themselves. Each volume contains composer biographies to help educate students about these remarkable women.

  3. The Blue Book & Green Book of Violin Tunes, edited by Bonnie Greene

    These collections of folk tunes for beginning and intermediate players include Chinese, Korean, and Mexican folk songs, fiddle tunes from both American and Irish traditions, and African American spirituals.

  4. Folk Strings (for solo or string ensemble), arranged by Joanne Martin

    These two collections also include tunes from all over the world.

  5. The Anthology of Afghan Folk Songs, edited and arranged by William Harvey

    The link will take you to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music's site, where you can learn more about their mission. From there, you will find a link to a Dropbox site that has these folk song arrangements for free. I love that these include optional violin accompaniment parts and piano parts.

I hope the idea of discovering new music for yourself and your students energizes you. I hope I haven't said or done the wrong thing here. I hope that if my students are reading this, they are open to learning alongside me - which really, is what this is all about, anyway. Learning together, and, once we know better, doing better to bring music that is as diverse as our audiences.

Please share in the comments, any repertoire that you suggest, for growing and encouraging diversity in our field.

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June 1, 2020 at 11:33 PM · Thanks Claire. has always been my go to for pedadogy and inspiration, but under CV19 it seems to have become so much more. This is one of the posts that has loitered longterm in my mind.

I agree wholeheartedly with what you say, but I'd like to add one thing - I didn't work out what I was missing till I read an article crtiqueing the prevalence of White female leads in films, supported by undeveloped characters of colour.

It started me thinkinng: It's not just that students need musical role models that look like them; we of Anglo heritage need role models that don't look like us.

Think about it. List 10 favourite composers/ensembles/conductors/performers - these are likely your role models. How many of them are alive? How many are female? How many are people of colour? Or LGBTIQA+? Are there any differently abled musicians?

It's great for kids to see themselves, but how much stronger a message of solidarity is a teacher who's passionate about a Black/Female/differently abled/Asian/Queer/Afgani/Latino composer or performer? How powerful would it be if diversity were the norm, not the current tokenistic 'because you need a role model' exception?

I'm not suggesting that claire is being tokenistic here, just that the dominance of dead white men in the Western canon creates tunnel vision that's all too easy to pass on to our students.

I'm an English teacher, and our text selection is no different , give or take Austen and the Brontes who write in the 'feminine' genre of romance.

Even courses on postcolonial literature focus on Canada or Australia and ignore entire continents of colonised peoples. I teach lots of middle eastern and Chinese poems, but I'd be hard pressed to name one of the poets, and none of the Aboriginal writers I've read competes with Emily Dickinson or Frances Harding in my mind. Even Ondaatje who's crept onto syllabuses as Sri Lankan, considers himself a Canadian writer. Pearl S Buck, who I read a school as Chinese, was an American missionary's daughter. Clearly I just dont read widely enough.

The musical world is no different, with programming and funding informed by similar canons. If there is a concert featuring women or composers of colour, then it is usually attached - unintentionally tokenistically - to a specific event (International women's day, Black history month).

I'm not sure how to change this, but I do know we're in the position to do so.

I guess we start by buying the books, searching YouTube, finding our favourite diverse composers or performers or ensembles... Don't just tell the Black/female etc student about them; tell everyone, share the clips, invite you're friends and students you the concerts when We're allowed to have them again. Normalise them in our canon.

Thanks, Claire, for the blog that contextualised this for me.

June 2, 2020 at 07:14 AM · I definitely appreciate how my orchestra is trying to normalize women composers, composers of color, and living composers, and going out of its way to avoid tokenism. We recently had a season where we played only three pieces by dead white European men all year, and had women composers and living composers on every program. On the orchestral programming side, I think it's important to place diversity in the "concerto" or "symphony" slot in the "overture-concerto-symphony" format. It seems like 99% of the time anyone who isn't a dead white man gets relegated to a 5-minute curtain raiser, and it's such a common practice that being put in that slot almost seems to signal that the piece is not important.

Now, as for violin repertoire: I think Florence Price's second concerto could be an excellent piece for upper intermediate to early advanced students. I believe it has now been published by Schirmer, just within the past year.

June 2, 2020 at 05:41 PM · Anish, thank you for your response and for pointing out the danger of falling into tokenism. I completely agree with you. I was trying to focus on the student perspective here - I hadn't written at all about my own experiences as I try to add to my own knowledge both of music history and expand my own listening lists. We all need to expand and add to what we see as "normal."

Andrew: 100% agree with you about putting those new works in the concerto/symphony slot. Florence Price's works have been showing up more and more, and the first ever biography of her is coming out this month.

June 3, 2020 at 02:45 PM · It's worth pointing out minority cultural figures who have influetnced music, like Pushkin.

Last century there was a well known English don, F R Leavis, who identified the four greatest English novelists as, from greatest to not-so-greatest: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James. Of these, only the last was a British male, and the third a male of any sort. James inspired an opera by Britten and Conrad one by Richard Rodney Bennett. The first two were probably too good at human characterisation to inspire opera.

June 3, 2020 at 03:28 PM · This is no place to get into political or ideological opinions. I read your publication for its musical content, and specifically how I can develop as a violinist. This site here-to-fore has been a refuge from the crazy goings on in the world.

June 3, 2020 at 05:54 PM · I'll start by saying that I support diversity 100%; I'm biracial myself, and my wife is Hispanic; we're both trilingual and our kids are as well, and we travel outside the US regularly so our children can live in and understand their other culture.

Having said that, I was bothered by a couple of things in this post; the first is the very cavalier attitude about great composers in calling them "dead old European white men". I assume this was referring to the standard repertoire composers such as Bach, Beethoven, etc.

These composers aren't standard because of their gender or race, but rather because they are musical geniuses whose works have stood the test of time for centuries. They're able to create whole worlds and emotions with their music, and take performers and listeners along for the ride. Dismissing them as dead old white men is shallow and especially disturbing in a music teacher.

I feel that selections for music instruction should be based on two factors; one is repertoire that helps develop the student, and the other is selecting composers whose works elevate the art of music in some way. Race, gender, sexual preference, national origin, etc., shouldn't have a place in that selection.

Last, I thought your idea of diversity was very limited; it seems to match the political ideology of diversity much better than the reality; mentioning female composers, black composers, LGBTQ composers, but leaving out Hispanic composers totally for example.

Diversity shouldn't be exclusive, and music shouldn't be used to further a political ideology.

June 3, 2020 at 06:00 PM · Claire does not appear to be arguing against teaching students to play and appreciate Bach and Beethoven. She is advocating a widening of the repertoire to include the genius composers of the past who were ignored due to their race or gender. Nothing particularly ideological about recognizing and teaching excellent music. I would hope most of the readers here have a healthy curiosity about finding good composers they did not yet know and trying worthwhile music that is new to them.

Richard, Claire was careful to say that her list was far from comprehensive. I invite you to share any music that would add to this list.

June 3, 2020 at 06:09 PM · @Lauire - Dismissing composers like Bach and Beethoven as "dead old European white men" certainly seems to indicate a bias against them, which was part of my issue with the post. I also didn't see much about choosing composers by the quality of their works in the post either. Last, by calling out some minorities and ignoring others, that can easily create divisiveness more than inclusiveness.

June 3, 2020 at 06:19 PM · No Richard, she did not dismiss any composers at all, nor did she seek to call out some minorities and not others, she was simply sharing what she knows and inviting further discussion. You might want to re-read the piece.

Sounds like you don't have anything to add?

June 3, 2020 at 06:42 PM · Hi everyone,

These are important conversations to have and think about. As artists, violinists, teachers, and global citizens, I think we are all always learning. I know I am.

Music has always been a response to the culture that is created in. To use the example of a white Germanic composer, Beethoven originally dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, then changed the dedication in an act of protest after Napoleon made himself emperor. Much of the classical music that is regularly presented to audiences is political in nature - and that doesn't even begin to address the ways in which music has been co-opted to support various political regimes throughout history.

I am not at all presenting myself as an expert in diversity here. The materials I listed in the post are the ones I've been using with my own students, and yes, I have carefully analyzed them from a pedagogical respect to make sure that they are helping my students develop the skills and musicality they need as they grow as violinists - I think most teachers would! The Blue Book of Violin Tunes and Joanne Martin's Folk Strings both include multiple pieces from Latinx traditions, and I will edit the post to clarify that. I am not dismissing the canon. I am advocating that we examine WHY it is the canon and consciously seek to understand our own biases and prejudices, and ask ourselves if that plays into the music we select for ourselves and our students.

If there are more resources that you can recommend to further my exploration of Latinx composers and pieces to add to the list, please let me know! I'm interested in gathering as many materials as possible to help myself and my students learn.

June 3, 2020 at 08:40 PM · This may or may not be well received, especially since I'm not a music teacher; I was classically trained on piano, and have played and composed for over 40 years, plus 15 years on guitar, and I'm much newer to violin. I do have some teaching experience in tutoring calculus, ESL, and computer science, and have guest lectured at universities and spoken at conferences on three continents, but not all of that translates to musical pedagogy.

Having said that, I personally feel that calling out specific minorities can easily backfire; because by definition the books you call out are exclusive, not inclusive. There will always be a minority left out no matter how good the intentions of the authors were. I think instead of having books of great minority composers or great women composers, it would be far better to have books of great composers, period.

I'll expand on that with a couple of examples, one professional and one personal....

Professionally, I manage a large R&D department for my company; when I'm hiring, I don't look at race, gender, sexual preference, nationality or anything else except their qualifications for the position. The result is that my department is currently 70% female and over 60% minority, and is regularly praised by our CEO for outstanding work and never missing a deadline. The same theme as I mentioned for composers; not great minority engineers, or great female engineers, just great engineers. Period.

On a personal note, we've always stressed music for our children; my daughters studied violin and piano, and all three of us joined a community mariachi practice and performance group when they were younger.

When looking for a piano and violin teacher though, I was looking for the best teachers possible, who would give them solid fundamentals, highest quality instruction, but still be personable and relate to them well. If a teacher had mentioned teaching diversity or anything else like that, my answer would have been that its not their job, that's the role of my wife and me, and would have almost certainly looked for another teacher at once.

For that matter if a teacher had suggested the idea of "a composer who looks like them" to one of my daughters, they probably would have laughed and said "well of course, I've been singing/listening to his/her music since before I could read!".

That leads me to my conclusion; that the role of initially teaching diversity and acceptance has to come from the parents. Schools are already trying to take over parental roles more and more (especially here in California), which is not a good thing in my opinion. Seeing that same attitude creeping into music instruction is a bit depressing. We are all humans; it's that simple; let's not highlight differences and call it diversity.

Claire, let me add that I don't mean any of this as personal in any way; I think the goal of ensuring that good music is well represented regardless of its origin is extremely positive and very well meant. I am just pointing out some challenges and issues with the approach.

June 3, 2020 at 09:41 PM · So you are saying you would not want a teacher to introduce music to your children from, say, a book of mariachi music. Nor would you want such a book to be compiled, because that would be “exclusive diversity”?

June 3, 2020 at 09:51 PM · Claire, early on you make the statement: "we are trying to cultivate beautiful hearts in our students, and to make global citizens, not just violinists."

I would submit that it is not your job to sway your student into a particular political viewpoint. By all means, teach from whatever material is suitable based on its musical, not political or racial merits.

June 3, 2020 at 10:33 PM · Laurie, my children were exposed to all kinds of music from around the world from birth; we let them choose what style they wanted to study.

So, if I am hiring a classical music teacher, I certainly wouldn't want them to use a mariachi method book; nor would I want them to use a gypsy jazz or bluegrass method book.

Of course there is nothing wrong with publishing a mariachi book; I own several. But, I would not promote any of them as a general method book or suggest one for standard repertoire, which was the focus of the original post.

Also, promoting a mariachi book as diverse would clearly be pure silliness; such a book is not diverse in any way. It's the exact opposite of diverse since it's focused on a single style that has a single country of origin. It's certainly worth studying, as it's a wonderful musical style with much to offer, just like many others from around the world.

Simply put, I feel that teachers of any kind, music or other, should teach from the best material possible, regardless of the author's or composer's race, gender, national origin, etc., and not select materials based on ideology or personal ideas of diversity.

At the very least, if a teacher chooses materials based on personal ideology and politics, they should be upfront with parents about that and let them decide to proceed or not.

June 4, 2020 at 12:51 AM · Richard,

I agree with you that in an ideal world, there would be no need for these labels or divisions. But we simply have to turn on the news to know that we don't live in an equal world, and a glance through concert programs, current published collections of "great works," and music history and theory textbooks to tell us that we don't live there. Not yet. Also, classical music is still being composed, at this very minute (just like history is still being made). We can't freeze the canon and leave it there. It constantly is being added to, and part of being a teacher of any subject is being open to learning new things and adapting to add new excellent resources as they are made available to us. Being open to composer collaborations and performing new music is also an essential part of being a performing artist.

The point of this post was to spark reflection, help teachers look at their pedagogical materials with a different perspective, and offer resources (which I have tried myself and find to be highly effective) to help them.

You've expressed your concerns, and thank you for raising them. As I always am upfront with my students and their parents about the materials I use in their violin lessons, from scales to Music By Black Composers to Suzuki and how they will work - and the fact that this blog was posted publicly, you can rest assured that no parents are being misled about who I am, how I teach, or what I believe about the world.

June 4, 2020 at 01:15 AM · I should think that being a global citizen with a beautiful heart transcends political ideology.

June 4, 2020 at 01:46 AM · Claire, I appreciate your comments and open discourse. My concern is that in creating and perpetuating those labels we as a society actually become more divisive rather than inclusive.

I also certainly don’t advocate freezing the canon of standard repertoire. It’s never been frozen, if you look at what was standard 100 years ago there are numerous differences from today, as well as many similarities. But adding to that standard canon should be based on musical merits only, not social ones.

Also, my comments about teachers being upfront with parents weren’t meant at you specifically and I apologize if it sounded that way, it was meant as a global comment.

Laurie, yes it does transcend ideology, but I personally wouldn’t want any teacher deciding what being a global citizen or having a beautiful heart means for my child. And I’d want a music teacher who teaches music, not one who uses that as a social engineering platform. Other parents may feel differently and still others may not care; which is certainly their right.

I hope I’m not coming across as argumentative or difficult, but I do feel very strongly about this topic.

June 4, 2020 at 03:33 AM · Just to give people the history here, the "beautiful heart" idea comes from the Japanese pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki, who saw the horrors of WWII and wanted to teach children to make music so they would have an alternative to making war. He emphasized teaching children with dignity and love, rather than abuse. It's been a highly successful method that has produced great musicians as well as music lovers over the years.

Whatever method you use, you really can't truly teach music without teaching its context, unless you are teaching it badly. It's a powerful language.

But if you'd prefer a teacher that is more "just the notes" without a lot of context, history, emotional understanding, awareness of the changing world, etc. then certainly you should find that teacher.

June 4, 2020 at 04:33 AM · Laurie, I admire Shinichi Suzuki very much, and my first violin teacher used the Suzuki method, modified for adults by adding Wolfhart Op 38 and Maia Bang. I never said or suggested or even implied that music should be just the notes. The amount of extra context depends on the students age of course, just as Suzuki doesn’t discuss the origins of the pieces in Book 1 and doesn’t include lyrics because he felt some of them could be disturbing for young children.

However, teaching context and history and learning how to understand a composer and his or her times is different than selecting pieces to fit someone’s idea of social propriety or political correctness. The first is what I would consider traditional music instruction, whereas the second is bordering on social engineering.

June 4, 2020 at 04:50 AM · I agree. Choose pieces for their musical excellence and pedagogical value, just as Claire is advocating doing in this article. Your inability to see the music by Black composers as anything other than music chosen for "social propriety or political correctness," however, is rather revealing, and I think we've heard more than enough. I'd like to hear some other voices.

June 6, 2020 at 05:38 PM · The phrase dead white European men, or variations of it, has been common property in academia, notably among sociology professors, for a long time. I've never liked it; but other posters here have already addressed the use of this phrase, so I will move on to systemic racism, which you first mentioned in the second paragraph, and which is also known as institutional racism.

On the Web, I have come across a number of speakers -- some black, some non-black -- addressing the proposition that America is institutionally racist. Some reaffirm it, while others challenge it. Listen to what David Webb had to say on the subject -- uploaded 5 years ago -- run time: 10:40:

The United States is Not Institutionally Racist

I don't feel that you should be "ashamed to have been part of something so destructive and unfair." I'd say you're not part of it, as long as you're doing what you can do to address what you see as imbalance or unfairness -- and it sounds to me like you definitely are doing something to address these issues.

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