Thursday, July 23, 2020

Guest Blogger: Who’s Behind “Decolonizing the Choral Classroom”? by Kiernan M. Steiner

In a recent Instagram post, I shared some questions that I have been considering for the past couple of years, and I would like to provide some more background information regarding that initial posting.  First, I must acknowledge my positionality in this conversation.  I am an able-bodied, cisgender woman of mixed race (Filipinx, English, Irish, and German), a transracial adoptee (adopted by a white family), and a third year doctoral student in choral conducting.  I have had the privilege to work with many supportive teachers, professors, and advisors throughout my undergraduate and graduate work, and I am blessed to have friends and family members who have encouraged me along the way.  It is this particularly unique lens, however, that has allowed me to reflect on my experiences from many different perspectives—from places of privilege, as well as marginalization. 

Since the resurgence of the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement, in response to the murder of George Floyd and so many others, educators have been taking inventory on the many ways systemic racism has permeated the education system. Terms, such as “decolonizing” and “unsettling,” have been used by activists and Anti-Racist/Anti-Bias (ABAR) educators to refer to the dismantling of the imperialistic and white supremacist framework which operates within the American education system.  This framework is seen in the traditional whitewashed teaching of the “First Thanksgiving” between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, the celebration of Christopher Columbus, and the exclusion of ethnic studies in most K-12 school districts.  In music education, white supremacy has not only affected the music that is taught (repertory), which is predominantly Western European and European American art music, but the methods of teaching (pedagogy) that values hierarchical relationships, discipline, rigor, and perfectionism.  These principles are not inherently bad, but, rather, have been used to appropriate and degrade communal music making, oral traditions, popular music, and other non-Western musical traditions for centuries.  It is important to acknowledge how traditions of Western European and European American art music have become “the standard” for comparison, which is inherently racist.

In recent conversations with colleagues and advisors, I have heard a broad spectrum of responses to the ideas of colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy in choral music.  Mainly, choir directors and conductors want to have a handbook or checklist to ensure their programs move in the “right” direction and away from racist policies.  Unfortunately, there is no one perfect checklist or guide that can “right” all of our “wrongs,” partly, because not everything we do must be thrown out or changed, however, I believe everything we do must be deeply interrogated.  As an educator, my loyalty and responsibility is not to uphold a tradition that was never built for me—a woman of color—but, rather, reimagine how this art form can serve the students that I work with presently, who should not be expected to dim their light to learn, perform, or love choral music.  I believe the work that has to be done must start with each individual educator/director/conductor asking themselves: How have I been complicit with traditional choral practices that disregard and abuse marginalized individuals and voices?  To initiate this self-reflection, here are some questions that help individuals dig deeper into issues concerning auditions, rehearsal techniques/content, and concert attire:

Photo description: Original “Decolonize the Choral Classroom” Instagram post by @decolonizing_kiki.

As I continue my studies in higher education, and strive to work in a collegiate/university setting someday, I have to accept that classical music still operates on a hierarchical model and reifies white supremacy.  If I did not recognize this, I would be denying my personal experiences that have greatly shaped my reality as a music student, educator, and scholar-activist.  More often than not, I am still the only woman or woman of color at the table.  At the same time, I am also unlearning racism and identifying ways I have personally benefited from white supremacy.  In continuing this work, my dissertation research will be a more thorough examination of power structures in collegiate choral programs.  If you would like to follow my journey or connect with me, find me on Instagram (@decolonizing_kiki) and check out my website:!

Self-Reflection Prompts:
      How am I engaging with these concepts of “decolonization” and “unsettling”?
      Do these words bring up a positive or negative reaction?
      What area (pedagogy, curriculum, classroom management, etc.) could I focus on this school year/season to address some of these concerns?
      Who are the leaders in my school/organization that I can turn to for support and guidance?

Here are some more resources for further study:
      How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
      White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
      Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
      13th (documentary) directed by Ava DuVernay

Kiernan M. Steiner is a third year doctoral student in Choral Conducting at Arizona State University, located in Tempe, Arizona. Her research interests are in curriculum inquiry, critical pedagogy theory, liberatory education, and her dissertation is an examination of power structures in collegiate choral programs throughout the United States.  Kiernan’s goal is to break down barriers that have historically limited Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, womxn, the LGBTQIA+ community, individuals with disabilities, and other marginalized communities from having access to choral music education. In addition to her research, Kiernan is the director of the Sol Singers at ASU, teaches courses in beginning choral conducting and vocal/choral pedagogy, and advises an all-female a cappella group, called the Pitchforks.  In recent years, she has presented research on gender studies, women in music, and queer theory in San Francisco, Dublin, and Boston. For more information, go to her website:

Photo Credit: Jacob Moscovitch

Have an idea or perspective you wish to share for this decolonizing choir series? Let me know at this link.

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