An Educator’s Guide to Teaching the Music of Underrepresented Composers

Educators are beginning to conserve, understand, & teach the underrepresented music and musicians beyond what classical musicians have traditionally been taught.

By Gregory Walker | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Yo-Yo Ma likes to quote Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” There’s a kaleidoscopic range of underrepresented music and musicians that lies beyond what classical musicians have traditionally been taught. And all around the world, from this vast spectrum, educators are beginning to conserve, understand, and teach the music of Black composers.

Boston Conservatory plans to mandate diversity training and allocate all 2020–21 philanthropic gifts to fund new inclusion initiatives. North Carolina’s Meredith College is including a global music-history component, collecting songs from multiple cultures to use in teaching music theory, with multi-cultural resources to use in other classes. The Yale School of Music is officially committed to recruiting from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), creating a committee for representative programming and establishing a faculty resource fund directed toward engaging more musicians of color.

“We live in a world that is multi-national, and I believe that building intentional gender-race relationships will produce new and stronger communities,” says University of Texas at San Antonio professor and Marian Anderson String Quartet violinist Nicole Cherry. “From an external experience learning to play music of diverse composers, white students learn the true meaning of becoming an ally.”

These diverse composers have names you may not have heard. The Brazilian José Maurício Nunes Garcia, dance-music master Ignatius Sancho, and legendary violinist-swordsman Chevalier de Saint-Georges date back to the 1700s. But are they as good as Mozart and Beethoven?

If we only love Mozart for those aspects unique to his most famous music, no other music can be the same. But if we also love Mozart because we always love beautiful melodies, musical challenges, and artistic genius, there’s now an exciting possibility of developing a personal, possessive, and passionate bond with some rarely performed repertoire.

“You shouldn’t play a piece by a Black composer because you’re supposed to play a piece of music by a Black composer,” insists acclaimed violinist Rachel Barton Pine, founder and director of the Music by Black Composers organization, which seeks to support greater diversity in the classical-music world by making music by Black composers available and accessible to all. “You should only be playing the music you’re passionate about.”

The Marian Anderson String Quartet at a University of Washington World Series workshop for the students at the Seattle Music Partners
The Marian Anderson String Quartet at a University of Washington World Series workshop for the students at the Seattle Music Partners. Photo by Lee Talner

Repertoire Resources

Thanks to pioneering researchers like Harvard’s Eileen Southern (The Music of Black Americans, 1971), as well as Dominique-René de Lerma (Black Music and Musicians in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music and the New Harvard Dictionary of Music, 1989) and Helen Walker-Hill (From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, 2002) at the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, there are plenty of resources at our fingertips. The League of American Orchestras’ Databases of Repertoire by Underrepresented Composers includes links for Educational Resources for Music Performance/Ensemble Librarianship, the Composer Diversity Database, Composer’s Equity Project, African Diaspora Music Project, and Anna Edwards’ Composer Database.


Leveled Music

The Music by Black Composers (MBC) Repertoire Directories offer lists of works that Pine began researching back in 2001. These provide repertoire suggestions for players and pedagogues, with some annotations by the violinist. The MBC is also in the process of publishing instrumental books meant to supplement other methods, providing music by Black composers for specific instrumental levels. The first volume, for “Beginner to Elementary” level, was released in 2018 by Ludwig Masters.

“My first in-person meeting with Rachel Barton Pine involved going through all of the repertoire, piece by piece (hundreds of pieces!) to evaluate which ones she felt were good fits for the MBC violin series,” remembers ethnomusicologist and collaborator Megan Hill. “Once that was decided, we worked with a Suzuki violin instructor to rank the chosen pieces according to difficulty and determine how many of the easiest pieces would be included in Violin Volume 1.”

The American Viola Society also has a searchable, graded database, and Timothy Holley’s CelloBello blog currently lists beginning-to-intermediate-level compositions and transcriptions.

Research Context

“If you’re going to learn the Tchaikovsky Concerto, you can listen to dozens of YouTube videos,” says Pine. “We have a collective knowledge about how to go about it. You take a piece like the Florence Price Violin Concerto No. 2, and you don’t have as a strong a jumping off point.” Guiding students through new pitches and rhythms is one thing, but the real challenge is understanding and interpreting a new musical idiom.

“You have to see what you can do to familiarize yourself with the composer’s other works,” Pine explains. “Try to get a sense of the composer’s language; read the composer’s biography to see what their influences were.”

Just like Tchaikovsky, 19th-century composers such as violin virtuoso José Silvestre White, the innovative Francis Johnson, and “King of the Octaves” Claudio Brindis de Salas each have their own unique sound world.

Nicole Cherry has devoted years to the research of George Bridgetower. “Bridgetower was in the orchestra for many of Haydn’s symphonic premieres,” she says. “Not only that, he was a student and frequent performer of Giovanni Viotti’s music. This means that he was in the front seat of Viotti’s development of modern bow technique and the French Violin School. 


“Of course I am playing this music through the lens of a Black person, but I can no longer listen to Beethoven’s Op. 47 Sonata (arguably one of Beethoven’s most difficult violin works), which Bridgetower premiered, without being in awe that it was written for someone that looks like me.” 

Quinton Morris works with a student from the Key to Change Studio, South King County, Washington
Quinton Morris works with a student from the Key to Change Studio, South King County, Washington

Educational Benefits

“Students can learn a variety of musical styles, various rhythms, sounds, and textures that can be very inspiring and motivating to them as they develop as musicians,” says Quinton Morris, a professor of violin at Seattle University and director of Key to Change, a non-profit dedicated to bringing musical instruction to underserved youth. “Learning music, especially from BIPOC composers, also gives white students the opportunity to learn to appreciate and value both the rich history that complements the music and understand the importance of other people who don’t look like them.”

Irene Britton Smith’s Violin Sonata, William Grant Still’s Here’s One for viola and piano, and Margaret Bond’s cello and piano opus Troubled Water all illustratehow many 20th-century composers began to move away from default European idioms and explore the rich history of their own heritage.

“We hope that Black students will feel a sense of belonging in classical music,” says Hill.

“Across the board, students that I have taught are finding a certain liberation to find themselves and their own lineage,” Cherry agrees.


Of course, for even the most adventuresome educators, trepidation can go hand in hand with that liberation. Teachers and performers have to search for their own personal balance of standard repertoire and music from any number of underrepresented populations.

“I do feel overwhelmed at times, wanting to say the ‘right’ thing or behave in the ‘right’ way,” says University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) professor Mary Perkinson. She collaborated with grad student Jordan Willis on the two-hour epic “Powerful Perspectives: A Recital Celebrating Underrepresented Composers” at UNO last April. “It helps to remember that we are all onboarding with this work at different places, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all with how to engage with this work, and resources and allies are plentiful to support us on our individual and unique journeys.”

These journeys regularly intertwine through association, repertoire, and influences, just as through the centuries the classical genre itself has absorbed the influence of BIPOC rhythms and melodies around the world. In this sense, a more conscious and conscientious participation in the celebration of these composers’ music can be meaningful for us all. Today the string repertoire of 2021 Pulitzer Prize–winner Tania León, the eclectic Jessie Montgomery, and the rugged individualist George Walker all reflects this evolution.

Our teachers were able to conserve the tradition of Beethoven for us with everything from detailed editions with concerto piano reductions, bowings, and fingerings to contest requirements and orchestra audition lists. The tradition of Ignatius Sancho? Not so much. So performers and teachers who want to understand this new repertoire may have to invest some time in its exploration. And even then, perhaps our generation may never love any new piece in the same way we love the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

Then again, maybe our fundamental role as classical performing artists is to be a bridge, a beautiful bridge, from past European traditions to the inevitable diversity of future generations. Pine once watched a string class of youngsters play Ignatius Sancho for the first time. “It was so exciting to me to see that the children were super-excited about the melodies,” she remembers. “Imagine 20 years from now when this batch of kids grows up to be the next generation of performers and concert-goers!”