Teaching Cultural Awareness Through Music

By Gregg Ritchie, National Curriculum Specialist at McGraw-Hill

Mar 9 · 5 min read

Through no doing of my own, I was born into and raised in one of the most affluent suburbs around Portland, Oregon. The education I received from kindergarten through high school, all within the same school district, was one I wouldn’t trade for anything. Still today, I can name almost every one of my teachers, none more so than Mrs. Hanson, my first-grade teacher, who continued to stay in touch with me and my family until her passing a few years ago, particularly following the careers of both my brother and me; supporting my ups and always cheering me on through the downs.

This district in which I spent my entire childhood, and where I still live near today, remains one of the best performing districts in the state of Oregon, one where families will now spend a wealth of money to locate simply because of the public education they know is bound to come their children’s way.

However, among these truths lie other realities that are at odds with each other. During these years of my education, I can remember only one classmate who was African American. I don’t recall any Mexican American classmates, and perhaps only a couple of Asian American students, not to mention any other racial roots.

Despite this, looking back, I do recall a culture of equity and diversity throughout my childhood.

I remember having friends from middle school on who were from a variety of races, orientations, and socio-economic backgrounds. I think back to the core friends I connected with the most and can identify them as being from all walks of life and backgrounds.

How would this be possible given the childhood I described earlier? It is because my education, peer group, and circle of friends didn’t end at the immediate community in which I lived or within the school I attended. It’s possible because I had adults around me, particularly my parents, who were committed to putting me in positions where I might find opportunities for growth in my areas of interest, as well as to be around others from a variety of backgrounds. For me, as a result, this extended education and extension of peers and friends had everything to do with music.

From 6th through 12th grades, I was a member of America’s first youth orchestra, the Portland Youth Philharmonic (PYP). During my tenure as a teenager, I not only played countless concerts for sold-out audiences in the most esteemed concert halls around America, Asia, and Europe, but I also learned values that to this day have an even greater impact on the rest of my life than discovering my love of world travel at such an early age.

These values included:

  • Responsibility — as demonstrated in the requirement to practice my parts and come to rehearsals and performances ready to go.
  • Loyalty — simply showing up to rehearsal each week, twice a week, and musically playing my role in the orchestra so as to best support the overall product, as a player on his sports team is part of the greater good.
  • Passion — showing that I cared about not only playing my bass well, but also exhibiting joy at being in such a group.

The list goes on — reliability, dependability, commitment, and more. Ask any alum, and they’ll express the same — being a member of the PYP had a foundational meaning on the course of their life, and not just in regard to music-making.

Yet, throughout all this, I was being taught other core values as well, that I wasn’t aware of at the time: respect, equity, diversity, cultural awareness, and unity.

I would contend that at this early developmental age, these would end up holding an even more significant impact on the rest of my life than all the rest.

Denese Odegaard, a fine arts curriculum specialist in Fargo, ND, says,

“A well-rounded and comprehensive music education, taught by highly qualified music educators, should be available in all schools and be built upon a curricular framework that promotes awareness of, respect for, and responsiveness to the variety and diversity of cultures in their community and the nation at large” (1).

I would ask you, the reader, to consider where it was that you learned about cultures, lifestyles, and people other than yourself. Who or what you taught you to have respect and awareness for a variety of environmental backgrounds? Was it the very neighborhood in which you grew up? Was it sports? Or, was it music and the arts?

As we reflect on the past, let us consider the future as we work to build, teach, and raise future adults and leaders who are active and engaged citizens. What should we promote? What needs to be prioritized? What are the non-negotiables?

With music education, are we okay with exposing children to world music that primarily consists of videos of cartoon kids singing songs to an “African rhythm” or do we need to expose them to authentic and culturally accurate music? Or even with social studies education, are we okay with rote memorization of historical information, or do we need a curriculum that challenges a student’s mind and encourages collaborative conversations and prompts students to do and act on what they’ve learned?

The answers may seem obvious, yet often sacrifices are made in the name of cost, ease, comfort, or time. May I continue to challenge myself, and all of us, to fight for what’s best, for what’s proven, and evidenced by research. May we provide all students with opportunities, regardless of their upbringing, to have authentic and life-lasting opportunities to learn equity, perspective, and awareness.


Odegaard, Denese. “Diversity and Equity in Music Education.” NAfME, National Association for Music Education, 7 Aug. 2018, nafme.org/diversity-and-equity-in-music-education/.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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