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Research on Culturally Appropriate Music Plays Out In Middle School Band Class

Music Education student researching culturally responsive pedagogy from a student-led perspective.

Victoria DiMarzio teaches band and orchestra at a Denver middle school.Their students hail from 30 countries, including recent immigrants and refugees. In DiMarzio's inclusive and welcoming class, students weigh in on music that appropriately represents different cultures. DiMarzio is a Master of Music student in the University of Northern Colorado's Music Education Concentration program, where they are researching culturally responsive pedagogy from a student-led perspective.  

"I wanted to focus on culturally responsive education, and several UNC professors have the same kind of drive and focus on that topic."

— Victoria DiMarzio

"The newcomer program at my school is designed for students who have interrupted education, so they spend most of their day focusing intensely on learning English. I've seen the breadth of culture and what it is like for them to try and navigate the world. I'm doing my part to make sure they're getting the best education they can," they said. 

DiMarzio has been teaching in Denver for about a decade. UNC's Extended Campus offers a hybrid in-person and online program. It allows her to take one course per semester in the fall and spring while continuing to teach and interact with fellow students and professors in person in the summertime. 

"I really liked the program design. I wanted to focus on culturally responsive education, and several UNC professors have the same kind of drive and focus on that topic," DiMarzio said. 

In their thesis, DiMarzio is designing a project-based learning unit where students engage in practice and reflection learning cycles. First, students examine skill-level-appropriate music labeled "multicultural." Then, they analyze its merits by asking if the music accurately represents the culture intended, if it stereotypes musical styles or creates biased sounds and if it’s more appropriate to modify music to fit an ensemble or experience music in other ways to be more respectful. 

Victoria DiMarzio smiling
Victoria DiMarzio

"Culturally responsive education is an approach to teaching that requires self-reflection on the teacher's part about personal background and biases. And then understanding your students' backgrounds and cultures, to honor them, respect them and use them as leverage to help them learn better. What I want to do is involve my students in that conversation," they said. 

DiMarzio's students research music from around the world. They focus on a region to learn about its styles, traditions and instrumentation, then compare music meant to represent that area. 

"A student who studied traditional Chinese opera looked up music written for band class to represent Chinese music. They had to make decisions like whether this is accurately portrayed or more of a stereotype and whether we should perform it," they said. "Hopefully, the students all learn about something new and get a new respect for the people in our class and how different we all are."  

DiMarzio finds the ability to put into practice the lessons from their research appealing, as they can make changes in the classroom right away. They're working with students to create a flowchart for the decision-making process to share with other music teachers planning multicultural music. Hopefully, DiMarzio said, it will improve performances so the average person can experience more robust and culturally validating music. 

In the College of Performing and Visual Arts'School of Music, Visiting Assistant Professor Krissie Weimer mentored DiMarzio through the research process.  

"Victoria is self-motivated, knows what they're interested in working on and goes after it. They're also very thoughtful and reflective in their work. It's clear from their work and research that they are a very student-centered teacher who is interested in connecting with students on multiple levels," Weimer said. 

They noted that DiMarzio's bringing the conversations about appropriate literature, or repertoire-like pieces, to their students in an age-appropriate way is a unique take on culturally responsive pedagogy.  

"They came in clear on what they wanted to do from the first research class, and we took that topic and turned it into a thesis. It feels more like a collaboration with Victoria rather than where I have to move them along," she said. 

After graduating in May 2024, DiMarzio will take a break from studies but has yet to decide whether to pursue a doctorate. 

"I really love being a middle school music teacher. I find a lot of joy and career fulfillment. But if I want to see change happen in our field, it's probably better done helping the next generation of teachers," they said. 

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