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Elissa Harbert stands in front of the Green Performing Arts Center

The Bo(u)lder Questionby Elissa Harbert

The Bo(u)lder Question

is a regular feature of DePauw Magazine, which is published three times a year.

Social upheaval is causing universities across the country to rethink their curricula in any number of disciplines. We asked Harbert, an associate professor of music and a musicologist specializing in music of the United States:

As DePauw University renews its curriculum for a new generation and a changing world, how should the School of Music, which traditionally focused on elite European arts and culture, adapt?

I think about this question every day in my work teaching music history and co-chairing the School of Music’s diversity, equity and inclusion working group. At DePauw we profess diversity and inclusion as core values. I see a curriculum that centers Western art music as incompatible with these aims. Until recently, most university music programs in the United States focused nearly exclusively on the classical music canon, what some playfully call the music of dead, white, European men. If we are to dismantle the white superiority and racism baked into this traditional curriculum, we must diversify the music and musicians we teach, going far beyond the classical canon. Students want and need to be fluent with a diverse repertoire and have a deep commitment to cultural competency if they are to become leaders among the next generation of musicians and arts innovators. 

This spring at DePauw Dialogue, I asked attendees to re-imagine what university music programs would teach if we made diversity, inclusion and anti-racism our highest priorities. I asked them to set aside everything they knew about our School of Music, and start from scratch. “Imagine,” I told them, “a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive school of music that holistically nourishes contemporary students of diverse backgrounds.”

The responses were telling: This aspirational curriculum would focus more fully on music of the African diaspora, particularly music rooted in Black American expression, such as jazz, blues, gospel and hip hop. It would delve expansively into musical traditions from around the world, including Asia and Latin America. And it would champion music by women, LGBTQIA+ and Black, indigenous and people of color. Other priorities were emphasizing creativity, improvisation and collaboration rather than re-creation of music from written scores and focusing on music as a social experience that unites communities and reveals cultural values of many times and places. These are the directions many of us in the School of Music have already been heading. Some have been forging this path for many years, and others have embarked more recently. We still have a long way to go.

Although we will continue to value and teach classical music, I believe we must renew our curriculum if we wish to model our professed values and attract a new generation of innovative, socially minded musicians to our university. I write from a musical perspective, but this necessary curricular shift also has been taking shape in other departments, and it is vital to the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as a whole. Music is among the most ancient, omnipresent and varied activities humans engage in. It’s time for the School of Music to embrace more of what Leonard Bernstein called the “infinite variety of music.”

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