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Hearing Every Voice

Jerry Lowrey | October November 2022

    My first experience with implicit biases was at six years old. A white friend of mine sat across from me on the bus and said, “I’m not supposed to like black people, but it’s OK… my mom said that you’re not like black. You’re just Jerry.” At the tender age of six I was left trying to figure out what that meant.
    The first movie I remember on network TV with a black person was about a teenage high school basketball phenom who made his way through school without ever learning how to read. His hand was forced when chemicals fell into his little brother’s eyes, and he was unable to help because he couldn’t read the label on the bottle. I was already aware and confused by the constant portrayal of black men as athletes, entertainers, criminals, or slaves; examples like Roots, Basketball Jones, The Toy, Mississippi Burning, or especially the evening news. Through conversations with my parents about the challenges of being black in America, and countless other modes of conditioning, my self image was already affected by the biases I observed. I concluded early on that I was going to have a helluva time in this world unless I learned how to play basketball like Michael Jordan, break dance, sing, rap, or fix computers like my dad. I loved playing on computers, but hated fixing them, so I made beats and played a lot of basketball.
    In school it was no different. There was a constant onslaught of demoralizing microaggressions and countless misconceptions. As the only black student in many classes, I often heard comments like, “No way – I don’t believe you. You’re black, and black people don’t like that!” I hated the look of surprise from teachers when I got answers correct in class. I went to the library and found no relief there. My only choices for examples of black excellence were Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and Chicago sports heroes.
    I joined band in fifth grade as a saxophonist but was already well on my way musically because of my background in gospel music and early work as a songwriter. For the next eight years I was always one of two or three students with black or brown skin. I can recall vividly the feeling of needing to be accepted into something that wasn’t necessarily meant for me. I was aware of needing some sort of approval or admission into a culture that wasn’t built with people like me in mind. Most importantly, I never felt like I was reflected in the music we studied – or in my learning experience as a whole.
    Only when I got to high school did I have someone help me find my own voice. Kevin Miller was the first person who made me feel like I had a place in his program and in the school – not as Jerry Lowrey the exception to the rule or spokesperson for every black person who ever lived – but as a young African American boy growing up in this crazy place called America.
    He expected more of me while many expected less. He told me to audition to be a drum major, join his jazz band, and often showed me his classes were better for everyone because I was a part of them. He asked me to bring in records so he could check them out, and he’d talk us through music that brought about clear images of the black experience in America. Most importantly, as his student I knew he wasn’t color blind, and he didn’t allow the implicit biases that we all have to shape his decisions about my experience with him.
    Now I am an educator working to have the same influence. When thinking of equity, start by taking inventory of position and perspective. The time is now and the stakes are at their highest. You are the trusted adult, shaping the future through your students. A teacher’s influence can last a lifetime – and this is even more so in a music classroom. You will teach them for anywhere from 2 to 12 years. Within that time, they will always learn more from what you do than what you say.
    Just as performing can induce anxiety and uncertainty, conversations about race, racism, and implicit bias, are also uncomfortable for everyone. The discomfort never goes away, but you need to learn to sit with that discomfort. That skill is vital because there is no growth without discomfort. So reflect on the following:

    •    Follow the four agreements.
    •    Stay engaged.
    •    Be present.
    •    If you can’t be present, ask yourself why.
    •    Experience discomfort.
    •    Identify your own implicit bias even though it is difficult. The only one holding you responsible is you.
    •    Expect and accept a lack of closure.
    •    This goes for anything and everything. The work never ends.
    •    Speak your truth.
    •    Keep it personal, local, immediate. Think in terms of I statements.

    When preparing a presentation on this vital topic at the 2022 Illinois Music Education Conference, Meredith McGuire and I decided to focus on two types of implicit biases, introduce them, and provide ideas on how to disallow their influence on teaching. The two types are racial appearance bias and seeing (and teaching) through a narrow lens.
    I learned how to play and create music before I learned it as a discipline or a study. So let’s approach implicit biases the same way. Walk into a classroom – any classroom, but preferably a class of students that you don’t know very well. You can even Google a classroom portrait. Pretend this is your class, reflect on what you see, and then ask yourself the questions below. Don’t answer anything vocally, just appreciate that an answer came to mind. Simply listen, think, and reflect.

    •    You have never worked with these students before and you are being observed. You want to ask a question about key signatures. Which student can you count on to get the answer right?
    •    Which one looks like a nice kid?
    •    Who plays the flute?
    •    Which student would you feel most uncomfortable confronting about misbehavior?
    •    Who has the most attitude?
    •    Which student is going to make it to All State?
    •    Which student do you have the least in common with?
    •    Which student do you have the most in common with?

    When finished, take a moment to reflect and embrace it. You have racial and appearance implicit bias – we all do. It is a subconscious process created by our need to label and generalize the human experiences. Identifying and appreciating it is the first step. Next is progression and forward momentum. Being somewhere is fine and acceptable, staying there is another story.
    There are two sides to equity in education. As a process, equity is allowing students to have a voice – specifically those who have been impacted by the inequity within the education system. As an outcome, equity is when everyone has what they need to thrive. Through the lens of our students, equity is achieved when all students have a say and are heard and reflected. It is achieved when educators acknowledge and account for past and current inequities. Simply, we own it, we take responsibility for it, and we have the willingness to move forward to make a change.
    Go back to the classroom observation exercise discussed earlier. The following are some practical ways to counteract implicit racial bias based on appearance.
    Create opportunities that provide students chances to express their individual backgrounds and cultures in a meaningful way. If you can’t or won’t, then ask yourself why. Your program should always be built with the needs of the students above the needs of the program. Make room and don’t look back.
    In 2020 at the height of the pandemic, our students embarked on a unit about individuality and humanity. This was tied to a project in which students submitted works of art and expression that celebrated their individuality. Students provided dance routines, poetry, vocal and instrumental solos, and artwork. The slideshows and videos became a part of our concert experience. Students expressed huge amounts of gratitude for the opportunity. More importantly, we all learned much about each other. This resulted in a deeper level of understanding and empathy. This is just one of many ideas.
    Walk into your classroom every day with awareness. Awareness isn’t the first step, it’s every step. If you are constantly aware of your implicit biases, your actions will benefit students in positive ways. Next, take it a step further. When choosing musical examples to share with students, be consciously aware of the impact it may have on their implicit biases.
    Seeing and teaching through a narrow lens is the second bias to discuss. To appreciate it, chat with a colleague or reflect on the music you have performed with your students in the last couple of years. Think of as many songs as you can, the composers and arrangers, the reasoning for selecting them. What you will find is unmistakable. When providing music listening examples or choosing music to perform, we prioritize that which we are comfortable with, familiar with, or enjoy. The result is an experience that becomes music through the teachers’ lens, and not a true reflection of the students.
    A memorable example of this happened when I was in college. During class, my college professor told us that the most influential moment in American music history was when Bob Dylan switched to electric guitar. A remarkable moment indeed, but clearly you can see that this is a statement skewed by personal bias. More importantly, he was not aware of the impact his words might have had on our implicit biases.
    There are countless voices that have contributed mightily to the music that we hear and conduct every day. A narrow lens prevents us from integrating different voices and faces into our instruction and class environment. Reflection on these next questions will help counteract this particular bias.
    •    Which of your students did that repertoire serve and how do you know?
    •    Is your primary objective to serve your curriculum or your students?
    •    How often do you allow student voice when selecting repertoire?

    As you move forward as an educator, and embrace your importance in every student’s life and growth. Teach with intention and with these thoughts in mind:
Vulnerability is not an emotion, it is a conduit.
    We ask students to be vulnerable every day. We ask them to take the risks, to speak up for themselves, to put things aside for the sake of the group. We demand that they continue to grow through practice, self-evaluation and responsiveness. Are you doing the same in every aspect of teaching?

Live in the discomfort.
    Teaching is a linear and repetitive profession. The discomfort comes as you tweak your approaches and take a break from the safe and familiar. We must do this for our students and continually adapt our approach to meet all of their ever-changing needs. For just like the repetition of the drum circles of my African ancestors, the beauty in that repetition is that something is slightly different every time around.

Choose composers, compositions, and concert themes with intention.
    Use listening journals and be thoughtful in your score selection, musical examples, and classroom activities. Talk to students and seek deeper levels of understanding. Go beyond questions about sports or other activities. Learn from them. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, call their parents. Building empathy and understanding begins with the courage to reach out.

Lastly, reflect early and often, be consistent with your intention, and create a safe space for all students.
    We must continue to grow and challenge ourselves.

    In closing, this mission is a reflection of my upbringing, and my perspective as a father of two beautiful bi-racial boys who are now experiencing the same biases I did. I am aware that the stakes are higher than ever. This is the reasoning for the work Meredith McGuire and I are doing. Reflect on our current climate. I see a nation on the brink – a country teetering and struggling between what it wants to be and what it actually is. I see disconnect more than ever. We have forgotten how to have real dialogue, brutally honest dialogue without ego or fear of being wrong, targeted dialogue without judgment, or dialogue that embraces issues and follows them with actionable, measurable steps.
    We as music educators must have these conversations. Remember, before we demand justice in this world, we must discipline ourselves in the reshaping of our own minds. Recognizing and unraveling implicit biases in the classroom is the first step to creating a music education that reflects and benefits all students.