Striking a New Chord: Repertoire Diversity at AB
BY GRACE CHAI '23
The lights dim as you peruse your concert program amidst the auditorium’s low hum. Your eyes flit over the familiar names of Sousa and Grainger, but you are pleasantly surprised by the new composers gracing the pages. With pieces ranging from Japanese folk music to a celebration of LGBTQ+ activist Marsha P. Johnson, this program deviates from the norm— and it ushers in an era of timely change. But why are these new repertoire additions so revolutionary? Opening the floor to diverse musical voices at ABRHS allows students to feel heard in a world that primarily highlights the Western canon; it promotes understanding and the value of unique stories in our community.
Traditionally, pieces by primarily white male composers have dominated school music programs, and up until recent years, AB’s repertoire has followed suit. The Western canon is deeply entrenched and respected in many circles, so directors tend to select these familiar pieces. This especially applies to string orchestra: “it can be a challenge to find quality repertoire…at the correct level outside the…canon,” said Ms. Greene, the orchestra teacher.
This leaves little room for diverse composers, whose legacies and music have been historically marginalized. However, Mr. Arsenault, the performing arts and band director, explained that diversifying AB’s music repertoire is imperative to reflecting the student body’s diversity, as “students deserve to see themselves in their music.” Giving students opportunities to learn about different cultures and immerse themselves in that music will elevate diverse voices and also connect students to their repertoire.
Last year, Neha Saravanan and Sofia Goorno ’22 founded the Rep Reppers, a repertoire representation group, to educate students about the music they’re singing. Olivia Burgess ’22, a representative, highlighted the greater importance of providing students with opportunities to discuss music: “We’re not only just informing ourselves…we’re really creating a very close-knit community,” she said, adding that “this feels open and it feels right.” Echoing Mr. Arsenault’s statement, the Rep Reppers agreed that opening dialogue around diversifying music makes everyone feel like they have a stake in what they’re performing.
Of course, intentional, thoughtful change on a larger level requires care. Mr. Arsenault explained that diversifying music needs time and thought if it is to be a fundamental part of the curriculum rather than a “one-and-done” addition—a lesson learned from recent social movements trends worldwide. He added that with increased awareness of including diverse voices, well-intentioned directors have also had to grapple with cultural appropriation and how best to incorporate these voices. Such concerns involve using Western instruments to play non-Western music, or playing cultural music by a composer who is not part of said culture. To avoid misrepresentation, according to the Rep Reppers, it is essential that they elevate voices belonging to those communities, honor their intentions for the performance, and provide space for students to share their stories with the understanding that no one fully represents a group they belong to. In any case, the promotion of composers and musicians producing good, authentic music should be the priority, rather than the pursuit of a superficial effort.
Representation matters: this sentiment has been repeated, but how does representing diverse voices actually play out in the performing arts department? Mr. Arsenault offered a practical answer: “we do it by putting our money where our mouth is” as purchasing power helps ensure that repertoire spans a wide range of perspectives. Choosing inclusive and fun repertoire is a challenge, but, as Mr. Arsenault said, it will hopefully benefit students, because “[the] students enjoy and connect with the content that we’re picking so that they’re inspired to live up to that sound.” Band student Krish Midha ’22 added that along with benefiting students, playing diverse music impacts another group— the audience— bringing them new musical aesthetics to enjoy or familiar tunes from their childhood.
Efforts are being made; this April, AB’s performing arts groups plan to play at Mechanics Hall, and they will represent a wide spectrum of voices there. For instance, the band will play March of the Porteuses by William Grant Still, a composer well-known for being, among many other things, the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States. The program also includes Spring Festival, written by Chinese composer Chen Yi to celebrate Lunar New Year. While the process of finding enjoyable and diverse pieces is ongoing, AB has already made strides to implement a more diverse repertoire.
Looking to the future, Mr. Arsenault reflected: “I hope in the coming years that as our community continues to…become more diverse, that the performing arts are at the center of that. In that students know that this is a place that is…not afraid to reinvent, and not afraid to change.”