Integrating American Popular Regional Music into the Curriculum

By Wicks, Sammie Ann | Phi Delta Kappan, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Integrating American Popular Regional Music into the Curriculum


Wicks, Sammie Ann, Phi Delta Kappan


Ms. Wicks describes a radically different approach to classroom music instruction now in use in El Paso - an approach that focuses on the wide variety of musical genres that are part of the cultural heritage of the U.S./Mexico border region.

Although it is not widely known, El Paso-Juarez is the largest international border community in the world.(1) Influenced by a constant give-and-take across the U.S./Mexico border, the region also partakes of the traditions of three Native American groups, the distinct cultural heritage of southern New Mexico, and the contributions of small but vibrant Korean, German, Greek, Middle Eastern, Indian, Filipino, and African American communities.(2) Bilingualism involving English and Spanish or other first languages is widespread, and Hispanics make up more than 72% of the population.

Creating a New Curriculum

A little over a year ago, a group of us formed an independent consortium of educators to consider this extensive diversity as we looked for ways to increase the relevance of classroom instruction for our unique population of students. We turned to what has become a shrinking part of the national curriculum: music. If music is a resource that individuals use to articulate their cultural heritage, we asked, could students be better motivated if we placed the music that means the most to them at the core of their complex learning experiences? Thinking in these terms led us to create the Borders Music Project, which set out to devise a radically different approach to classroom music instruction: a curriculum based on a wide variety of local musical genres, including Tejano pop and other border-influenced styles. This emphasis on American regional and popular styles constitutes a true departure from the "classical-music-only" subject matter that is typical of a majority of American music programs. And our region, with its rich blend of cultures, offers the perfect proving ground for such an experiment.

Striving to be inclusive rather than exclusive, we decided that the curriculum should begin with a broad introduction to the diverse musical riches of the world's cultures. With this grounding, the focus could then be narrowed to the music native to our region. To implement the program, we have taken a dual approach: teacher training and student instruction.

Teacher Training

First, through a program at Chapman College in Albuquerque (the history of which is explained in a later section of this article), we are offering generalized training to teachers from all disciplines, inviting them to take rich musical materials back into their own classrooms. The fall 1996 course was "Music Cultures of the World," an introduction to world, American, and regional music styles and history from an anthropological perspective. In spring 1996 we are offering "Introduction to Human Cultures," a cultural anthropology course with expanded sections on music, symbolic interaction, and human expressive forms. In these introductory courses, the teachers are also taught the fundamentals of music theory, which they can then pass on to their students.

The program is still experimental, and new discoveries continue to be made, but so far teachers have applied the perspectives and resources from our courses in exciting new ways as they approach teaching in a multicultural format. Bilingual teachers, for example, use regional and world music to teach language skills; social studies and English language teachers have used such forms as the ancient Spanish poetic decimas or popular corridos to teach poetry and fiction or to encapsulate major current events. (Corridos are blow-by-blow histories involving cultural heroes, and new corridos are written constantly both in our region and in other areas bordering Mexico, such as Los Angeles and San Antonio. In fact, several of these musical histories started circulating on the streets here immediately following the death of Selena. …

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