Monday, February 20, 2017

Music History Pedagogy and the Political Present - Teaching Under Trump Series

[Ed. Note: This is the first of five posts in a series where teacher/scholars reflect on the challenges and opportunities of teaching music after following the election of Donald Trump.]

By Louis Epstein

In the wake of the election, faculty across the country debated whether and how to address election results in their classrooms. Like many, I was torn between two responses. I wanted to carve out time in a packed syllabus for students to reflect and, in some cases, grieve. At the same time, I saw reasons to carry on as planned. After all, talking about the election could be a minefield for teacher and students alike; some students would be happier pursuing course topics as scheduled; keeping calm and teaching music history - myriad facts, critical thinking, and all - now carries new ethical and political significance.

I tried out two different responses to the election. In my early music survey, I didn’t facilitate in-class discussion, but ended class fifteen minutes early and invited students to stay if they wanted to talk. Of 62 students, only 25 or so - those hardest-hit by the election results - took me up on my offer.[1] In my upper-level seminar on music and religion, I asked students to apply lessons from the class to hypothetical Thanksgiving conversations about the election. This wasn’t an open-ended invitation to vent, grieve, or gloat; rather, students had to ground their points in readings - one student pointed to Bruce Holsinger’s writing on Hildegard von Bingen as an example of sacrilegious, “liberal” scholarship - and musical examples. The second approach proved to be the more successful of the two. For one thing, it created an opportunity for students across the political spectrum to contribute. Given the fractured and fractious nature of political discourse today, it seems so much more important to facilitate reasoned discussion between individuals with opposing ideologies.

Likewise, it seems all the more pressing to teach music history (and teach it well) given the opportunities it provides to connect historical examples to the political present. And the scholarship of teaching and learning supports such efforts. Teachers who relate what students are learning to current events do two things that researchers have shown to be beneficial: they create authentic learning goals (as opposed to performance or grade-oriented goals); and they demonstrate the value of their course to students’ lives outside the classroom. Studies have shown that authentic learning goals and high value course material both generate greater student enthusiasm, engagement, and motivation.[2]

Inspired by the ethical and pedagogical benefits of addressing current events in my classes, I’ve been developing classroom activities and assignments for use in my survey and topics-based courses. Below I offer a selection of these ideas in the hope that one or more might be useful for faculty in various contexts, recognizing that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all teaching strategy. These are designed to engage students from across the political spectrum and all of them require students to use the content and methods likely already being taught to answer the ever important question: how can what we teach and learn in music history help us engage issues faced by society right now?

Activity #1: Students debate the ethical responsibilities of musicians commissioned or invited to perform by someone whose politics, religion, or identity they oppose. This could take place in class or in a paper. Ask students to prepare by researching historical and contemporary figures (Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, The Dixie Chicks, etc.) who have found themselves in similar situations. You might also have them read an article about all the artists who declined invitations to perform at Trump’s inauguration, and about those who accepted but faced controversy.

Activity #2: Students write op-eds or letters to their elected representatives arguing for or against eliminating the NEA, perhaps in the style of this one. Again, they draw on examples from class to support their argument, including precedents for productive and destructive intersections of music patronage and politics: Charlemagne’s efforts to standardize chant; Lully’s monopoly on opera granted by Louis XIV; the WPA’s Federal Music Project; mid-century support for High Modernism by American academic institutions.

Activity #3: In class, link concepts like nationalism, xenophobia, diaspora, and exile to repertory whenever possible. Assign scholarship and repertory that fuels discussion of Otherness in music: exoticism, mimesis, hybridity, diaspora, etc.[3] To turn this into an assignment, ask students to imagine they are legislative staff for the local representative or senator and they’ve been tasked with writing a brief on the impact of restricted immigration on American musical life (or musical developments more broadly). What examples from music history would they draw on to argue for tighter or looser immigration control?

Activity #4: Students create their own pre-inauguration concert program featuring an annotated selection of pieces they’re currently studying. Students might create a “patriotic” or “American” program, an internationalist program, or a resistance-oriented concert program. To prepare students for this assignment, ask them to compare the introduction from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “My President was Black”, which opens with a review of the music at President Obama’s BET-sponsored farewell party, with a review of Trump’s pre-inauguration concert (Emily Yahr's Washington Post review or the more expansive Musicology Now coverage). Reading excerpts from Sheryl Kaskowitz’s God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song or Dana Gorzelany-Mostak’s recent Musicology Now post and posts by others writing for the excellent Trax on the Trail project could inspire energetic in-class discussion about appropriating music for political ends. In addition to the repertory you’re already teaching, you might have them listen to selections from Will Robin’s “No Ban, No Wall” Spotify playlist or Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Rise Up Eyes Up Wise Up” playlist.

Activity #5: Students construct a textbook-esque “history of the present” focusing on intersections of music and politics under Trump from the perspective of a future musicologist looking back. How will the classical music world fare under the new administration? How will “America first” policies translate into sound? What music will be performed at the White House, who will be honored by the Kennedy Center, how will music education change? Students could aspire to a humorous take, along the lines of the below video or they could write in the style of a particular textbook author, or both.[4]
For some of these assignments, imposing an ideological perspective (rather than let students choose) may be useful. Ask students to write or debate from the perspective with which they most disagree, taking a lesson from this study. Or ask students to present both sides of an issue (creating an “American” canon, or restricting musical immigration) before taking a position.[5] And if students resist your efforts to connect music history to current events, take the time to explore the reasons for their resistance. After all, like our society, our classrooms should remain places where reason and historical perspective constitute our most cherished values.

Louis Epstein is Assistant Professor of Music at St. Olaf College. His articles appear in Music & Politics and La Revue de musicologie and he is the 2016 recipient of the AMS Teaching Award for his Musical Geography project ( Louis received his PhD in Historical Musicology from Harvard University, where he received a thorough education on the intersections of music, politics, and activism in seminars led by Anne Shreffler and Sindhu Revuluri.


1. I teach at St. Olaf College, a liberal arts institution of approximately 3,000 undergraduates and 280 faculty located in Northfield, Minnesota. The majority of students hail from the Midwest and Washington state with rising numbers from California, Texas, and Florida. 30% of the student body identifies as Lutheran (St. Olaf was founded by Norwegian Lutheran immigrants and is currently affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and 18% self-identify as students of color. Normally the hardest thing about teaching at St. Olaf is getting students to disagree with each other; I’ve found the task to be much easier when I’m getting students to relate music history to current events.
2. Barron, K., and J. Harackiewicz, “Achievement goals and optimal motivation: Testing multiple goal models.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (2001), 706-722. For a general overview of the literature on motivation, value, and student learning, see Susan Ambrose et al, How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 66-90.
3. Consider assigning Brinkmann and Wolff’s Driven into Paradise or Edward Said’s Orientalism (and, in a graduate seminar, this excellent roundtable on Said in JRMA featuring contributions by Brigid Cohen, Sindhumathi Revuluri, Martin Stokes, Rachel Beckles Wilson, Kofi Agawu, and James Currie).
4. I found this video in Michael Scott Cuthbert’s MIT Open Courseware materials.
5. If you find it difficult to do this yourself, if you have concerns about false equivalencies, or if you worry that relating music history to current events might impinge on the impartiality you usually bring to your teaching, consider the point made by Benjamin Justice and Jason Stanley in an article in Social Education 80(1): teaching is never neutral and cannot aspire to neutrality in an educational system that prepares students to become citizens in a society aspiring to democratic principles (40). It is therefore our responsibility to do the difficult work of connecting our course content to our students’ lives, to problematize false equivalences, and to be transparent about our inability to remain fully impartial as teachers.


  1. These are really great. Thank you. In my ethnomusicology courses I have taken to pointing out similarities between instances of social/political upheaval in, say, early 20th century Dominican Republic (with regards to the development of Merengue) and the contemporary moment in the US. My students hear me when I draw these comparisons (I hope), but I was looking for ways to have them think critically without me connecting too many of the dots. Glad to have these suggestions.

    1. Thanks for this feedback, Jessica! If you end up adapting any of these assignments in your own classroom, I'd love to hear how things turn out.

  2. As for me and all the others I know personally who also voted for Trump, we are not racists or xenophobes and resent the seemingly widespread assumption in the cultural left that we must be such. Rather we agreed with his general narrative that the economic and social condition of ordinary Americans has declined due to the free trade policies of corporate globalization that have resulted in the offshoring of our industries, jobs, prosperity and future opportunities. It is terribly disconcerting that we had to resort to such a pompous and uncouth spokesman for our national despair, but the urbane and "professional" politicians of both parties have been thoroughly corrupted against patriotism through their alignment with corporate globalization of economy and governance.

    "America First" originally meant staying out of foreign wars in which we had no authentic and vital national interest, and if we could make genuine "America First" principles guide our trade and diplomacy now, we'd dismantle our global empire of military bases and "alliances" by which we guarantee the borders of dozens of countries, not to mention we'd protect our industries and workers from the ruinous competition of cheap imports that has wiped out our own productive capacity and rippled beyond manufacturing to bring declining real wages through much of our economy. Ditto for global governance through supranational bodies like the WTO (or the Pacific Commission the TPP would create) that undermine the national sovereignty that must exist if our republic and democratic representation are to be revived. None of this implies any hostility to other countries nor any racial animosity. In fact, true nationalism would strengthen our common American identity as citizens of a shared republic with a common national fate and shared dependence on our national institutions.

    That is why I, a Trump-supporter in the 2016 election, can also adore "Prayers for Unity," the new work for chorus and baroque orchestra and sitar and tabla by the amazing young composer Reena Esmail, which draws texts from 7 major world religions in both their original languages and in English, emphasizing our common humanity and brotherly (and sisterly) love.

    The Trump supporters I know bear no animosity to other countries but only want our own local communities to regain prosperity and opportunity through a revival of the patriotism that will unite Americans around making our country prosperous again.

    1. I'm so glad you commented, Will. I wonder if my post suggested to you that I was making the assumption you cited, namely that all Trump supporters are racists/xenophobes - I certainly didn't intend to suggest that. I would love to know whether you think that the classroom activities suggested here would help students of various political persuasions think critically about the intersections between music history and the current political moment. I have conservative students and I have liberal students, and I don't see my job as convincing any of them to see things my way, but rather to carefully consider multiple arguments and a variety of evidence before drawing conclusions or taking stances.

  3. Dr. Epstein, I'm sure I'd benefit much and greatly enjoy taking any class you teach. Personally I am not a schooled musician or musicologist, though I have in my extra-curricular life attended many hundreds of symphonies, recitals and operas (and probably a hundred rock concerts), and read the liner notes to many if not most of my thousand classical CDs --and the LPs I collected in an earlier technological age. As an amateur and self-taught musician who started late in life only 27 months ago, I have no musical accomplishment on which to stand in my pronunciations.

    All that summarizes the musical ground on which I stand to say I mourn the trends in musicology (if this website is any indication) and in the larger popular press (including the NY Times) by which the traditions of Euro-American serious music --from sacred music to symphonies and chamber music and opera- are now either overtly disparged or quietly pushed aside for a more "politically correct" embrace of "diversity" that leads to study of popular music in soft drink commercials or movie soundtracks or other popular fare that any serious musician would recognize as pandering to an audience more interested in politics than music.