Centering Culturally Responsive Professional Development in a Year of Unknowns

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Centering Culturally Responsive Professional Development in a Year of Unknowns

Karen Cueva, Assistant Director, Learning and Engagement Programs, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute


KKIT students study their sheet music before rehearsal. Photo: Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.

As autumn swiftly approaches, community music organizations across the United States are checking off their to-do lists for success, from finalizing student rosters to double-checking instrument inventories to stocking up on extra masks for Covid safety. We are about to enter a school year unlike any other, and are over-preparing to meet challenges head-on and continue making music in community. But in our focus to ensure safe and dynamic learning spaces, it is easy to forget about the other key piece of our work: culturally responsive professional development.

In a chronically underfunded field where part-time employment is the norm, investing in professional development often feels like a bold aspiration—an item near the bottom of a strategic plan, rather than a lived reality for teaching artists. Carnegie Hall’s PlayUSA is an attempt to address that void. PlayUSA is a granting and professional development program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI) that supports partner community organizations across the country who provide equitable instrumental music education programs for K-12 students. Over the past seven years, we have built a national network of diverse community music programs to dialogue on best teaching practices. Through quarterly webinars, bi-monthly cohort Zoom calls, and in-person convenings at Carnegie Hall and at partner sites nationally, we ask big questions that encourage educators and administrators to reflect on their organizational culture, curriculum, and sustainable approaches that support student instrumental learning and community-building.

Last school year, our theme within PlayUSA was “Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education,” or CRSE. CRSE is a “way of seeing diversity as a source of knowledge,” utilizing identity in its many forms as entry points to a learning environment that uplifts students, affirms experience, celebrates diverging perspectives, and deepens critical consciousness. Having a year-long, network-wide conversation on CRSE—featuring guest speakers like Dr. Constance McKoy, Takiema Bunche-Smith, and continued consultation with WolfBrown’s Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf—allowed us to scratch the surface of each program’s experience, develop a shared language for teaching practice, and experiment in the virtual learning space.

Each PlayUSA partner began the year by setting CRSE goals before submitting classroom videos every other month that showcased their progress. These videos were then discussed in depth within cohorts over Zoom. PlayUSA partners were incredibly vulnerable in showing us class warm-ups in California, student-led activities in Cincinnati, and the innovative tutorials that teachers made in Chicago, Kalamazoo, El Paso, and beyond. These activities not only supported instrumental practice but also student youth development, as young learners processed the layering pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. As the year went on, PlayUSA partners like the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra’s Kalamazoo Kids In Tune (KKIT) discerned that CRSE would need to live at the core of their programming in order to authentically meet their students. KKIT wrote about their CRSE experience in The Ensemble’s May issue, sharing that through professional development they were able to re-assess their organization’s values and prioritize program offerings centered on youth development. In their Resource Hub, KKIT transparently shares the questions that guided their thinking to support peer organizations.

Two JAMM students practicing. Photo: Juneau Alaska Music Matters.

Other programs took a more focused view, to similar effect. In Juneau, Alaska, the Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM) program highlighted the need to become a bilingual program with a succinct CRSE goal of “incorporating Lingít into every JAMM class.” Lingít is the local language of the Indigenous Lingít people, prompting larger discourses around the ways that music can be learning (i.e., aurally versus page notations); these conversations continue to elevate the JAMM team’s exploration of how to best represent their community through their organization’s ethos and daily practice. It has been inspiring to see JAMM work with local culture bearers to re-learn the names of violin parts in Lingít, expanding their teaching toolboxes and pushing themselves to live—rather than just learn about—culturally responsive pedagogy at their program sites.

And when we commit to living the ideas behind CRSE, our teachers benefit. Just ask Angelica Durrell, Founder and Executive Director of PlayUSA partner INTEMPO in Stamford, Connecticut. In discussing INTEMPO’s multilingual and intercultural programming, she noted the effect that PlayUSA’s webinars—focusing on the history of and research on CRSE—had on their teaching artists. “The webinars provided our teaching artists with the theory and shared formal language to express the approach we were already using to honor the heritages of our students, especially new arrivals, and their families.” Having that shared language helps, but the ripples go beyond that; INTEMPO teaching artists are now paying forward their culturally responsive professional development by facilitating workshops for public school music educators, English language teachers, and social workers across the Norwalk and Stamford school systems. In this way, INTEMPO’s culturally responsive curriculum has led directly to bridges being built between community music education and the public school system.

CRSE’s power is in its capacity to not be replicated. Each community is unique, and community music organizations must do the long-term, iterative work to reflect on the ways they celebrate identity at its many intersections. Whether through organizational culture, curriculum, or language, this is lifelong work. And it must be invested in accordingly, from organizations at the local level to the philanthropic foundations supporting them.

PlayUSA is working to internally expand our reach and support more of the field moving forward, but we cannot do it alone. If you are moved by the impact that CRSE can make in your organization, reflect that in your budgets, in your event calendars, and in professional development compensation for teaching artists. The dividends for embarking on these large-scale dialogues will impact your teachers, students, families, and communities for years to come.


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