Integrating Kingian Nonviolence and Music for Social Change

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

Integrating Kingian Nonviolence and Music for Social Change

Keane Southard, composer, pianist, and teacher

Keane Southard.

As educators, we must always strive to improve. Of course, that is exactly what we want our students to do—to never limit their own ability to learn and work toward ever-more-ambitious goals. In the face of today’s immense global crises, this concept is more important than ever. How do we maximize our positive impact as musicians and people, and help our students do the same?

This question led me to attend a virtual retreat in the summer of 2020, held by the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. The Institute introduced me to the principles of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence, known as Kingian Nonviolence (KN). While learning how I could live more nonviolently myself, my thoughts naturally turned to music; the more I learned about KN, the more I recognized its compatibility with El Sistema and Sistema-adjacent work. I began wondering how KN could enhance the social justice outcomes of our programs. Eventually, these thoughts became the subject of my doctoral dissertation at the Eastman School of Music.

Many are familiar with MLK’s use of nonviolence in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, but what exactly is Kingian Nonviolence? For King, nonviolence was not simply the absence of violence but the presence of justice. Nonviolence is not passively submitting to violence but actively fighting for justice using non-violent means. In his book Healing Resistance, which I recommend as an excellent introductory text, restorative justice trainer Kazu Haga defines KN as “a lifestyle and worldview that centers reconciliation above all else, refuses to dehumanize any individual, and cultivates loving compassion for all beings no matter how much harm they have caused.” It is not something you employ only in conflict—it is a way of humanely living your life.

Socially equitable youth music programs and KN share the goal of creating a more inclusive and just world. So how can implementing KN help us reach that goal? Our programs have a great opportunity to instill the principles and values of nonviolence in our students, which they can then bring into all other aspects of their lives—or, as King put it, to “institutionalize” nonviolence, replacing the institutionalized violence we currently have. In addition to helping students find paths out of poverty, improve academic performance, and develop cognitive skills, KN can help create empathetic, nonviolent citizens who are building what King called “Beloved Community”: a radically inclusive world where all people can achieve justice, fulfill our potential as human beings, and live in peace. A music-for-social-change program that adopts nonviolence as a core value can be transformed from one that is “promoting” or “doing” social change to the more powerful position of “living” or “being” social change.

The author leads a music class for a group of young players.

How might this look in practice? Music can act as a safe medium for understanding, growing more comfortable with, and practicing conflict-reconciliation through activities like analyzing repertoire and reframing our relationship with performance anxiety. Interrelatedness and interdependence can be taught through ensemble work and by connecting music to other disciplines, and especially through collective composition and improvisation. A simple musical activity that promotes this sense of interconnectedness is what John Blacking calls “Democratic Polyphony.” It involves taking a piece of music that can be performed by a single person and dividing it up among multiple performers. For beginning musicians, this could be a single melody in quarter notes divided so that each person plays only a note or two. Each player then becomes essential to the success of the performance, and they must listen carefully to enter at the right time with the goal of seamlessly receiving and passing along the melody to the next person. This sense of interdependence can then be extended beyond music and the program to all people and life on the planet.

Courage, such as that required to live nonviolently and resist violence, can be developed in low-stakes, safe musical situations where students can venture just beyond their comfort zones in a trusting environment. Even just emphasizing the importance of breathing and silence can ground students in a context of nonviolence, fostering the active listening skills required for mutual understanding and conflict resolution. Take this listening activity, for example: students each submit a recording of a song they like. Each song is listened to by the entire group, without context, and then followed by a group discussion wherein students share their thoughts about the songs. Often, students will find that they can relate to unfamiliar songs from different styles and backgrounds. Several studies have shown that certain music education activities can increase children’s capacity for empathy, which is necessary for understanding interdependence, developing the ability to forgive, and including others in Beloved Community.

While a new program could incorporate KN into every aspect of its work—using it as a lens through which to evaluate every decision, from organizational structure to funding to teacher-training—it is not an all-or-nothing choice. I believe any steps taken to integrate the practices of KN should lead to increased social justice. And if the idea of integrating KN with your work intrigues you, I’d love to chat. This sort of discovery is better done together, as a field; let’s push our work further through a collective belief in imaginative inquiry, the pursuit of justice, and our students.

Keane Southard is available at and He is happy to send you a copy of his dissertation or his video presentation from the ARTs + Change Conference, as well as answer any questions you have.


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