Teaching the Future

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

Teaching the Future

Michael Raiber, Director of Teacher Support, El Sistema Oklahoma; Busey Chair of Music Education, Oklahoma City University


The majority of the American music teaching workforce is white. This would not be an issue if it matched U.S. school demographics. However, in city schools where the general population is majority students of color, the music student population is considerably more white. While there are multiple factors contributing to this, it may be best understood as a lack of access to quality music education that provides opportunities for students of color to choose careers in music teaching. The fact that students of color do not see music teachers who look like them is a form of social injustice.

El Sistema Oklahoma (ESO) is addressing this issue with a program we call FAME (Future Awesome Music Educators). ESO is in its 6th year, serving over 200 students and families in northwest Oklahoma City. In addition to FAME, we offer opportunities in symphony orchestra, string orchestra, band, vernacular music, chamber music, fundamental music theory, and composition. We partner with the Wanda Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University (OCU) and St. Luke’s United Methodist Church.

Our FAME initiative began with our realization that to understand the issue of whiteness in music teaching, we must consider the process of music education degree entry. Music degrees require an audition for admission. The process is designed to grant access only to those who demonstrate musical ability in a way that requires knowing and having the capacity to participate in a culture with numerous hidden expectations. It requires having access to private music study and understanding the traditions of Western art music, right down to appropriate attire. I do not intend to argue the merits of the audition process, but only to state that it impacts the demographics of those admitted to music education degrees.

At ESO, we want to invest in students who could become future music educators. This means we must provide high quality music instruction that builds necessary technical abilities, music understandings, and cultural knowledge to successfully navigate a college/university audition, and we must provide opportunities for students to consider themselves prospective music teachers. FAME is our means to provide these opportunities.

For the past two years, we have allowed any high school student to opt into FAME one day a week. In their first semester, our initial 11 students explored what it means to teach, and expressed these ideas in multiple micro-teaching lessons. These activities had two goals: to help them put their beliefs into action, and to put them in the role of “teacher” so that they could begin to see themselves as music educators.

In the second semester, FAME members began to teach younger students. They began by writing lesson plans and sharing them with me and with their colleagues. We discussed each plan and made suggestions for improvement. Then all the FAME member staught their lessons and completed reflections. I reviewed each reflection, made comments, and the process started again. This was when they made the transition from FAME “students” to FAME “teachers.”

The transition was particularly evident with Amaury, a freshman violinist who consistently referred to “her students.” Amaury made a cube with possible problem-solving approaches printed on each side. When a student faced a performance issue, she would have them roll the cube and they would apply the problem-solving strategy that came up. I have since “borrowed” this idea for my own classes!

Our second year welcomed 23 new FAME members. Th second-year FAME teachers took on new roles as mentors to the first-year members, helping them with planning, teaching, and reflecting. Working with cooperating faculty members, FAME members also lead rehearsals of chamber ensembles of younger students. They are listed as chamber coaches in performance programs, and are viewed by the chamber members as “their teacher.”

I have regular conversations with FAME members about becoming teachers who can make a difference. Some are entertaining the idea. We can’t change the entire demographic makeup of the music teaching workforce, but we can impact opportunities in northwestern Oklahoma City for future students to see music teachers in their schools who look like they do, and who have come from their communities. For now, that’s enough.


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