Queer Pedagogy in Modern Band, an Exploratory/Pilot Case Study by Mia Ibrahim
Modern band deviates from normativity by virtue of being a pedagogical tool that lies outside the Band-Orchestra-Chorus (BOC) lexicon. This North American music pedagogy trifecta is rooted in Western Art traditions that are dated and overwhelmingly white, gender-, and hetero-normative. Arts administrator Joe Panganiban (he/him/his) and modern band director Jamie Schoffstall (she/they) are both queer, Chicago-based artists who became involved with modern band through the organization Little Kids Rock. While living authentically queer was not meant as an act of rebellion per se, they still challenge normativity outside of more than just pedagogical boundaries by simply living as themselves.
Is the “safe space” we’ve created in our music classrooms meant to be utilized solely for notes on a page or is music inherently intertwined with all aspects of culture from which it originated? “If you’re in a position that it’s safe to do so I think it’s so much better to be as authentic as possible,” Jamie said towards the end of our interview. “If you’re putting on a show, kids are going to feel like they have to (also behave inauthentically).” In this exploratory case study, I spoke to Jamie and Joe who both highlighted ways in which bringing their unique identities and perspectives to modern band education has provided students with arguably safer classroom environments and more opportunities for expression in the music education setting.
The contrasting perspectives were important to capture since educators are implementing curriculum and arts administrators often create content. However, content-creators are restricted to national standards and socially constructed parameters of what is deemed universally “appropriate.” Educators are confined to the same restrictions but can deviate from constraints depending on their school environments.
Having so much variation in what is pedagogically accepted in the music room led me to investigate those with queer marginalized identities as they work to create inclusive classroom environments for modern band students. By interviewing queer modern band content-creators and implementers I hoped to gain insight into whether it behooves them to be proudly authentic with students in the context of modern band pedagogy.
Hetero- and Gender-normative School Environments
“We already know, for example, that schools are heteronormative spaces within which LGBTQ people are often marginalized and/or silenced.” (Gray & Harris 2014, 3)
Jamie taught at the same school for three years from 2016 to 2019 and worked hard to change what they deemed a toxic, hetero-, and gender-normative culture at the school they were employed at. Students at this school were always lined up according to gender, for Halloween celebrations the school did not “allow boys to wear girl costumes,” and Jamie even once heard a teacher say to a student, “Why are you in the girl’s line? What are you, gay?” Jamie felt they had a lot of difficult work ahead of them to undo years of influence on students who were often taught there is something inherently wrong with queerness. Jamie even deemed it an accomplishment when they got students in their classroom to stop calling each other “gay” as an insult.
Joe also taught in Chicago Public Schools from 2012 to 2015 and witnessed heteronormative patterns that appeared to be cultural in nature. At his school with primarily Black and Brown students, there was a general perception that it was safer and more acceptable for female-identifying students to come out more than male-identifying students. This may be due to the “machismo culture” at the school.
Jamie had invited their current wife to a school concert they were directing in 2016, but could sense parents’, guardians’, students’, and other staff members’ discomfort and discussions about the seemingly monumental plus-one. They decided to remain discreet about their relationship to one another and show no affection in front of everyone. Joe had a similar experience upon inviting his current partner to a concert he was directing. They felt it was best for “everyone to remain closeted” so as not to stir the pot within their school communities.
Music-making is an inherently vulnerable experience and helping students feel safer in the classroom environment is the easiest way to give room to this vulnerability. Marginalized students are inhibited from feeling safe in the music classroom if they are unable to express themselves, be referred to by the correct pronouns and name, create music without feeling ridicule or self-consciousness around appearances, accents or physicalities that are stigmatized, or feel represented or supported in other ways.
LGBTQ+ Student Experience
Weston, a young transgender man working as a youth specialist at the Westchester Jewish Community Services Center Lane program for LGBTQ+ youth and education, also shared with me insights from conversations he’s had with students. Weston is a peer and colleague I refer my LGBTQ+ students to when they are seeking social work support, community, and advice. His interaction with gender and sexually diverse students who attend schools with more normative classroom practices serves as a juxtaposed perspective to the LGTBQ+ inclusive classroom environments Jamie and Joe are working to create.
Weston recalls a conversation with kids about the discrimination they face within their choral and musical theater programs. One musical theater student asked their director for the opportunity to audition for a gender role differing from the one they had previously identified as. Although the voice range was comparable to other roles this student had been cast in, the director denied the student the opportunity and scapegoated unattainable voice range as reasoning. Rather than looking at the casting as an opportunity for growth or accommodating the student via repertoire transposition, the director chose to exclude the student.
Students who attend the Center Lane program have also expressed a struggle with music performance attire and their gender presentation. Non-binary students have seemingly no options for attire as there are often only concert performance dress options for two genders. As you can see visibly on concert attire websites such as concertattire.com, there are still only three category options to select from: “guys,” “gals,” and “youth.”
I, myself, have been a music teacher in some capacity for about 10 years now and I have seen students struggle with their gender and sexual identity in the classroom many times. Students have approached me during class about health issues that arise from avoiding the restroom because of the harassment that comes with going into a gendered bathroom as they are transitioning. Students sometimes mock each other or use slurs like “faggot” to get a rise out of AMAB (assigned male at birth) students who exhibit what is considered to be effeminate mannerisms or wear femme fashion. And every year I have at least 3 students come to me frustrated that teachers or administrators are continuously deadnaming or mispronouning them in front of their peers.
While growing up my interviewee Joe has also felt ostracized to an extent in the music room as a percussionist. He says as a drummer it was very male-dominated and had a culture affiliated with brute masculinity and “hitting things” which he did not necessarily subscribe to. He felt being a percussionist as opposed to solely a drummer in the music classroom was more fluid and allowed him to be more himself. Unfortunately, even with this transition, there was not much queer or female composer representation when it came to repertoire, which was also a point of contention for him.
Queering Modern Band (Little Kids Rock Impact)
“Why am I teaching them all the old dead white men? They don’t care. And I don’t care all that much.” (Schoffstall, 2021)
In classrooms that receive public funding the school is legally bound by Title IX to adhere to student gender and pronoun preferences. “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This education amendment allows educators to start Gender Sexuality Alliance clubs and entitles them to equitable pay as other compensated campus clubs. Capitalizing on legislation like this that enforces equity is something educational organizations like Little Kids Rock (LKR) have been considering and accommodating for years.
LKR partners with school districts and trains educators in their modern band curriculum that uses genres like rock, pop, Latin, and rap to build music programs “as diverse as the kids they serve” (littlekidsrock.org). They then often donate instruments and resources necessary to run a successful program.
Many schools today continue to structure their music programs from the dated Band-Orchestra-Chorus (BOC) model that places an emphasis on Eurocentric repertoire and instrumentation. LKR attempts to veer away from this pedagogical norm and modernize the music classroom by utilizing instrumentation and repertoire that is more current and representative of marginalized identities.
By incorporating artists that are outside the Western European art music lexicon, LKR and its members include more diverse and outwardly-queer voices by default. Joe and his colleagues have gone so far as to center queer artistry during pride month. In efforts to highlight equity and inclusion within their mission, LKR has been hosting teacher expert panels and offering resources featuring many different marginalized communities throughout the pandemic. Joe has been working on and contributing to an LGBTQ+ Pride Song Pack featuring queer artists and their music. These collections of LGBTQ+ songs, provided by LKR, give educators visual, auditory, scaffolded, and intuitive guidance for learning and performance. This LGBTQ+ song pack includes chord charts, rhythm charts, and some play along music on modern band instruments for songs like “Americans” by Janelle Monae and “She Keeps Me Warm” by Mary Lambert. This instrumentation includes, but is not limited to, electric guitar, electric bass, acoustic guitar, keyboard, vocals, drum kit, and ukulele.
All LKR-affiliated teachers are invited to attend panels and workshops and to utilize all resources created for free. Having Joe and other LGBTQ+ and TGNCI administrators and educators in leadership roles within the organization has helped LKR create these sources in a more authentic manner.
LKR provides the resources and instrumentation to tackle the logistics of music engagement and learning. From there, educators can implement improvisational and compositional activities that allow for student self-expression and reflection.
For example, grouping students and allowing them to write a piece about their quarantine opens the door for students to express frustrations or milestones in their gender transitions while in the confines of their home. Their groupmates can collaborate and enhance the song with experiences of their own. This fosters empathy among classmates since they are expressing their unique experiences and emotions in a collaborative piece. Students can also create a groove or loop and have classmates vocalize and emote over the backing track. This activity can be done with human emotion and vocal expression as the improvisational component in which students who are angry can shout, students who are sad can sigh, etc.
Some educators also do some version of a protest song unit. Students can write pieces about causes they feel invested in. Often, at least a few students in each class will write about LGBTQ+ issues in my experiences doing this lesson. For example, my very out and proud student wrote this just last year:
Well, I'm gonna be my truest self
and nothing and no one’s gonna keep me down.
Not you, not you, not all of you
I’ll just ignore you
I'll fight for my rights
And others in my community as well
Together we unite and fight away
And get our equal rights.
Having access to modern band instrumentation and knowledge can makes activities like these more accessible than if students were in a band, orchestra, or chorus class. Rhythm guitar, drum kit grooves, basslines, and piano comping make for easier backing tracks when writing lyrics or improvising vocals. These songs can also be modified for advanced players with added challenges like bar chords or made simpler for beginners by teaching a simple bassline on the piano. Inclusion cannot happen without accessibility and this curriculum is seemingly accessible to all students.
LGBTQ+ Inclusive Repertoire
Joe had worked in his role as senior director of programs to support educators in feeling prepared and comfortable teaching Little Kids Rock curriculum. When Joe was transitioning from teaching in Chicago Public Schools to his role at LKR, he found that he was able to more easily “throw out a ‘yas’” during a modern band training and not feel he has to be self-conscious about his speech patterns as he used to monitor his use of the “gay lisp” in public forums. He had felt the need to codeswitch more in the classroom, but the LKR environment allowed for some freedoms in expressing his queer identity.
Coming out is different for everyone. Sometimes it’s a friend or a crush that helps someone live authentically, but for Joe it was popular music.
“I remember being at my aunt’s house for a 4th of July BBQ and we were watching MTV and Hanson’s ‘Mmmbop’ came on. … [I thought] ‘wow, they are all really cute. I’m really attracted to these girls.’ In the commentary afterwards they said, ‘and no, they are not girls. They are boys.’ And I thought, ‘hm, still cute.’”
This memory from when Joe was in 3rd or 4th grade is evidently the moment he realized he was gay. Popular music continued to validate his sexuality in ways family or school may have not been able to. He was a huge N*SYNC and Christina Aguilera fan adorning posters in his childhood bedroom. His family members would misconstrue and confuse the images as his crushes versus the reflection of what Joe aspired to be.
Joe did not have many opportunities to explore these artists in his school music program at the time, but expressed envy for the current generation that has a plethora of out, queer artists to look up to and opportunities to perform their music in an academic setting thanks to programs like LKR. He feels Lil Nas X becoming mainstream and Harry Styles being more fluid in his gender expression has provided opportunities for youth to potentially see themselves reflected in the artists they perform.
As Joe puts it, “repertoire choice is the biggest thing.” He believes we can shift the narrative, bring awareness, and provide curriculum that is authentic to a broader spectrum of student identities by selecting repertoire that is queer, culturally diverse, and current.
“Culturally Responsive” Classroom
When unpacking queerness in a space dedicated to learning power chords and singing Whitacre, it’s no surprise educators are criticized at times. In the music education world, we throw around the phrase “culturally responsive pedagogy.” It is the idea that educators are responsible for creating music curriculums that are reflective of the many diverse student identities in their classroom. In the same way diversity is celebrated in other workplaces, since educators usually do not select the demographics represented in their classroom, cultural responsivity is how we accommodate various learners. However, much of the time teachers and administrators fail to acknowledge that “culture” is also this rich and tumultuous history of queerness that so many of us identify with.
These modern band programs have provided a space for students with potentially relevant repertoire and curricula, but also environments that are conducive to challenging normative assumptions of what a “model student” is.
“The method with modern band- you know, you do what you can. Mistakes are fine. It doesn’t have to be rigid. Things are not cookie cutter, you don’t have to fit into this space. I think that translates pretty easily [into queer inclusivity],” Jamie stated when speaking to me about the smorgasbord of students who were in their modern band group. “The students aren’t necessarily musical prodigies, it is just an accepting space.”
Jamie’s classroom specifically became a safer space for students who were considered “misfits” within their, oftentimes prejudiced, school community. There was a group of about 10 students who came to Jamie’s classroom regularly to avoid social encounters with the remainder of the school population. One of these students was the only out gay student in the entire school.
“Some of them weren’t even necessarily that into music, they just wanted to be in this safe space. And I’d say, here, take a tambourine.”
While Jamie wasn’t necessarily out to all their students, they made it clear that the classroom was a space where all were welcome to be authentic and proud, regardless of their gender and sexual identity. Jamie frequently mentioned that all identities were celebrated in their classroom and even mentored some students who were exhibiting behaviors that may indicate they are grappling with some aspect of their identity (closed off from others, uncomfortable in classroom environments with students who mock differences, gravitate towards students who are more accepting of nonconformity).
Jamie grappled with “professionalism” and whether it should stifle their queer self-expression. They temporarily adopted a wardrobe and hairstyle they felt fit a heteronormative mold and were careful to not discuss queerness openly with students when they were in what they felt was a more suppressive school environment. But throughout the years they realized that being out and proud seemed to allow for easier conversations with students around topics of gender and sexuality and created healthier spaces for them and their students.
Jamie found they could be more open and expressive with the support of staff members and administrators. They began to dye their hair in colors that felt natural to them, which ironically included green and purple, and they embraced a wardrobe that felt comfortable and not outwardly femme. Jamie is also able to introduce the title “Mx.” to students as their preferred name and include the gender-neutral title in their email signature. They also have more agency in their classroom to answer questions and foster conversation about gender and sexuality without other adults in the building undermining and questioning whether the topics are “appropriate.”
Based on the experiences of Joe and Jamie, we can appreciate how it may benefit LGBTQIA+ students to see themselves reflected in our music classrooms. Acknowledgement of queer culture in the music classroom can occur organically and may make all the difference in our students’ lives. We hold great power and responsibility working with the next generation of LGBTQIA+ musicians. As Joe so eloquently puts it, “If I’m able to make an impact I have that ability. I’m going to use that privilege.”
Ferfolja, Tania, et al. Queer Teachers, Identity and Performativity. Edited by Anne Harris and Emily M. Gray, Palgrave Pivot, 2014.
Ibrahim, Mia, and Jamie Schoffstall. 9 Apr. 2021.
Ibrahim, Mia, and Joe Panganiban. 6 Apr. 2021.
Ibrahim, Mia, and Weston Siano. Apr. 2020.
“Music Education Charity in US Public Schools.” Little Kids Rock, 21 May 2020, www.littlekidsrock.org/.