Breaking the Canon
A Student-driven Initiative Shows Equity In Action
A January 2022 delivery to the Department of Music looked like a typical cardboard box. However, its contents represented a new frontier for CCU musical repertoire.
Student musicians surrounded the box, whispering in excitement as they gathered in the Edwards Conference Room with faculty and administrators for the historic moment.
“Can you believe it?”
“I can’t wait to see it.”
When Assistant Professor of Woodwinds Eric Schultz instructed the students with to open the box, they reached inside like it was Christmas morning. Giddy gasps echoed through the room.
The students were holding sheets of music: the work of Grammy-winning flutist and composer Valerie Coleman. It’s the first musical library of a living composer CCU has ever acquired, as well as the largest existing collection of her work.
Coleman is founder of the New York-based wind quintet Imani Winds, dedicated to introducing more diverse composers to the wind quintet repertoire. She was listed as “one of the Top 35 Women Composers” in the Washington Post in 2017; became the first living African-American woman composer commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, for her piece “Umoja, Anthem for Unity,” in 2019; and was named 2020 Classical Woman of the Year by Performance Today.
Schultz and his students had been playing Coleman’s work over the past year, and the acquisition results from a conversation about limitations of traditional musical repertoire.
“Students like Hailey [Cornell] tell me they want to play a piece by a woman, or students like Diamond [Gaston], to play a piece by a person of color. It seems so easy, a reasonable request. It’s just shocking that it hasn’t naturally happened.”
Western music education focuses almost exclusively on the canon: work by European composers from the period 1600-1990.
“In music, we know what our canon is,” said Schultz. “We study it. I have a terminal degree in clarinet, and I can’t think of a commonly-performed piece by a black composer in my repertoire. That is inexcusable. We in our field have a lot of work to do.”
Cornell, a junior music major who plays clarinet, also thinks diversity – whether in regard to gender, race, or time period -- is reasonable.
“Often times when we’re given music to play, it’s from the same demographic of old dead white men,” said Cornell, “so we wanted to do something more contemporary. Why can’t we play music by women or people of color or people who are alive to hear us play their music?”
Soon, Schultz and his students started learning and playing Coleman’s work. Consequently, Schultz started thinking bigger about issues of diversity and accessibility in his field, especially as faculty fellow with the Edwards College Center for Inclusive Excellence (CIE).
“One challenge as professors is that so much of our commonly studied music is now in the public domain,” said Schultz. “You can go to an online music library and print it for free. You can’t do that with music by living composers. If students want to work on a piece, they have to buy it. The cost, maybe $40, becomes a significant investment.”
Last year, Schultz applied for a grant from CCU’s Access, Inclusion and Diversity Council (AIDC) to make Coleman’s work an accessible resource for music students.
“In my grant proposal, I explained, ‘My students love Valerie Coleman so much. We found this gold mine of amazing music by her that she’s written over all these decades. Can we just buy it all and just have it here? said Schultz. “And they said ‘Yes, that’s why the AIDC is here.’”
Students at the music library unveiling event were fully aware of the work’s significance.
“I’ve looked up to Valerie Coleman since I was in sixth grade,” said Gaston, “It’s comforting to have someone who’s alive and who looks like me who does what I do.”
Rachel Huggins, percussionist, agreed.
“I’ve had the same experiences as any other female musician, especially in percussion, where there’s so few of us. Having Valerie Coleman’s music is amazing because she is not only a living female composer of color, but she’s incredibly talented,” said Huggins. “We’re not just buying her music so we can check off a diversity box, but because it’s fantastic music.”
In addition to the Valerie Coleman library, Schultz has also created a Valerie Coleman residency, which will bring the artist to campus in Fall 2022.
Schultz’ final go-ahead at the Valerie Coleman library opening that day in the conference room continues to reverberate.
“Let’s open up the music.”