The Role of Music Education Takes Center Stage

New Directions conference puts MSU at the forefront of enacting social justice through music education.

College of Music faculty, alumni, and current graduate students at the 2017 New Directions in Music Education conference.
College of Music graduate students Amy Lewis, Latasha Thomas, and Jennifer Giustino pose for a photo (left to right) during the conference banquet.
Juliet Hess delivering the closing keynote address at the conference, "Musical Encounters and a 'Discomfortable' Music Education.”
College of Music doctoral student Latasha Thomas shares her work on "radical honesty" among LGBTQ teachers during the New Directions Poster Session at the conference.
Darrin Thornton co-facilitating a discussion with Nicole Becker on racial literacy during the conference.

The role of music education in activism, civic engagement and social justice took center stage at a long-standing conference for music educators and students at Michigan State University in mid-February.

About 120 music educators and students from North America and the Middle East attended “Musicking Equity: Enacting Social Justice through Music Education”—the title of the 2017 New Directions in Music Education Conference. Held Feb. 16-18 on the MSU campus, the biennial conference is coordinated by music education faculty and students of the College of Music.

“This year’s conference was essentially an activist call for social justice in music education,” says Conference Coordinator Juliet Hess, an MSU assistant professor of music education. “The conference participation tells us a lot about where music education is as a profession when so many are interested in talking about activism and equity and how we are supporting and empowering students in these times.”

Hess says that she and conference organizers began writing the call for presenters and papers back in March 2016. In the end, organizers lined up 59 presentations including papers, workshops, and facilitated discussions; a robust poster session; and three keynote speakers—all focused on issues related to social justice, equity and activism through music education.

“We were very intentional about mixing papers and workshop presentations,” Hess says. “We wanted a mix of academic and practical opportunities for discussion and conversations. We included a community town hall on Saturday to provide a forum for music educators to think through what it means to be a music educator during a Trump presidency.”

Launched in 1997, the New Directions conference examines emerging trends in music education. Every two years, the conference offers music teachers and scholars a way to keep up with the latest advances in music technology, methods and research, as well as new ways to teach composition, improvisation, music technology and performance. Music Education Area Chair Mitchell Robinson says that the conference also gives MSU the opportunity to invite leaders in the music education profession to campus for in-depth discussions on topics of interest.

“We see the conference as a way to identify important issues in music teaching and learning, and work to advance our collective understanding of these issues as a profession,” he says. “It also gives our own faculty and graduate students a platform to share our ideas about how to move the profession forward.”

Doctoral students Mark Adams and Amy Lewis joined Hess and key faculty in organizing and facilitating the nearly 70 presentations and sessions of the 2017 conference. Lewis says one of the biggest takeaways for her was simply seeing the amount of interest and scholarship that surrounds social justice and equity in the field of music education.

“I hope participants were able to feel inspired by fellow professionals to bring much needed change to music education,” Lewis says. “I met a lot of educators who are committed to helping our profession progress.”

MSU undergrads were also among students in attendance, including Zach Suttner—a student of music education and double bass. Suttner says the conference was a perfect fit for his long-term goal to work as an educator for marginalized communities or groups. He attended nearly a dozen sessions, including those focused on social justice, racism, resistance, diversity and inclusion, strengthening communities, field experiences, for-profit music education, and advocacy through music education.

“Throughout all these sessions, the main idea expressed was simple: people should be treated as people,” Suttner says. “One of the most encouraging things about attending this conference was witnessing how many people are inclined to help those in need. This conference gave me an immeasurable about of hope and comfort in realizing there are others who care.”

Hess agrees that the focus of the 2017 New Directions conference continues to uphold MSU’s reputation as a leader in the music education field. Her hope is that the conference helps broaden the conversation on equity issues, and opens up music education platforms and approaches that recognize student identities and foster social justice.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is among the few music education conferences that has had an explicit activist bent as well as an equity focus,” says Hess. “It positions us as a resource for people who are looking to do this type of work.”

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