A focus in diversity, equity, and inclusion requires respect for different perspectives, respect for oneself, and respect for others. Furthermore, it calls for addressing each student’s individual needs to ensure that all students receive the unique types of support that will enable them to succeed. For this reason, I feel that students should be granted a certain level of autonomy in making their own decisions related to the content and methods of their studies. As a teacher, I inquire deeply into each student’s interests and invite students to incorporate materials that are personally relevant to their cultures, backgrounds, and aspirations. I then see it as my responsibility to give students the guidance they need so that they can discover the learning strategies that are most efficient and meaningful for them, and to assist them in selecting content that is appropriate for their current skill level and future ambitions. I have found this method of teacher- and student-directed learning quite effective in the studio environment. This has led to many interesting projects in my current violin/viola studios, with students programming works by composers such as Leslie Adams, Amy Beach, Jennifer Higdon, Manuel Ponce, Charlton Singleton, William Grant Still, Reza Vali, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and performance projects involving transcriptions of jazz music and improvisation.
An inclusive approach to stringed instrument instruction also entails providing exposure to diverse styles, musical languages, and repertoire. Programming and performing a diverse repertoire are important in this regard. Equally as important are collaborations. For example, I do not self-identify as a jazz musician, but I enjoyed performing in a jazz string quartet thanks to a collaborative project between the jazz and string departments during my undergraduate studies. For me, this was a valuable and enlightening experience; for one of my friends, it was transformative, leading him into a completely different career trajectory. Such is the potential of cross-collaborations. Meaningful exposure is also accomplished with the engagement of performing artists and clinicians from all walks of musical life and disciplines. This year, several colleagues and I have organized eclectic programs of diverse styles (with works by composers such as Rhiannon Giddens, Astor Piazzolla, and Caroline Shaw, to name a few), and I took advantage of the opportunity to engage with composers Missy Mazzoli and Bright Sheng for a collaborative performance of their works in February. During my previous work as Senior Coordinator for the Illinois String Academy, the intentional use of folk songs from throughout the world and works by underrepresented composers is one way I sought to increase cultural competency in designing our curricula for use with children.
A nonjudgmental learning environment ties all the other components of diversity, equity, and inclusion together. Leading by example, I work diligently to cultivate a community of support in my classes and violin/viola studios. I want to help my students realize that they have much to offer regardless of their perceived abilities. To accomplish this, the environment must be a safe place in which all members have the freedom to make mistakes. I believe most of the difficulties that stringed instrument students experience in performance and throughout the learning process are caused by tension. Physical tension, which hinders performance quality, often arises from mental tension, which can be caused by a myriad of psychological factors such as defeatist attitudes, perfectionism, and general stress. I dismantle mental tension by encouraging my students to view mistakes simply as information and to be nonjudgmental toward themselves. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and a nonjudgmental learning environment work in conjunction to inspire freedom of expression both in performance and throughout the learning process.
Throughout all my endeavors, I continually approach each student and situation with an open mind, seeking to make improvements and learn from my failures just as from my successes. I believe that to develop the skills and tools needed to work effectively with people from a diverse range of backgrounds, one must actively seek out diverse opportunities. I have endeavored to do just that—working with under-resourced children in inner-city Toledo, Ohio and Danville, Illinois; fundraising to provide student financial aid at the Illinois String Academy; giving presentations at local schools and actively engaging with the larger community; teaching in a wide range of educational environments; and participating in workshops with string teachers on six continents. I seek opportunities not just to move outside my comfort zone or “think outside the box” but to eliminate the box completely.