Fighting for equity: the role of choral music and music education
Jeremy Lee | July 22, 2021
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All photos courtesy of Vinroy Brown, Jr.
Standing either as the conductor or artistic director of four different choral groups, in addition to holding two university teaching positions, Vinroy D. Brown Jr. has carved out an impressive niche in the world of choral music and music education. He is also involved in a number of organizations to advance equity for Black music professionals. In an interview with Composium, Professor Brown shared some details about his career and his experience fighting for diverse musical representation.
Growing up in the Pentacostal church, Brown has engaged with religious music from a very early age. “I went to high school and had a formidable choir director...Because of the experience I had in my high school choir, I decided I would pursue music education when I got to Westminster [Choir College],” he described. He would eventually graduate with a B.M. in sacred music as well as music education, as the sacred music major was “a great way to honor [his] upbringing”. He soon was teaching in local public schools and at Westminster Choir College itself, before earning an M.A. in Practical Theology from Regent University.
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Eventually, through his work at Westminster as the conductor of the Westminster Jubilee Singers and professor of African American Choral Literature, he also became a Lecturer of Music at Loyola Marymount University, developing a curriculum around music and social justice. Throughout the pandemic, he remained engaged with both institutions.
Beyond the world of academia, Professor Brown also serves as the director of music and worship arts at Elmwood United Presbyterian Church, the founder and artistic director of the Elmwood Concert Singers, the artistic director and conductor of the Capital Singers of Trenton, and the former artistic director of the Trenton Children’s Chorus.
When asked how he could possibly juggle this many choirs and their corresponding responsibilities, he revealed that “I plan a year to two years out...before the season starts, I know where I’m going so I’m looking forward to what’s happening.” This involves spacing his commitments out in a manageable fashion in order to successfully blend his academic duties with his artistic ones.
“For me, it’s just about managing time right. When you are a musician, 9 times out of 10, you are gigging and it requires really great time management.”
He also emphasized the importance of planning for time when you are not working. Constantly being under pressure from audiences, faculty, and the choirs themselves during the performance season can get quite taxing. “As much as I build in time to work, I have to build in time to relax,” he explained. Especially for musicians and composers, we are often told to constantly be working and creating, but are rarely told that this should also involve periods of rest.
As mentioned earlier, Professor Brown is also involved in a number of organizations designed to advance and promote equity for Black music professionals. These include the National Alliance of Black School Educators, the International Alliance for Black Musicians, and, most notably, the National Association of Negro Musicians, where he serves as the director of the Eastern region on the National Board.
“About half of the national membership is in the Eastern region and I get to support their local work by being there and being a resource for them.”
Across all of his various responsibilities, Brown works to elevate underrepresented voices. “Organizations like NANM...like the Alliance of Black Music Educators really all came out of a need for adequate representation,” he elaborated. “That representation was not present in the organizations that were considered mainstream for so long.”
Even when considering the repertoire for his choral groups, Professor Brown sees valuable opportunities to highlight stories and perspectives that have been neglected. “I’m always for amplifying voices that aren’t always heard, so who do I need to lift up at any particular time or season?” he described. This approach can be very subjective, so he takes care to judge the current state of society and select pieces that represent and resonate with overlooked groups, like programming pieces by composers of color or pieces with strong, historical traditions like Black spirituals, as an example.
As someone with a great deal of experience in higher music education, Brown acknowledges the prioritization of Eurocentric ideals and values in many institutions. Looking to the future of choral music and music education, though, he “see[s] the profession starting to have necessary conversations about the ways in which we glorify the European art form.”
Many music conservatories serve as good examples for this, at times unconscious, glorification. “In higher education, music education, and conservatory education, the role of the conservatory is to conserve. And what we are conserving, what we are preserving, we’re preserving [Eurocentric music] as the ideal until the conservatory model changes,” Brown highlighted.
The curriculum at some of these institutions often require students to take around two years of music theory classes, which are all designed around Western Eurocentric standards of counterpoint, consonance and dissonance, and voice leading, to name a few. At the same time, they may only require students to take a semester or even a quarter of some kind of world music elective. This disparity that is built into the curriculum is indicative of the prioritization of Eurocentrism in many music institutions.
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While we can all agree, however, that European classical music is excellent, there are so many other types of music that represent the true nature of the world that these institutions are preparing students for. From Black spirituals to Indian classical music to Polynesian chant to bossa nova and many more, the scope of available musical cultures to experience is much wider than most traditional models allow for. Luckily, more students and faculty are catching on to this trend and are approaching it head-on to create more equitable and diverse spaces for music education.
“For me, it’s crucial that the rooms that are making these decisions, the people in the room, and these institutions really reflect an eclectic view of the world because it’s no longer acceptable to give a one-size-fits-all armor to the people who have to go out into the world,” he affirmed.
Jeremy Lee is an undergraduate economics and music student at Loyola Marymount University and Composium Ambassador