Spring Lake Park High School band looks for diversity in its repertoire

Brian Lukkasson leads a class discussion.
Spring Lake Park High School band teacher Brian Lukkasson leads a discussion with his class about the perspectives of the composers they play, focusing on composers of color in the civil rights era, Dec. 20, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Student musicians at Spring Lake Park High School are shaking up the band canon this year with pieces by a broader range of composers.

High school band music is usually dominated by white, male composers, but Spring Lake Park's directors have pledged to include at least one piece by a female composer and one by a composer of color in each concert for each band.

They've also pledged to only buy music from composers of color this year.

"There's a kind of like ideological segregation of who can and cannot be in band based on who the composers are, and what music is like, and what the experiences of those composers are like," said junior clarinet player Kia Muleta, who is black. Muleta said she's noticed that most of her fellow student musicians are white.

A bulletin board at the front of the rehearsal room shows photos of the composers the bands are playing. Director Brian Lukkasson says diversifying that board hasn't been easy. He and fellow director Nora Tycast have researched and networked with colleagues and composers to find music.

Spring Lake Park's board of composers.
Spring Lake Park High School band teachers have made a point of incorporating both modern and classical composers of color into their lesson plans.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But the challenge doesn't mean that white men are the only ones composing band music, said Yolanda Williams, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Minnesota.

"There's a canon for every instrumentation that has been developed over years, and very few women get into that canon, very few composers of color get into that canon," Williams said, adding that work by composers of color is often not well-publicized.

Williams said there are long-standing stereotypes, too — if an African-American composer is included in a concert, she said, the piece is more often than not a spiritual, gospel or jazz.

Lukkasson has turned to composers who defy that assumption.

Nora Tycast conducts her band class.
Spring Lake Park High School band teacher Nora Tycast conducts the second band class of the day on Dec. 20, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"They're not being forced to write music that sounds like their own culture or their own history, they're able to just use that culture and that history as a lens to interpret the way that art is going," he said of composers like Viet Cuong, a Vietnamese-American who wrote the piece "Diamond Tide," inspired by the scientific process of melting a diamond.

"I've learned that when you look at the composer and then you don't know the piece of music, you can't judge what you think the piece of music is going to sound like or what you think it should sound like until you actually play it through," said sophomore bassoon player Alannah Easter.

Tycast's students are playing "Of Honor and Valor Eternal," a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen African-American military pilots by Ayatey Shabazz, a black composer from Mississippi. Shabazz said his grandfather knew one of the airmen, and stories he heard as a child inspired the composition.

Kia Muleta.
Spring Lake Park High School student Kia Muleta stands for a portrait inside the school's jazz band room.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Tycast takes the opportunity to educate her students about the history referenced and her students have written Shabazz to ask about the composing process.

"The more you practice talking about race and culture and ethnicity the more comfortable you are. We have this platform ... to allow students to practice those conversations and be comfortable with talking about something outside of their own culture," Tycast said.

Muleta, the clarinetist, said a more diverse group on the composer board may seem like a small thing, but to her it's a signal that difference is welcome.

"I really, really want other students of color to be able to feel like they are welcomed and appreciated anywhere, that they don't have to check themselves at the door wherever they go," she said, choking up and wiping away a few tears. "I feel like that's what happens everywhere. Even in a place like band where it doesn't seem like a big deal, it feels like a big deal."