Shaw, J.T. (2016). “The Music I Was Meant to Sing”: Adolescent choral students’ perceptions of culturally responsive pedagogy. Journal of Research in Music Education, 64(1).


This article is based on a multiple embedded case study, the purpose of which was to explore adolescent choral students’ perceptions of culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) in an urban nonprofit children’s choir organization. The case presented here focused on an after-school choir situated in a Puerto Rican enclave, where a multiethnic teacher designed instruction that was responsive to a community with a significant migrant and immigrant Hispanic population. Adolescents perceived their teacher’s culturally responsive practice as honoring their own cultural backgrounds while also expanding their cultural and intellectual horizons. Although the students generally perceived their choral experiences to be culturally responsive, they also identified potential barriers to practicing CRP. Perceived barriers related to the complexity of students’ cultural identities and challenges inherent in practicing CRP equitably given constraints on instructional time. By encouraging style shifting between performance practices associated with diverse musical genres and meaningfully bridging students’ musical experiences at home and school, the culturally responsive learning environment explored in this study fostered connections between students’ musical and cultural identities.

Key Findings:

This study utilizes a multiple embedded case study approach to explore the impact of integrating culturally-responsive repertoire and performance practices on student participants in a choral music program. The key findings of this study included:
  • Students were better able to connect with musical literature when it represented their own cultural identity.
  • Through music repertoire, students were able to learn about and better connect with their own cultural heritage.
  • Understanding the differences in musical styles and performance practices and communicating the cultural importance of those, the teacher was able to communicate the validity of each without providing a definition of “correct”.
  • While students valued the connections of the teaching to their own cultural identities, they raised concerns about the potential for biases when teachers only pay attention to the cultural heritage of their students. The authors suggest a continuum of “cultural validation” and “thoughtful valuation” whereby students are exposed to both music they are familiar with and music they may not be.
  • The students recognized the complexity of developing culturally-responsive education for every single student particularly considering how complex cultural identity can be for students. What is culturally-reaffirming for one student may be isolating for another. By putting students, rather than repertoire, at the center of education, the authors suggest that teachers can better engage students from diverse cultures.

Significance of the Findings:

Classrooms across the country continue to become increasingly diverse with students representing a complex tapestry of cultural heritage. The results of this study reinforce the known need that, for educators to be effective at engaging their students and validating the students’ experiences, they must become more aware of the cultural identities of their students. The teacher engaged in this study was uniquely positioned to support this type of multicultural approach to students but professional learning for educators, both pre- and in-service, would strengthen the educators’ abilities to support this type of culturally-responsive education.


The author of this study utilized the programming of an urban nonprofit choral organization serving 3,600 students through 60 public school choir programs. This study (a part of a larger dissertation analysis) focuses on the case study of a single choir with a multi-ethnic director. The director used music repertoire and performance practices that were responsive to the cultural heritage and identities of the students participating in the ensemble.

Students participating in the choir were required to submit responses to a written questionnaire that was used to identify those students who were able to be appropriately reflective on their experiences. The experiences of three students are highlighted as individual embedded case studies in the article. Data was gathered over 14 weeks by the author/researcher through observational notes and interviews with both students and the director. Student interviews were conducted with similar structure that began with a reiteration of the most recent conversation highlights and then structured questions. The author then coded the work based on Gay’s (2002) essential elements of culturally-responsive pedagogy [which are not articulated in the article].

Limitations of the Research:

The generalizability of this study is limited by the small sampling of students and teachers engaged, the fact that some students were excluded from the study based on their ability to provide adequate reflections, and the selection bias occurring from the self-selection of students into the program.

Questions to Guide New Research:

This study provides a case for the importance of culturally-responsive pedagogy to ensure that the cultural identities of all students are validated. Potential questions for future research include:

  • Will these results hold with a larger sample of music education students?
  • What is the impact of broadening the student population to all students interested?
  • What is the impact of broadening the teacher population to multiple teachers/classrooms/ensembles?
  • What are the longitudinal effects of culturally-responsive pedagogy?
  • How would these results differ across other artistic disciplines?