MusiCounts “Teacher Of The Year” Award Nominee Darren Hamilton On Why Music Education Should Be Diverse & Inclusive

Kat Harlton

MusiCounts, Canada’s leading music education charity recently announced the nominees for its prestigious 2022 MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award, presented by the Canadian Scholarship Trust Foundation. 

The MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award was established in 2005 to recognize and honour an exceptional Canadian music teacher each year. To date, this award has celebrated the accomplishments of sixteen music educators from across Canada who strive to preserve the livelihood of music education in their school and community. 

This year, the charity is proud to highlight five Award nominees from across Canada, including Darren Hamilton from David Suzuki Secondary School in Brampton, ON.

Darren Hamilton believes that music education should be diverse and inclusive, and should reflect the student populations that schools and educational institutions serve. He uses music education as a tool to teach social justice issues and was one of the authors of the recent 2022 MusiCounts Learn Resource #BlackMusicMatters: Hip-Hop & Social Justice in Canada.

He used his 2021 MusiCounts Band Aid Program instrument and equipment grant to build a Hip-Hop and R&B program using DJ consoles to ensure the large population of Black students at his school saw themselves reflected in the programming. 

We had the opportunity to chat with Darren about why diverse and inclusive music education is important, how music can be a tool for social justice and what being nominated for a MusiCounts Teacher Of The Year award means to him.

Kat: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience being a music teacher? 

Darren: I have been teaching high school music full time with the Peel District School Board for the past 14 years. I have taught courses in instrumental music, vocal music, keyboard and guitar in the past. At David Suzuki Secondary School, where I have been teaching as the sole music teacher for the past 6 years, I teach courses in instrumental music, music and computers and a newly implemented course in Hip-Hop and R&B music.

I have always had a passion for music, since starting to learn the piano and singing at church at a young age. My original musical goals were to become a recording artist, songwriter and music producer. After completing my music degree and not seeing things go in the direction I had originally planned, I spent a year working full time as a personal banker and a few years volunteering at schools and being a summer camp counsellor. The experiences I had educating clients about their finances and working with youth at school and camp programs made me consider pursuing a career in music education. At that point, I returned to university to take a year of courses in music education and applied to teacher’s college. I was fortunate to obtain entry into a teacher education program immediately after completing my year of music education courses and subsequently, landed a full time contract with the Peel board immediately after graduating from teacher’s college.

I have developed a passion for teaching music, at the high school level, at the postsecondary level (I am a contract course director in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto) and in the community where I direct a community choir.

I am a life-long learner and am always seeking ways to improve my skills and obtain new knowledge to share with students and individuals in the various settings where I work. I have a masters degree in music education and am currently a doctoral candidate working on my dissertation in music education at the University of Toronto.

As a racialized music educator, I am extremely passionate about diversity, equity and social justice. Much of my graduate work has been centred around these themes and they have carried over into the practical work I do as a music educator. I am intentional about teaching a variety of musical styles to students and providing opportunities for students to explore music from different genres and cultural backgrounds that interest them through the work they do in music class. When I was pursuing formal music education, I did not have many options besides the dominant Western classical music. I struggled to remain engaged throughout my studies because there were other forms of music, connected to my cultural background, that I wanted to study but did not have the opportunity in my formal music programs.

For the past five years, I have been presenting workshops annually at the Ontario Music Educators’ Association conference on diversity and including cultural (special forms of Black) music into the curriculum. In addition, I have published articles for music educators and have helped write and develop resources to aid teachers in including forms of Black music that they may not be familiar or comfortable with into their curriculum. I believe inclusion and diversity is so important for engaging today’s diverse population of youth in music education.

Kat: What does it mean to you to be nominated for the MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award?

Darren: I am honoured to be nominated for the MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award. The award recognizes teachers who have demonstrated a commitment to music education, diversity and inclusion, and advocacy in their teaching career. These are things that I have been doing for the past 14 years. It is humbling to know that all of the hard work I have put into creating diverse opportunities for students to engage with music education and to support other music educators in their quest to create culturally responsive classroom environments is being recognized.

Kat: What impact did your previous MusiCounts Band Aid Program grant make in your music classroom?

Darren: The MusiCounts Band Aid Program grant we received enabled us to launch a new Hip-Hop and R&B course at David Suzuki Secondary School. This course was the direct result of listening to the voices of Black students at the school who expressed that they were not interested in taking the instrumental music course. Although the instrumental music course was expanded from traditional concert band to include popular music by way of exploring and learning songs on instruments such as the electric guitar, bass guitar and keyboard, it still didn’t cater to what these students were interested in. When surveyed about what it would take to engage them in music classes at the school, students expressed an interest in learning about Hip-Hop and R&B.

With our MusiCounts grant, we were able to purchase a class set of DJ consoles and students have been learning how to DJ as part of the Hip-Hop and R&B course. In addition, students have been able to showcase their DJ skills by performing DJ sets to usher students to classes before the bell rings in the morning. We will be integrating use of the DJ consoles into our music and computers program and as school events begin to be reinstated, students will also be provided with opportunities to perform for things like assemblies, dances, arts night and sports games.

Kat: Why do you think it’s important that youth get access to music education in schools?

Darren: Music education provides so many positive benefits for students of all ethnicities and backgrounds. In addition to developing musical proficiency on an instrument or voice, students also develop social, communication and life skills through their interactions and performances in the music classroom.

Music is a great tool for self expression and social justice advocacy. When youth have the opportunity to access music education, they develop skills that empower them to express themselves creatively and musically through performance, composition, arranging and lyric writing.

It is not only important for students to have access to music education, but it is also important that the musical experiences they have are diverse and reflective of the society in which we live in. A one-dimensional music program greatly limits access to music education as such programs usually attract students with a specific musical focus (i.e., performance) in a specific musical genre (i.e., Western classical music). Multi-dimensional music programs create greater access for a wider range of students with diverse musical backgrounds and interests to engage in music education. These are the types of programs that I believe schools should be offering to provide more students with the opportunity to participate in music education.

Kat: You were one of the authors of the recent 2022 MusiCounts Learn Resource #BlackMusicMatters: Hip-Hop & Social Justice in Canada. Can you tell us a bit about it, and why a resource like this is important in the music classroom?

Darren: The 2022 MusiCounts Learn Resource, #BlackMusicMatters: Hip-Hop & Social Justice in Canada, was created as an extension of an article I wrote in 2020 for the Canadian Music Educator entitled, “#BlackMusicMatters: Dismantling Anti-Black Racism in Music Education”. As the world began to focus more intentionally on the issues of anti-Black racism and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd, this article explored the history of white supremacy and dominance of Eurocentrism in music education and the implications this has had for racialized students desiring to pursue music education. I proposed that music curricula needs to be reformed and that more cultural music, specifically Black music (as a response to anti-Black racism), needed to be included in the curriculum. The greatest challenge for bringing about such reform is the lack of Black music educators(who possess the cultural capital to teach Black music in the teaching profession, as well as the lack of resources for non-Black teachers who genuinely desire to diversify their curriculum but don’t know where to start. That’s where the #BlackMusicMatters MusiCounts Learn Resource comes in. It was developed as a listening and inquiry resource, making it accessible for all music teachers to explore Black music, specifically, Canadian Hip-Hop music, with their music students. Since Hip-Hop was created as a direct result of injustices faced by Blacks and Latinos in Brooklyn New York in the early 1970’s and many hip-hop artists and songs promote social justice advocacy, it was just natural to centre the lessons in the resource around social justice. 

As mentioned earlier, music education is a great tool for social justice advocacy and through this resource, students get to see and hear first hand how marginalised hip-hop artists do just that–bring awareness to social injustices in our society through their music!

A resource like this is important in the music classroom because often music educators shy away from teaching Hip-Hop due to a lack of knowledge or negative perceptions about the genre as well as stereotypes about the artists who predominantly create and perform this genre. Through #BlackMusicMatters, educators are provided with background information about artists and the social justice issues to be explored is carefully selected Canadian Hip-Hop songs to enable teachers to include Black music into their classrooms while facilitating discussions with students about a range of social justice issues faced by Black and racialized communities. What’s exciting about this resource is that not only does it provide an opportunity for Black student engaged by learning more about their cultural music in the music classroom, but it provides an opportunity for students and educators of all cultural backgrounds to learn more about and appreciate Black culture and this ultimately helps to end negative stereotypes and perceptions about Blacks while working towards dismantling anti-Black racism.

For more on the MusiCounts #BlackMusicMatters program visit: https://musicounts.ca/en/programs/musicounts-learn/custom-resources/blackmusicmatters-hip-hop-social-justice-in-canada

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