Cultural exploration through music 

Wherever there are people in the world, there is music. It truly is the global language. Growing up just 65 miles from Mexico, my own childhood was spent singing songs I loved in languages I did not fully understand—it was only years later that I realized I had been singing happily about a cockroach the whole time. When I was getting my undergraduate degree in music education at The University of Miami, much of my clinical experience was working with large populations of English language learners. I was learning how to modify and adapt my lessons in order to reach students with varying levels of English comprehension.

Students who are learning English as an Additional Language— and therefore may feel challenged during classes instructed through English—have been shown to experience more success in music classes, where everyone is learning the same new language together. My first job after graduating brought me back to Arizona, 97 percent of my students were English language learners. I was using the differentiation skills I had learned during university daily. I searched for ways to make music class relevant and meaningful, not just another place where they didn’t always understand what was being said because of the language barriers. I incorporated numerous songs in Spanish and stressed that music was a new language that we were all learning together.

When you think back to your own elementary school music classroom, memories of playing recorders, grammatically incorrect mnemonic devices for note names, and learning to sing the national anthem might come to mind. Maybe on special days, the dusty TV/VCR cart would come out and Disney’s Fantasia would shower classical music and animation into your rapt eyes, or a grainy PBS video lecturing about Beethoven would lull you to sleep. I knew that my classroom would be different. Through these experiences, my philosophy of education developed into one that is inclusive and encouraging of the multicultural opportunities naturally available in music.

When I moved to Panama in 2011 as an elementary music teacher at The International School of Panama, every month I asked my students to bring me our welcome song in their first language and teach it to the class. Students loved this opportunity to share their culture with their classmates, and happily sang along, even if they didn’t always understand what else was going on in class.

When a group of capoeiristas (people who practice the Brazilian martial art of capoeira) was traveling through Panama, I jumped at the opportunity to invite them into my classroom. Music is a large part of the capoeira art form, and the capoeiristas demonstrated how they use their instruments to practice this unique martial art. My students were then allowed to play these instruments while our visitors showed us some of the moves used in capoeira. This experience allowed students to gain a closer look at the way music is used in different cultures. Even my Brazilian students were learning things about this art form from their own country.

After five years in Central America, I moved to Vietnam, a country with a rich musical history and many unique instruments. While my repertoire of songs and materials includes songs from many different countries around the world, I wanted to bring music into the classroom in a way that was unique to where I was living and teaching. My goal was to find a way to expose my students to traditional Vietnamese instruments and music. After the Tet holiday, this was achieved when a group of four musicians brought six different instruments and performed workshops for my students. The classes learned how each instrument is played and heard it featured in a song, accompanied by the other instruments. The teachers and students loved the workshops, and it is something I hope to bring to the entire school next year.

While my music classes would include activities from different cultures no matter where I was teaching, the unique opportunities that are available due to our location are invaluable. They provide the students with an experience that would not be possible elsewhere in the world. My students gained a deeper understanding of how music is used in different cultures and were able to make connections between what we were learning in class and the instruments that they saw. As you and your family continue living in Vietnam, or wherever your life takes you next, I hope that you look for ways to make connections like this with your community and seek out unexpected multicultural experiences.

BIO: Emma Cohen-Joppa is currently a music educator at International School Saigon Pearl. Emma holds a bachelor’s degree in Music Education master’s degree in International Education from Endicott College.