Band directors Leeper, Upton strives for diversity, equity, inclusion in music


Jireh Perez

Senior Riley Coburn helps her student learn how to play Happy Birthday.

By Jiayi Li, Harrisonburg High School

Since 2015, band directors Daniel Upton and Claire Leeper pushed for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in music and sought to create a music library that complemented Harrisonburg High School’s diversity through incorporating minority composers in their repertoire, allowing special education students to be a part of performances and having discussions.

“Traditionally, the repertoire looks like me, white guys. Part of that is the availability of what the publishers are putting out, so there’s been a big push in all of the music education organizations to get more composers of various diverse backgrounds, whether it be female composers, whether it be African American composers or Asian composers,” Upton said.

Leeper discovered several groups of people who are trying to achieve the same goals as her.

“There’s been a big push in the music community for DEI. It started with a group of female [people of color] who felt like their voice was not being heard musically in the United States, so there was a pretty good contingent of people who got together,” Leeper said.

While searching, Leeper found the Composer Diversity Database from the Institute for Composer Diversity. This database allows band teachers to be more efficient in looking for diverse music.

“One of my very good friends is a member of the Institute for Composer Diversity, and she assimilates state lists and parses out data on what percentage of pieces on the state lists are composed by minority composers in any shape, in terms of sexuality and skin color and that kind of thing,” Leeper said.

Leeper analyzes data from the Composer Diversity Database to determine what music is available and performed in Virginia. A new list from this database revealed 4% of composers in Virginia as minorities. The other 96% are white male adults.

“It’s really important for our students to see themselves in the music that they’re playing. If you have a kid from Honduras, we should be able to play a piece of music written by a Honduran composer. If you have a student from China, we should be able to see music written by a Chinese composer,” Leeper said.

Despite efforts to broaden the music community, it remains to be lacking in diversity. Unlike Harrisonburg, VA, Fairfax, VA has three female band directors in total. In Arlington, VA, there are two female high school band directors. Leeper joined a Facebook group on Messenger which was created to be a safe, open space for minorities to discuss DEI in music.

“In the state of Virginia, [Harrisonburg’s] in a really unique area. There are a lot of female band directors around here, but it is not normal. We’re still fighting to have a space to have a voice in a very male-dominated field, so we created that space about literature, how to diversify and how to be better at our job,” Leeper said.

Band directors urge other directors and musicians to include diverse pieces in their programs. However, they struggle to determine what to do with pieces that may be inappropriate, such as pieces with minstrel tunes. Minstrel tunes used exaggerated and racist caricatures of minorities, mainly Africans.

Band director Daniel Upton conducts the symphonic band during the Prism concert. (Brady Shifflett)

“There’s a lot of controversy,” Upton said. “There’s a piece called American River Songs by Pierre LaPlante, which is a beautiful piece, but [it] came out that this piece had a small chunk that had a minstrel tune in it. There’s a struggle with people’s opinions now, wondering, ‘Do we just ignore that? Do we cancel it? Do we make that an educational moment of why a part is not acceptable.’”

When researching music, Upton and Leeper also stay cautious of cultural appropriation. They check that their pieces accurately portray the culture they try to share.

“There’s some pretty strange and inappropriate appropriation of culture, where a white dude [writes] ‘Tokyo Sunrise’, and they try to write a piece of music that sounds like it’s Japanese. [We’re] figuring out what is authentic, quality and appropriate for students,” Leeper said.

Social media has promoted debate on whether a piece includes cultural appropriation or other controversial themes.

“People are posting their opinion on social media. There’s sometimes healthy debate, sometimes not, because any kind of change is hard for people. If someone has grown up that always listening to a certain piece, then all of a sudden, it’s not acceptable, it’s tough for some people,” Upton said.

With efforts from band directors like Leeper and Upton, Leeper noticed more representation of minorities in music at schools.

“It’s not immediate. It can’t be something that is fixed overnight. It has to start in kindergarten, and it’s going to get better and better,” Leeper said.

Upton spend 6 to 7 hours listening to and dissecting one piece to remain intentional about finding music best suited for their students.

“It’s hard. For example, music from Hispanic composers is really hard or really cheesy. We played Danzon a couple years ago, and it’s one of the only pieces that is remotely approachable by [Mexican composer Arturo Marquez]. He has another piece that’s similar, but it’s a lot harder. Then, I might find the lamest arrangement of Feliz Navidad. I want to make sure the music is still respectable for everyone, not just cheesy, then I have to think about cultural appropriation,” Upton said.

Additionally, Upton and Leeper incorporated United Sound into their band program. In United Sound, band students assist special education students in becoming musicians. Senior Marley Falls and Riley Coburn are the current co-presidents. Every Friday morning during advisory, students teach special education students music and music theory.

“Marley and I helped the mentors teaching special education students, and we make sure everything is running smoothly. We adjusted some concepts to make it more understandable for the students, so we symbolize each note with a different word. We have them clap the rhythms and say what word or note it is,” Coburn said.

This gives them the skills to perform with the rest of the bands for a performance.

“I haven’t been in any performances with them because of COVID,” Coburn said. “When my older sisters were in United Sound, they taught them a simpler version of the music. They would sit by them and help them with the music during the concert.”

United Sound creates a safe environment for special education students.

“There are people that make fun of them in the hallways and when they go get lunch. Some of them make different sounds because they’re nonverbal, so people point and laugh at them. They don’t know, or they just don’t care, but United Sound helps destigmatize special education students. They’re just regular people that need a little bit more help. People in United Sound understand that and don’t make fun,” Coburn said.

Despite the challenges in creating a diverse repertoire, Upton reached his goal of including people of color in every performance he conducted in.

“I’ve been successful in every performance we’ve done. This year, I have had at least one or multiple pieces by people of color for each program,” Upton said.

This story was originally published on The Newsstreak on March 20, 2023.