By Elaine Sandoval


Folklorico dancers [Photo by Sara Meier CC BY-ND]

As she reflects on her experiences of music growing up, Elaine Sandoval invites us to consider the possibilities of a cosmopolitan music education and how it might change our understanding of the world.


When I was in elementary school, my mom would take me to orchestra concerts, and I still recall her leaning over before the program or while we waited in the intermission bathroom line, quietly encouraging me to check out the other people around us. Through these demographic observations, I learned that they didn’t often look like us but that I could also imagine myself as belonging in this space, especially the more I trained as a classical musician myself.

In junior high school I played in a small wind ensemble with other girls my age, and we enjoyed a repertoire that included many Japanese march-like pieces. One day, our rehearsal was gently interrupted when an adult coach urged us to consider that our audiences in the San Francisco Bay Area often included Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants and to imagine what it might feel like to hear these songs and be reminded of violent colonial pasts.

Each day in high school I would slip into heeled dance shoes for an hour of training in Mexican folklorico dance. Tucked within mainstream public school education, where I often found myself struggling to identify with the content of our history classes or the repertoire of concert band, folklorico class felt like a secret time when I could imagine the feeling of fully embracing my heritage, the memories of my grandparents and being in a world that didn’t require assimilation.

In China during study abroad in college, my host grandmother would take me to weekend senior citizen choir practices where the songs and memories of the Mao era were reinvigorated. Fitting my voice into unfamiliar harmonies and around the new Chinese words I was learning in class, my own mouth and vocal tract seemed to become like theirs, and my body learned to imagine the pride and nostalgia they relived through class, even when it contradicted the narratives I was being taught in history classes.


Chinese immigrants gather in Columbus Park in Chinatown, New York City [Photo by Marcela CC BY]

In 2013, a classmate was wounded during the Boston Marathon bombing. Only weeks later, we planned a small graduation ceremony for our music fellowship, and while several in our cohort wanted to celebrate with music, she shared with us how her anxiety continued to rise painfully with loud sound. While we were all committed to promoting the values of music education, as a group we were also made to imagine the experience of music for a temporarily other-abled and traumatized body.

Our typical models of music education, often drawing on the values of classical Western music, tend to privilege the idea I understood since childhood—that music education is valuable as a mechanism of social mobility, or a way of gaining the knowledge and habits of “high” culture and the skills for workplace success. I trained seriously and rigorously as a classical musician for over a decade and indeed gained many privileged skills and understandings. But it is these other music education experiences that I continue to reflect on. These experiences forced me to imagine realities of others and contexts besides my own, imaginings that required new boldness, discomfort and reflexivity and that changed my understanding of the world.


[Photo by woodleywonderworks CC BY]

For too long, ideas of music education have emphasized the value of upward mobility. But I believe music pedagogy also allows for mobility in multiple, layered dimensions. It is a space that can give access to alternative ways of being, to an empathetic understanding of others’ experiences and to a deepened understanding of one’s own community. As such, I understand music as capable of cultivating the imagination, openness and sense of self required to navigate increasingly complex cultural worlds.

Philosopher of education David Hansen would consider this sensibility as a form of cosmopolitanism. Hansen clarifies that a cosmopolitan education cultivates at once a loyalty to the known and an openness to the new as well as an understanding of different ways of being in the world. I believe that learning music, especially musics that represent a diversity of social contexts, contributes immensely to fostering cosmopolitanism.

“I understand music as capable of cultivating the imagination, openness and sense of self required to navigate increasingly complex cultural worlds.”

My own haphazard musical experiences taught me to be open to other ways of experiencing music, ones that represented historical memories, social worlds and embodied feelings that were completely new to me. They also gave me a space to more deeply understand what was already familiar and to embrace my heritage loyally as a source of my own strength. Moreover, these musical experiences disrupted—sometimes uncomfortably—the ideas and values that I had already been taught. They instead taught me to question my understandings of classical music as inherently valuable, of the neutrality and universality of musical experiences and of music of minority cultures as belonging to the periphery.

These new sensibilities that arose from diverse music experiences changed my own ways of thinking and of imagining the experiences of others. But they also led me to rethink what could be included in music education. Developing music education that pursues cosmopolitanism not only allows for new ways of individual imagining but also for radically reimagining our pedagogical norms. The music experiences I share here are unique and accidental, and I do not yet have many concrete proposals for putting these ideas into practice. For now, I offer these as a point of departure and invite others to join me in thinking through what a cosmopolitan music education might look like in action.


Elaine Sandoval is a PhD student of ethnomusicology at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center and holds a master’s in music from Oxford University. She is also an associate research fellow with the Min-On Music Research Institute.

Courtesy of Common Threads