Nathan Holder - diversity, music and the Why Books
Nathan Holder is a name that’s become synonymous with promoting diversity in music education. He works as a consultant and speaker within the sector to address bias and underrepresentation in music education resources, departments, hubs and boards. He was named International Chair in Music Education at the Royal Northern College of Music earlier this year, and he’s also recently been appointed to the Editorial Advisory Board at Music Teacher magazine.
We’re honoured that he’s found time in his hectic schedule for a quick chat!
Musician, author, speaker and music education consultant Nathan Holder is a passionate advocate for diversity in music education. Drawing on his own experiences as a student, musician and teacher, part of his mission is to help address bias, underrepresentation in music classrooms, departments, hubs and boards internationally.
Nathan has become an accomplished author over the years, drawing on his early experiences in music to release the book I Wish I Did Not Quit…” in 2018 and then going on to launch the Why Music? series of music books, a beautifully illustrated collection that’s aimed at children and young people but is an incredibly engaging read for anyone who loves musical facts and history.
A standout title is Why Is My Piano Black And White? which is billed as the first children’s reference book all about the piano. What’s striking about it is the range of genres it covers, meaning that whatever your musical taste, there’s a section of the book for you – there aren’t many music reference books that reference hip hop, jazz and rock with equal enthusiasm.
It’s also the one Nathan is most proud of. “It was the first under ‘Why Music?”, he says. “The decisions made when putting it all together, have been key in the direction that the other books have taken. But ultimately, it’s like asking me choose my favourite child!
Another title, Where Are All The Black Female Composers? is the first children’s illustrated reference book all about Black female composers where you can learn about Nora Holt, Florence Price, and Errollyn Wallen, through fun facts, quizzes and a breakdown of the music that made them all great.
Challenging the status quo
These books all challenge many commonly held perceptions of music education, particularly the ones that certain genres are superior to others. On a recent trip to the music department at his old school, Nathan was struck by the fact that many of the learning resources and posters from his time there were still being used. . This helped inspire him to create a range of posters with diverse images of composers from the worlds of jazz and classical music – including less known black and Asian women, alongside the more commonly seen Beethoven and Chopin.
I think we’ve been told a specific narrative about which music is most important, and how that music should be learned
We are living within these colonised approaches which have seen many peoples and cultures ‘othered’ in the name of ‘quality’ and ‘tradition’. By starting to remove these barriers, one of the hopes is that people of any background can gain access, and learn about music which help them to make sense of their world and the people within it.
Changes are happening
With music being such a diverse art form, it’s strange to think that music education often struggles to fully reflect this – although things are beginning to change. The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music has been criticised in the past for the lack of diversity in its syllabus. According to a 2020 study by Austin Griffiths, a senior teaching fellow at University College London, 98.8 percent of the 3,166 pieces on the latest ABRSM exam syllabuses for 15 instruments were written by white people.
Following an open letter by the Musicians’ Union and a petition on Change.org in 2020 calling for action, the ABRSM announced their Diversity and Inclusion programme to commit to a number of actions, including transforming their syllabus and commissioning new composers.
This is all part of what Nathan refers to as the need to ‘decolonise’ music education. “I think we’ve been told a specific narrative about which music is most important, and how that music should be learned,” he says. “In addition to the decline in the amount of time and resources devoted to music education, addressing those balances has become more and more difficult, even as access to various styles of music and expression has increased. We are living within these colonised approaches which have seen many peoples and cultures ‘othered’ in the name of ‘quality’ and ‘tradition’. By starting to remove these barriers, one of the hopes is that people of any background can gain access, and learn about music which help them to make sense of their world and the people within it.”
Making music learning fun
For those who like to learn in other ways, Nathan also has a “Why?” Podcast series that shines a spotlight on a wonderfully eclectic range of composers, from the Beach Boys to DJ Kool Herc to Sis Rosetta Tharpe. We were curious to know how he chooses who to feature!
“Sometimes I choose someone who means something to me, other times it’s someone (or a band) I don’t know much about,” Nathan says. “It’s all about learning and sharing, and a podcast is a great way to do that. We’ve had over 3600 downloads from all over the world since we launched in February, which I take to mean that it’s been well received!”
More about Nathan
The Why Books