Adam Con looks to rebalance the scales of music education

To paraphrase the poet Longfellow, music may well be our universal language, but how it’s traditionally taught in our schools no longer speaks to students in a multicultural society. That’s why School of Music professor Adam Con is looking to rebalance the musical scales.

“We need to broaden the perspective of how and what we’re teaching,” he says. “We have to honour the past, but we also have to move forward by ensuring students see their own cultures reflected.”

Dr. Con, co-head of UVic’s music education program and principal investigator of the National Study on the Status of Music Education, says he believes we can build a better society by integrating concepts of access, equity, diversity and inclusion (AEDI) into every school’s music classroom and ensemble—a difficult task as the study revealed vast disparities between provinces’ approaches to music education.

“At UVic, we’re teaching students that when they create music together, they become a community,” he says. “We’re actually teaching life—music just happens to be the vehicle.”

Education rooted in experience

Con’s AEDI concerns are not only core to his teaching—including 15 years in the K-12 system as well as his role as Choral Canada’s national chair of AEDI—but are also rooted in his experiences growing up in Vancouver.

“None of my music teachers looked like me … they were all white,” he says, adding, “I’ve recognized I can be one small piece of the representation puzzle: people see me and hopefully see possibilities in themselves.”

Putting an AEDI lens on music education means reframing how it’s taught, with an emphasis on process over performance. While Con’s research revealed there’s no single solution, essential steps forward include diversifying cultural partnerships to include Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and expanding the musical portfolio that’s taught to better reflect Canada’s multicultural makeup.

“People tend to think about this lens by colour—what you can see—but sometimes it’s more about what you don’t see,” says Con.

While the Western tradition places emphasis on reading sheet music, many cultures learn by ear, and that’s where access and inclusion become important. “When we only teach music for music’s sake, we start to exclude people,” he explains.

A groundbreaking conference

This shift in approach was at the core of the groundbreaking inter-faculty collaboration led by Dr. Anita Prest in the Faculty of Education and Dr. Steven Capaldo and Con in the Faculty of Fine Arts, with grateful contributions of Indigenous partners. The Indigenizing Music Education conference held in May at UVic was attended by more than 200 people and was an essential next step after research revealed the need to include First Peoples Principles of Learning in the curriculum.

“We’ve never had music educators, Indigenous cultural bearers and knowledge keepers from all of BC’s 60 school districts together before.”

Con says he realizes that more research and a long-term approach are needed to adopt an AEDI approach and decolonize the reliance on Western classical music. “Once our students start teaching in the public school system and are able to make a difference, it could be another five or 10 years before we see significant change,” he says. “But we plant the seeds and put our hope into our students.”

Advocating AEDI into music education reflects UVic’s commitment to quality education as articulated in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.


Edgewise: find out more

  • With financial support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Indigenizing Music Education conference, Everything is Connected: Songs, Relationships and Indigenous Worldviews, featured eight partner organizations: the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, BC Ministry of Education (Indigenous Branch), BC Music Educators’ Association, School Districts 61 (Victoria) and 83 (North Okanagan-Shuswap), Pacific Opera, University of British Columbia and UVic.

  • It focused on developing respectful relationships and exploring ways to embed Indigenous ways of knowing and being into BC music education classes in ways that are culturally appropriate to each school district. “This was a historic event,” says Con. “We had spontaneous drumming and sharing of songs, as well as critical conversations about decolonizing music education.” Next steps? Developing local relationships with First Nations peoples in every district and expanding the conversation nationally.
  • UVic is one of only two Canadian universities supported by Ontario’s Don Wright Foundation through a $1-million, one-time endowment to the School of Music, focused specifically on music education.
  • A recent report on music education in Canadian schools found that only one in three had a specialized or certified music education teacher on staff and that, over the past decade, music education funding has decreased while student participation in music programs has increased.


This story originally appeared on June 26, 2022, as part of UVic’s KnowlEDGE research series in the Times Colonist 

Visual arts grad Dieu Anh Hoang has designs on life

If you ask international student Dieu Anh Hoang what aspect of her undergraduate degree had the biggest impact on her, she’ll tell you it wasn’t the pandemic, it wasn’t her co-op terms and it wasn’t even earning her BFA in Visual Arts with honours: it was actually a teacher’s advice about living with fear.

“At the start of my second-year sculpture class, my professor told me, ‘If you’re not scared, you’re not in the right place’—and that stuck with me,” she says. “It changed my attitude completely: I was scared of that professor and wanted to drop the class, but I realized it was good for me to accept the challenge and step out of my comfort zone. Now, I just tell myself ‘I can do this’ and I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t be able to do.”

Learning by doing

That “no-fear” attitude perfectly sums up Hoang on the cusp of graduating: in addition to her academic and artistic accomplishments, her workstudy positions with the Faculty of Fine Arts and her leadership as chair of the Visual Arts Student Association, she also stepped up as the architectural lead for UVic’s Seismic Design Team and as a Community + Engage Leader, representing both the faculty and her department.

“I like to put myself in a working environment and take charge of whatever I can,” says Hoang on a Zoom call from her family home in Hanoi, Vietnam. “That’s how I learn: leadership skills, communication skills, managing skills . . . I actually put my studies at the bottom of my priority list, as it was always the least of what I was doing.”

Hoang wasn’t even phased by the pandemic. “I was really lucky,” she admits. “I did my co-op terms online working with UVic’s Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation, and my classes were among the few held in-person during the pandemic. And my family managed okay in Vietnam, too, so I didn’t have to worry about that. It was actually pretty good for me!”

Hoang shows her work to CHEK TV

Behind the scenes

Describing herself as a visual designer (“I like to solve problems within any existing design to make it better and more accessible for everyone”), it was an interest in art and architecture that drew her to UVic after completing the International Baccalaureate Diploma in Abbotsfordbut it was her online abilities that probably had the biggest impact on campus life: her three co-op terms with LTSI saw her managing the transition from CourseSpaces to Brightspace.

“I was there the entire time migrating the platforms during the pandemic, facilitating the Zoom workshops for faculty and students,” she says. As well as organizing training sessions, she also created helpful infographics and content for the campus community. “It was great problem-solving!”

Skills beyond degree

As for her art practice, Hoang has a clear preference towards geometric and design imagery—whether that’s an exploded cube-based wall sculpture or culture-jamming a bag of groceries as a commentary on consumerism and food fads. (“Do people actually read the labels on what they’re eating?”)

Looking into the future, she can see herself working at a design agency in Seattle’s tech hub (“It’s very fast-paced and competitive there—I like that environment”) and possibly earning a Master’s in computer science.

In addition to having learned the positive side of fear itself, Hoang feels one of her biggest degree takeaways is her enhanced people skills. “Knowing how to work with people, learning how to focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses . . . those are skills I can apply anywhere.”