Music professor Alicia M. Doyle was only in high school when she first was hit with a realization that her exposure to music was very limited and devoid of diversity. In her music classes, Doyle was really only being exposed mostly to composers that were white, male and deceased. 

It may seem like nothing more than simply honoring some of the most renowned composers in music history. Names like Beethoven and Mozart are names she herself loves, Doyle said. But it was this very fact that disturbed her; Doyle recognized that there was no cultural depth, no diversity in who she learned about and with what she was being taught in her music courses. 

In her higher education, she discovered the field of ethnomusicology: “the study of music in its social and cultural contexts,” according to the Society for Ethnomusicology. Her own interests in learning cultural music grew.  

And now, as the recently hired Chair of the Cal Poly music department, she uses her knowledge to lead others in focusing more holistically on centering diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), too.  

“I believe the arts are a platform to speak for justice, and we’re morally obligated to use it for good,” Doyle said.

The music department offers a Bachelor of Arts in music and over 10 ensembles for students of any major to participate in, varying from those that are instrumental-oriented to choral groups. 

Specifically, there are four choirs, and students can become members of multiple at once: PolyPhonics; The University Singers; Chamber Choir and Cantabile (recently renamed from the Advanced Women’s Chorus to be more inclusive of other gender identities).

Each choir varies, whether this be with the specialization in a different aspect of vocal performance, a focus on specific eras of music or the level at which the group performs at. 

From thoughtful music choice to taking students on trips to Kenya, Director of Choral Activities Scott Glysson has worked to bolster representation of marginalized composers and cultures throughout all of these groups, as what Doyle now recognizes as “a model for what we should be doing.” 

The department’s emphasis on diversity in music choice

Glysson picks his music for the choral groups in a variety of ways; sometimes he centers an entire performance’s music around one piece that inspired him, and sometimes he’ll actively search for music of a specific culture, background or genre. Regardless of which method he pursues, he centers diversity. 

“The nice thing is that choral music has kind of a tradition of that you’re used to singing stuff from other cultures, but every week, every once in a while we have the conversation, ‘hey, why are we singing this, what’s the objective?” he said.

However, in choosing music outside of Western culture, there can be pushback on whether or not it may be appropriation, Glysson said. But, he also said that there’s a distinction that people often miss. 

“There’s a difference between celebrating something and saying ‘Okay, you know what, we don’t represent this culture, but we’re going to do our best to learn about it and present to you what it is,’” he said.

For the students singing these pieces, he said it can feel “awkward” or “like we’re making fun of them” when it isn’t traditionally Western. 

Last year, he had selected a spiritual dialect from the 1800s that was originally written by African Americans in the South in a way that they would have spoken at the time. Some students, though, began to question whether or not it was acceptable for them to perform it. 

When students shared their concerns with him about this, Glysson recognized the value in extending the conversation around certain cultures to those that are part of them. He held a Zoom call with the composer of the piece, who was an African American himself and could speak more on the cultural significance of the music and its lyrics.

“I’ve learned that I can be an advocate, and I can be a messenger, and I shouldn’t shy away from that,” Glysson said. “But also, I’m not the authoritative figure on it. A lot of times, it’s better for me to allow other people to have that discussion.”

Student involvement in diversity efforts   

One of the students who raised concern about a piece was interdisciplinary studies senior Audrey Vance. 

Vance has been involved with the choirs since their freshman year at Cal Poly, of which they were a member of both University Singers and Cantabile. Now, they are a member of PolyPhonics.

Throughout their four years spent within these programs, Vance has prioritized having a deeper, more educated understanding of the music they are performing. 

“I think that what happens oftentimes is we can just get really caught up in the fact that we need to get the technical stuff out of the way, to the point where the cultural significance of some of the pieces that we do kind of gets lost in the fray,” Vance said.

When they were still in Cantabile, there was a tribute piece called “Say Her Name” for women that were victims of police brutality, and the names of these individual women were mentioned in the song itself. 

But Vance noticed that although this piece was meant to honor these women, many members of the choir actually did not know much about them. 

Instead of letting this go unnoticed, they worked with fellow choir members Rue Heath and Gemma Dallas to create and share a presentation that highlighted each of the women that were named in the song. 

Vance recognizes that Cal Poly’s choral programs are an “emblem” and are “doing a better job [regarding diversity] than some others” with this work that is being done, but they also acknowledge that “it can always be better.” Glysson echoed that there will always be a need for education.

“You’re never done teaching people about [diversity and culture] and about addressing this subject,” he said.

Music senior Danna Dumandan has been involved with the choral programs since her freshman year at Cal Poly, and she is now a section leader for PolyPhonics and is the Cal Poly Choirs President. 

Since coming to a predominantly white institution such as Cal Poly, Dumandan has found refuge in the music department. She said that she “didn’t really feel at home when I was at Cal Poly unless [she] was in the music department.”

She said she especially appreciates Glysson’s efforts to integrate more culturally diverse music within the choral programs. She thinks that music “can be really powerful” for those involved with and exposed to it. 

“The music that we sing can really bring other people together and really unite everyone,” Dumandan said. “A lot of music can do that, specifically in choir because it’s such a close knit, tight group of people of all breadth, backgrounds, and of all skill levels coming together.”

In Sept. 2022, Dumandan was able to fully immerse herself in the cultural diversity of music by visiting Kenya with Glysson and a handful of other music majors and minors. 

Six years ago, Glysson was awarded a fellowship through the American Choral Directors Association to guest conduct and teach in Kenya, which led to “a number of friendships that have lasted,” Glysson said. 

Now, he brings a few students with him when he revisits, to sing with local Kenyan choirs and learn at least one African song and dance. Dumandan said her experience on this trip shifted her perspective and was “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”  

This memorability stems from a variety of reasons, but one that Dumandan has especially taken to heart was the opportunity to meet people she wouldn’t otherwise have had.  

“It’s just so cool to connect with people of other cultures outside of America and what we’re used to, because it shows us how much we have in comparison to third world countries and stuff like that,” Dumandan said. “We have so much, we’re so privileged…” 

Reflecting cultural roots of music in education

Aside from these more immersive opportunities, there are still other ways for the local community to become educated about diversity within music. 

Assistant professor and director of jazz studies Arthur White has been involved with efforts to make this more possible.

Cal Poly hosted a webinar panel called ‘Addressing Racism and Diversity in Music Institutions’ in April 2022, which White moderated. He said that this gave the department “a heightened awareness of the importance of recognizing inherent racism.”

As an expert of jazz music specifically, White also acknowledges that this genre of music is rooted in the Black community, but that the challenge lies in reflecting this diversity in the ensembles.

“The problem is that academia creates a certain air of elitism, and, resultantly in my observation, jazz programs at universities are mostly populated by white males with financial and societal advantages,” White said. “It’s our responsibility as jazz educators, especially straight white males like me, to work to make programs more diverse and inclusive and provide opportunities that create equity for those who need it.”

The importance of entwining diversity and music lies with the entwinement of culture and society, White said. 

“Music reflects feelings, hopes, dreams, nightmares, and realness — its omnipresence makes it the perfect delivery system for addressing the intersection of culture and society,” he said.

For some like Doyle, the significance of this cultural enrichment and diverse representation is sparked young. For others, it may take longer; they may not know how to immerse or educate themselves, or there may not be opportunities available to do so. 

But Cal Poly’s music department has been working to close this gap, and it begins with the will to affect change in the first place.

“I want us to be viewed as pioneers,” Doyle said. “I don’t see why we should wait for conservatories and other universities, including U.C. and other [research-heavy, educational] institutions to set the tone. I want us to set the tone.”