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School News Network Feature: Trailblazing GRCC band director Shannor Shaker advocates for inclusion and access

A School News network feature -- It’s almost 1 p.m. in Grand Rapids Community College’s Recital Hall and as professor Shannon Shaker takes the podium, she signals her wind ensemble to quiet their instruments for the start of class.

Shaker’s students start tuning their instruments, preparing themselves for an hour and a half of practicing music for their upcoming spring concert.

After warming up, Shaker, GRCC’s new director of bands, began conducting “Planet B,” written by Ukrainian composer Catherine Likhuta. She counted off three intro beats, took a breath and the sounds of trumpets, flutes and percussion swelled.

Third-year GRCC student and percussionist Zane Goldsmith praised Shaker for her growing success as conductor over a short period of time during a break between pieces.

“We experienced a bit of an awkward transition last semester having a new director to get used to, but Professor Shaker is so musically talented,” Goldsmith said. “She picks great pieces, expects a lot more and knows how to get us to grow and produce a higher quality of music.”

GRCC students Jonah Walters, left, and Joe Schimmelmann play alto saxophone in the wind ensemble

Trailblazing Through Music

Shaker is a woman on a mission to make music education more accessible and inclusive at the college level. 

“This position is a dream come true,” Shaker said. “GRCC truly offers high quality music education, and it’s really a place where we can take students as they are and help take them where they want to be, no matter their prior experience.”

As the first female in the role, Shaker seeks to advocate for the inclusion of equitable and inclusive practices into her teaching and research to ensure everyone has access to a high-quality music education.

“This department and the people in this school are seeking out diverse voices and people who are changemakers in their fields,” she said. “It’s great to be in a community where they see the value I bring to the table.”

Student and alto saxophone player Jonah Walters agrees with Shaker that the “end goal of music education shouldn’t be to churn out highly skilled musicians.”

“Studying music is about enjoyment and striving for personal mastery,” Walters said. “We’re iron sharpening iron and sounding really good after (Shaker) only being with us a short time.”

Becoming Professor Shaker

As a high school sophomore, Shaker decided she wanted to be a band director. Despite growing up in poverty, she became a first-generation college student and graduated from Central Michigan University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in music education.

“I am a first-generation student. I’m here with a doctorate now and along that way there were a lot of times when I wasn’t sure I was good enough to pursue my career,” Shaker said. I kept doing the next right step to get there, and if you find the right people, anything is possible.” 

Job searching fresh out of college during an economic recession proved difficult, but Shaker traveled to Colorado for an opportunity to teach music.

“Music teaching jobs were in short supply, so when I was offered a job teaching elementary music, I took it,” Shaker said.

She moved back to Michigan to teach music in Ypsilanti schools, while she researched and applied to master’s programs. She returned to Central Michigan to complete her master’s degree of music in wind conducting.

“I conducted some of (CMU’s) bands, assisted with music education and conducting classes, and I fell in love with working with undergrads,” Shaker said. “I thought, ‘I want to do this at the higher ed level and this is the group I’m really meant to teach.’”

During graduate school, she began noticing the gender bias present in music education.

“I was in my third year of graduate school when I realized I had never programmed one piece of music by a woman,” she said. “I hadn’t taken the time to learn any music by women composers or teach them to my students when I was teaching in public schools.”

Frustrated, she completed a doctorate of musical arts in wind conducting from Arizona State University to eventually work in higher education and increase equity and diversity for future music educators.

“As a teacher, I have full control over the music that my band plays, which means I can choose music that accurately reflects our students and their cultures and incorporates diverse composers,” Shaker said.

Conducting the wind ensemble class at GRCC this semester, Shaker says her students love learning a variety of new music.

“A music education student who only experiences music written by white men will only have those experiences to draw on later when they select the music to teach their own students,” she added.

Shaker also works to diversify the guest artists and clinicians brought into her classes, to provide “a wealth of resources, voices and topics” for her students to learn and one day, incorporate into their teaching.

 ‘You Don’t Have to Be the Best’ 

Shaker envisions living in a “society of musicians” at GRCC where people “never have to stop playing their instrument” because of money or because they do not wish to pursue music as a career.

“Not everyone needs to major in music, but having those opportunities provides more people in the community with a place to come and experience really wonderful music education,” she said.  

Next fall, GRCC is bringing back their campus band, designed for non-music majors who would like to continue playing a band instrument in college or music majors performing on their non-major instrument, after a hiatus during the pandemic. The band will meet one day a week in the evening, making it more accessible to students and community members who work or take classes during the day.

 “You’re not here because you’re perfect; you’re here to learn,” Shaker said. “So often, if a student is struggling in a competitive field, it can be really hard for students no matter how much talent they have.”

Access to music education during their primary schooling years is beneficial for musicians to succeed at the secondary level, she said.

“If a student at a low-income school has their music program cut, they’re not going to pursue it at university level,” Shaker said. “(Music education) needs to be something that doesn’t get cut when times get tough. If we have good, relevant music education in all levels of schools, it encourages all students to keep doing it.”

In addition to her teaching responsibilities at GRCC, Shaker is on a mission to be a music education resource through workshops and presentations.

“Giving middle and high school teachers concrete things they can do translates to more diverse and equitable band rooms,” Shaker said. “We are part of the community and we are serving the community.

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

This story was reported by Alexis Stark and photographed by Dianne Carroll Burdick of the School News Network.

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