Faculty PROFile: Dr. Adrian Barnes on Music Education through a Social Justice Lens

Music Education Assistant Professor Dr. Adrian Barnes sits outside Wilson Hall.

Today we feature Assistant Professor Dr. Adrian Barnes, coordinator of Rowan University’s Bachelor of Music Education and a key architect behind the school’s new Master of Music Education program, which launched this fall. Here, Dr. Barnes details his research and teaching, shares more information on the new graduate program and explains why he believes education is “the true equalizer.”

What is your area of expertise?

My area of expertise is instrumental music education. I am a classically trained percussionist as well as — and this is not necessarily a designation — but a Black church percussionist.

I was trained in the Black church. That was probably my first experience in learning how to play drums or any music. In general, the Black church is really integral in the pedagogy of young African Americans in musicianship, so that was my first teaching. 

Dr. Adrian Barnes presents at a teacher's podium.

And then, being classically trained in percussion, which covers all the progressive instruments, even a little bit of piano. I was a band and orchestra teacher, so I taught wind ensemble, concert band, and then specifically string and string orchestra.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I would definitely describe my teaching style as it’s evolved over the years, but it’s definitely a caring, mentoring role model, an institutional agent who uses the charismatic approach that you learn in the Black church. 

As a HBCU [historically Black colleges and universities] graduate, you’re very hands-on. Our schools at HBCUs are very hands-on, and teachers are very caring. They’re very connected to what their students are doing, their livelihood, their future, their goals. And so I’m very, very hands-on — invasive, in a good way — to make sure that my students are staying on track. I’m very empathetic to my students, very sympathetic to my students. It’s a caring approach.

In the classroom, I definitely try to use a lot of the texts, the research, my experiences and the students’ experiences to connect to their learning. I’m noticing that nowadays, just in the setting I’m in, a lot of students have a hard time pulling in on their own personal experiences in the teaching, or sometimes they’re not necessarily as fond of my personal experiences. 

But again, just as something that’s very important to me in cultural storytelling in any community, especially the Black community or any other cultures, storytelling is a part of teaching. And so a lot of my teaching does rely on storytelling, historical and anecdotal events to kind of reach students in whichever way that I can.

One of your research interests include the recruitment of historically marginalized populations in higher education. Can you share more insight into that?

Yes. This research kind of came out of just understanding how important education is to any group of people mixed with my own background.

Growing up, my parents were, at the time, it wasn’t [called] social justice, but they were activists. My grandparents were active in social justice movements or what we called civil rights movements back in the 50s and 60s, and so that permeated through my family. 

Even as a young person, my mom would have us at rallies and marches back in the 80s and the 90s, especially in the District of Columbia, where I’m from. So I’ve always had a component of social justice kind of engraved in who I was as a person. 

Dr. Barnes speaks with a student inside Wilson Hall.

The intersection where education came into that, as I was growing up, I kept wondering why a lot of the communities that I was staying on the forefront for were having similar issues continuing to show up every few years in different ways. And I started to kind of understand how important education is in really changing the trajectory of some of the communities that I work in.

I started looking at who’s really good at recruiting students of color — that will be HBCUs, historically. And there’s also tribal colleges, the universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, there’s also Atlantic and Pacific Islander universities that specialize in recruiting these groups. And so I was saying to myself: What is my medium? What area do I understand really well? Well, that’s how HBCUs recruit. 

And then I have exactly what tools have been the most effective, that’s also related to my field: music, marching band, HBCUs. Marching band culture is probably one of the largest components of an HBCU, especially now, since social media has really helped project how important HBCU marching bands are.

So I looked at that as a model to say, well, how can we help students or institutions who are working their way to increase the representation of Blacks and other marginalized groups into their universities? How can we use their model? How does that translate into music programs and how we’re recruiting? Can we take that and transfer that to what English departments are doing to recruit, and what we’re taking to what literacy departments and what we’re doing for engineering, but just basically trying to take a model, examine it, and see how other people can transfer that and translate it into their institutions. 

If we want to change communities who are dealing or battling with marginalization of any kind, I think education is going to be one of the strong points for combating or fixing some of those longstanding issues.

Exterior portrait of Assistant Professor Dr. Adrian Barnes.

What is one thing you wish people knew about your academic discipline or your research focus?

One thing I wish people knew about my academic discipline is that music touches a lot of people. People outside of the field of music education kind of cut us off from the world — “Oh, that’s just band class, that’s just music class.” And they listen to music on the way to work. They listen to music on the way home, they listen to music with their families and listen to music when they celebrate, when they’re sad and when they’re happy. 

Music is very, very important. And sometimes a lot of people who are outside of our academic field of music education don’t understand that. 

Some students have never even taken a class in music but know who the music teacher is at their school. And you have to ask yourself: Well, why is that? What is it about music that makes them remember? It’s a connective experience, it’s an out-of-body experience. It’s something that happens when you engage in music with people, whether they are in the classroom or out of the classroom, there’s just something about music that connects people. 

I wish more people didn’t think of it just as band, just as choir, because there’s something that happens in our classroom that just doesn’t happen in every other place, or any other discipline, really. And it’s not as communal as music. 

And I think the one thing that I would want people to know about my research is when I do present, I think we have a very short memory about the education or the “educationalization” of people of color, or any marginalized group in this country. We look at education, we go well, you know, there is diversity. But we forget how far away we are and how far from not having that. 

I did a presentation not too long ago where we talked about the very first Black student attending university. But this was an experiment: That article defines it as an experiment, to see if people of color were capable of serious study and education.

So I want the one thing that I wish people knew about the idea of diversity in our education is that we’re not that far from not having students of color in school. It really was until the 70s where we started to see an influx of students of color getting into higher education at all institutions, and I think sometimes we forget that we’re not too far away from that, and that the mission is not over. 

You were previously featured in our “My Favorite Class” series, where a student cited your course called Foundations of Music Education. Do you have a favorite class in which you teach?

My favorite class that I teach is definitely Intro to Instruction and Assessment. I love that course. Not only are we teaching students how to write lesson plans, how to understand the basics of teaching, but it’s a transition course. 

The Foundations course [my student] Luis was in is a course where I’m trying to get students excited about music and wanting to teach and kind of defining their future as a music education teacher as a part of this field. 

And then we get to Introduction to Instruction and Assessment [for the Music Educator], and that’s where we start to have the tough conversations. They read an article every semester about how Camden, New Jersey is losing their identity for having a lot of teachers of color, Black and Hispanic teachers, they kind of have to deal with the reality that Black and Latino [students] in particular, are over-referred, over-expelled, over-punished in the public school system. They start to see how our textbooks and our curriculum are not inclusive, and so that reality check kind of sets in for them. 

Dr. Barnes speaks to a student inside Wilson Hall.

And I’m the one who has to carefully lead them to that, because you cannot take students who are used to not seeing students of color and use not interacting with them, and start saying, “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.” It’s a delicate dance.

We have to get these students excited, but also comfortable, because a lot of them are not comfortable dealing with really difficult race-related issues or race-conscious issues. And some of them don’t want to deal with that. And so it’s a challenging course. 

What are the origins of the Master of Music Education Program?

The origin of the Master of the Music Education program, which kind of precedes me, was a master of arts and music education. It was really focused around elementary general music. That program stopped, and we decided to launch it now as a master’s in music education. 

One of my jobs when I first started here in 2016 was to help start that program. I started writing the proposal for it, and as I was writing it, I knew that something I wanted to focus or permeate in the program was a social justice lens. We want to make sure all of our courses, even if they weren’t embedded in a social justice focus, to have a social justice lens as we were creating it. Then eventually as technology changes and after COVID, it became, we want a program that’s accessible, that’s hybrid, that anyone can have access to. 

We are looking for practicing teachers who are ready to take that next step in deciding, “Do I want to go the doctoral route or do I want to continually improve?” 

That’s the origin of the program and where we are now. Dr. [Vanessa] Bond, who is the coordinator of the program, is really the last piece of the puzzle, who has got … everything approved to start this fall. 

Who is the ideal Master of Music Education student?

The ideal Master of Music Education student is a practicing teacher who’s ready to take that next step in their career and kind of dive a little bit deeper into theory and practice.

What are your department’s goals for the program?

I think our department’s goal is to have students see what other [areas of musicianship] they are interested in. 

So you might have a master’s student who says, “Well, for one of my electives, I’m going to take Composition with Denis DiBlasio, because I’m looking forward to writing more jazz scores while I’m teaching.” Or if they’re into Colloquium or Renaissance music, they want to go to Dr. Lourin Plant, and focus on that maybe a semester. If they want to do more conducting, they can go to Dr. Higgins or Dr. Thomas. Maybe they [explore] more theory. 

Our goal is really to get students into those core music education classes but also see what other aspects of their musicianship they would like to develop while they’re going through this program.

So it gives them an avenue to look at other aspects of our graduate curriculum.

Yes, and even a little bit outside of that. If they wanted to take a more in-depth research course in the College of Education, there’s definitely opportunities for students to shape their electives in a way that’s going to be beneficial to them.

How does having a social justice lens inform your teaching and research?

I will always have a social justice lens, that will always be embedded into every aspect of my classroom, and embedded in a way that is going to be current with the issues of today. What I mean by that is, as I was finishing my doctorate, I noticed that there was a shortage or a decrease in the amount of white males going into higher education. But I saw two numbers that sort of alarmed me, which was Latina women and white men who are not going into higher education at the same rate. 

And, again, social justice takes many forms. Education, I believe, is the true equalizer. And we’re seeing these populations behind. Even though I don’t identify as one, that becomes a part of social justice. 

The way I view social justice is that no one has a monopoly; the problem has the monopoly. The disenfranchisement has the monopoly. The marginalization has a monopoly. And that’s where I’m going to take my research. 

Yes, my focus is on Black and brown. But my focus is also on marginalization and how that impacts higher education, whether there are neurodiverse learners, whether it be LGBTQIA. However, we want reflection in all of those areas. So if not me, then someone who can reflect those communities that can help work with me, that I’m part of.

Dr. Adrian Barnes sits outside Wilson Hall.

What inspires you to continue teaching?

I think what inspires me to continue teaching is the art of teaching itself. What’s amazing about teaching is I am an extension of a teacher before me, and then that teacher who taught me is an extension of a teacher before them, so I’m really practicing years-old approaches that have been passed down to me, from teacher to teacher to teacher, and I think all teachers are attempting to get closer to this goal of reaching more people. 

But as we teach, and we age out of teaching, we pass on, or impart, our legacy, and someone continues that legacy. So the beautiful thing about teaching is, I can be long gone from this earth and someone will still be practicing in the ways that I’ve shown them, which is really practicing the ways teachers have shown me and before and before me. So your theories, your thoughts, your ideas, they never really leave — you may leave, but your ideas, your thoughts and your philosophies stay. 

Teaching reminds me of the day I finished my dissertation. You get a binded copy, and they put it in the library. And for most people, who knows when they’ll be open again. But I think the most beautiful thing that a person can do is leave something behind. And so in teaching, you leave something behind that’s going to be practiced long after you’re gone.

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