This image is from the program for “Diversity & Belonging: Unsung Keyboard Stories,” provided by SMTD.

Whether you’re involved in the classical music world or not, chances are that you’ve heard the repertoire that makes up its canon, such as the now cliché four-syllable motive that opens up this symphony by Beethoven. Heard of Dracula’s theme? That’s Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.

The canon of western classical music is a centuries-old foundation on which the current tradition stands. Curated by music critics and upheld by institutions of art, concert programs have tended toward the works of very few composers. Unless you fit the type of an elite white European male, your name may be on the list of those once-programmed and since forgotten.

“Diversity & Belonging: Unsung Keyboard Stories” is a conference being held this week that will focus on decolonizing the music canon and uplifting new voices. Hosted by the School of Music, Theatre & Dance in partnership with the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, the series of panels and concerts run from Wednesday to Sunday. 

The instrument that is highlighted during the festivities is none other than the keyboard. In its many forms, the keyboard “has a long historical legacy — as organ, harpsichord, fortepiano, piano, digital or midi-controller — that has allowed a wide array of individuals to give voice to their passions,” says Professor Mark Clague, co-chair of the conference committee, in an email interview with The Michigan Daily. “It’s an instrument that takes a lifetime to master, yet anyone has the opportunity to press its keys to make a musical sound.” 

Using the versatility of the keyboard as an instrument, the conference hopes to create a space where all performers and listeners can feel they belong. Featuring works by women composers, non-binary composers, indigenous composers, disabled composers and composers of color, the conference will house a landmark of 12 world premieres. Many of these performances will be open to the public, with four free-admission concerts throughout the five-day event.

While a detailed list of events can be found on the digital program — with many events requiring prior registration — special highlights for the week include performances of “Lavender Rainbow,” which depicts the life of Florence Price by Black composer Dr. Karen Walwyn, “Sandpaintings” by Navajo composer Connor Chee and “Nurturing Healing Love” by Tracie Mauriello and Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, which tells the story of Scarlett Lewis’ “Choose Love” movement against school bullying. In addition, there will be a panel hosted by six Venezuelan musicians who will discuss Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.

In an email interview with The Michigan Daily, Dr. Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra stated that the conference hopes to “forge paths forward that embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion in our repertoire, pedagogy, and way of being. We anticipate that participants will be inspired by the diverse offerings presented at the conference and that they, in turn, will feature the many resources they gather here in their performances worldwide.”

Beginning on the evening of Jan. 25 and concluding on Jan. 30, “Diversity & Belonging: Unsung Keyboard Stories” is currently open for all to register at the Westfield Center. Virtual options are available to attend, and in case you miss it, select pre-recorded videos have been made available in the virtual program pamphlet.

Daily Arts Writer Priscilla Kim can be reached at