The piano is inherently a European male-centric occupation. The instrument was invented in Italy by a man. The most famous pianists in the world, such as Schnabel, Horowitz, and Rachmaninoff, were all European men. The illustrious Three Bs of piano music composition ̶ Bach, Beethoven, Brahms (and sometimes Berlioz) ̶ are all European men.
Renata Yazzie, a graduate student in the music department at The University of New Mexico pursuing dual concentrations in musicology with a focus on ethnomusicology and piano performance, is turning the age-old stereotype around. Even as she challenges the European male dominance over playing and composing for the piano, she defies other stereotypes of Native Americans as she works to infuse her own ancestry and culture into the musical arts.
“Indigenous music is thriving, living, and radiant. Our people are creative and talented, and the music they are coming out with is setting up a beautiful future for the next generation of sound artists.
Renata Yazzie, Diné pianist and ethnomusicologist
Her mother is also a classically-trained pianist and was Yazzie’s first teacher.
“I have been playing piano since before I can really remember. I started learning simple songs when I was 3. After my 4th birthday, when I showed sustained interest, my mother enrolled me in Suzuki piano lessons until I was 10. At that point, we moved to the Navajo Nation, and then to Albuquerque, so I didn’t have another formal teacher until I began taking lessons with Professor Falko Steinbach at the University of New Mexico in 2014,” Yazzie said. She started at UNM as a pre-med student and has her undergraduate degree in Chemistry. Despite the break in formal instruction, she stayed musically active, aided by her mother.
In her musical studies, she has explored both classical music and worked to incorporate her Diné heritage, not always an easy task.
“In some ways, I have always been a musicologist. Since I began taking lessons and performing in studio recitals at the age of 4, I was always explaining to my friends and even older people, why I enjoyed playing piano and why it shouldn’t be weird to be Diné and also a classically-trained musician. Navigating those conversations and articulating why I should belong, has pretty much been a life-long experience,” she said.
She noted the difference between musicology and ethnomusicology.
“Ethnomusicology is intended to be the study of the ‘other’ music, the non-Western European ones, the music you don’t study if you’re a ‘musicologist.’ The field has and continues to grapple with the term, so I definitely use it with a grain of salt," Yazzie said. "Right now, my master’s thesis is focusing on Navajo hymnal music and establishing a history of the Navajo Hymnal, Jesus Woodláájį’ Sin. This hymnal project was led by Navajo ministers who felt strongly about exercising the right to worship in one’s own language. I argue that this hymnal sonically represents a shift away from white missionary control over Navajo churches to Navajo ministers leading their own congregations in an act of self-determination. This is a project dear to me, as my grandfather, who was an ordained minister, was very involved in the creation of this hymnal, so it is my way of paying respect to and honoring his life’s work.”
Yazzie is Diné. She introduces herself and defines her clan affiliation: “Yá’át’ééh. My name is Renata Yazzie. Tó’aheedlíinii nishłį́, Kinyaa’áanii báshíchíín. Bit’ahnii dashichei, Hónágháahnii dashinálí,” a far cry from most of the performers and composers she emulates.
As an ethnomusicologist, Yazzie focuses on Indigeneity in various facets of European art and sacred music.
”The sacred music portion reflects my work on Navajo hymns since some of the translated repertoire included in the hymnal are old German hymns like A Mighty Fortress is Our God. But as for the expression of Indigeneity in Western European art music, it is a vast area of interest that speaks to how myself, and other Indigenous classically-trained musicians, choose to exert our Indigeneity in composition, performance practice, music analysis, music pedagogy, music philosophy, and more. It can be as easily identifiable as composing using Indigenous melodies or instrumentation or wearing traditional dress when performing, and sometimes it is through the state of being. The concert hall becomes an Indigenous space regardless of these external markers because I am existing in it.”
She continued: “Within this comes questions of appropriation, repatriation, redress, settler colonialism, access, culturally-appropriate music education, upholding tribal sovereignty through music and sound, Indigenous research methodologies, epistemologies, ontologies and so much more. How do we address cultural appropriation of Indigenous songs by non-Indigenous composers? How do we address the salvage ethnography that has and continues to take place on our lands, where scholars rush to document the ‘vanishing Indian,’ and don’t see us as living peoples in the current moment? How do we address the effects of a colonial music education that violently enforced settler ideals of “music,” on Indigenous peoples? How do we listen, Indigenously, again?”
Yazzie regularly performs works by Indigenous composers who mix classical and Indigenous sounds. She speaks highly of Connor Chee, a Diné pianist and composer whose album of Navajo Vocables for Piano, as well as his most recent album Scenes from Dinétah feature Diné+art music.
“Chee’s music is grounded in the fundamental characteristics and philosophies of Navajo song, such as in his particular attention to the use of the number four throughout his pieces. But what I particularly love about his music, is how he succeeds in integrating Diné soundscapes with everything I adore about classical music, the sweeping arpeggios, the harmonies, plus his pieces fit really well under the hands. The way he writes them, they just feel made for your hands. They’re very home-like for me. A breath of fresh air from all the musically appropriated work out there by white European and American composers.”
Other Indigenous artists she admires include Michael Begay who wrote a piece for violin and piano called Nahasdzaan Bikaa’gi Naasha (I Walk Upon the Earth) which she premiered with Serbian violinist, Stefan Milenkovich at Many Farms High School in 2018 as part of a community outreach project on the Navajo Nation. She also recommends the album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa by Jeremy Dutcher, a Wolostoq composer, pianist, operatic tenor and musicologist.
In a fascinating recent interview with the Native Hope podcast, Yazzie observed that Native American musicians are consistently exposed to racist micro-aggressions and ignorance from non-Indigenous audiences. To illustrate, she tapped out a stereotype of Native American drumming, BUM-bum-bum-bum, BUM-bum-bum-bum. Indigenous music is music produced by Indigenous peoples, regardless of genre, she noted. “Thus, it is not a genre, itself. Rather, it is a listening experience of Indigenous expressions.”
“Dirt Rhodes is a Diné country artist whose music is influenced by older Navajo country artists like Aces’ Wild. Levi Platero is an accomplished Diné guitarist who can play the blues like none other. DDAT, the Delbert Anderson Trio + rapper Def-I produce some really unique jazz jams that feature Def-I’s rapping, and it works beautifully. Sage Cornelius is a Diné/Oneida/Potawatomi metal/hip-hop violinist who has a background in classical music and can also throwback some serious bluegrass fiddlin’. Sage Bond is a fantastic metal vocalist and guitar player who is also currently studying music at another university. While they are all Indigenous musicians that produce inherently Indigenous music, it’s important to first acknowledge the hard work they each have each put into becoming masters of their respective genres and to never erase that or take away from that. Acknowledging them first as masters of their craft pushes back against the mindset of ‘They’re pretty good for a Native guitarist/singer/pianist,’ which most, if not all of us, have heard at some point in our lives and is pretty upsetting.”
As she gets ready to graduate, Yazzie reflected on her time as one of the few Native American students in the UNM Music department.
“The Musicology program at UNM is cozy in that the classes are small which really allows for specialized attention to your research interests and you get to know everyone fairly well. The Ethno/Musicology professors bring in a wide variety of scholars to give lectures through the Musicology Colloquium series and Musicology seminars. This has exposed me to several scholars who share similar research interests and have become external readers on my committee, as well as great mentors and even friends. Further, my peers in both the Musicology program and the piano studio have been nothing but supportive and I am very grateful for all of them. Our piano professor really tries to create a studio dynamic that is uplifting and promotes healthy competition and I think, for the most part, he has succeeded. I really appreciate his efforts to do so. He also consistently invites well-regarded pianists to give masterclasses and recitals. Many of us have had the opportunity to take part in his Klavierfestival in Lindlar, Germany.”
“Overall, UNM Music has given me the tools and experience necessary to face academia head-on, as an Indigenous person. Truthfully, it is most definitely not easy to be the only Native graduate student in the music department, but I am grateful for the amazing faculty and staff who do their best to support me. Finally, it is largely because of the opportunity I had to give a lecture-recital on Indigenizing Art Music at the 2016 John Donald Robb Symposium that really solidified for me, my passion for music studies and redressing the years of problematic ethnography in my community.”
Working with UNM Professor Falko Steinbach has been a highlight of her time at UNM overall. When she left the BA/MD program and was trying to figure out what to do next, she auditioned for his studio and he took her in, a difficult thing to do since Yazzie didn't have a Music degree.
“Every semester that I was a music minor, he ensured a place for me in his studio and that kind of support and access is what I hope all Indigenous students who are passionate about music, can experience. Dr. David Bashwiner’s Music & Emotion and The Musical Brain classes really opened my eyes to the possibilities of engaging in the theory of music, with underlying neuroscientific principles. The material I wrote for his class is being considered for publication. Dr. Lloyd Lee’s Politics of Identity course in Native American Studies really challenged me to reassess how I thought about Indigenous identity, and it was a home away from home for me.”
“The Native American Studies department is very dear to me, and despite me not being in their program, the faculty and staff nurture me, provide materials and conversations and a most importantly, a haven from the aforementioned difficulties of being the only Native graduate student in the Music department,” Yazzie added. She also expressed her gratitude to her thesis advisor, Dr. Ana Alonso-Minutti for strengthening her writing skills, for placing high expectation, and “pushing me to do my absolute best in everything I do. I literally could not have made it this far without her firm, but gentle guidance.”
Besides trying to graduate, Yazzie is preparing several works for publication that will likely come out in the next year or so. Acutely aware of the dearth of Native American students in Music, she recently began a scholarship, the American Indian Musicians’ Scholarship that aims to provide financial support for Native students studying music at the post-secondary level. The scholarship is housed under The Heartbeat Music Project, a program that provides tuition-free music education for K-12 students on the Navajo Nation and fiscally sponsored by the Roadwork Center.
“It is my goal to continue to a Ph.D. program in Music, which is currently uncharted territory for Diné scholars... I would like to teach at a tribal college or university that has a strong Native American and Indigenous Studies program and mentor Native students. And of course, I will continue to practice and bring my music to various Indigenous spaces.”
About Indigenous music, Yazzie concluded, “It’s thriving, living, and radiant. Our people are creative and talented, and the music they are coming out with is setting up a beautiful future for the next generation of sound artists. Secondly, our conceptions of the functionality of music can differ vastly from art music and settler ideals of music. Our music can be medicine, history, even law. It can have agency. Our relationships to music can be more than aesthetic notions of ‘it sounds pretty.’ I say ‘can be’ because we are not a monolithic people. There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States and each people group has their own conception of what music or song is. To acknowledge that is to acknowledge the sovereign sonic spaces that Indigenous people create and find meaning in.”
** Image at Köln Cathedral in Köln, Germany by Linda Duschek Fotographie