REFLECTIONS FROM A NEW SISTEMA: Learning to build community through music

by Paloma Udovic Ramos

On a street that acts as a border between gangs, in a neighborhood with a changing racial demographic, 200 low-income kids attend free group instrumental lessons and orchestra rehearsal 3-4 times a week. Our team of Teaching Artists struggles with establishing proper
technique, developing ear training, note reading, instrument care, and… racial tensions. It is easy to find training on pedagogy and classroom management, but where does a Music Teaching Artist learn about community organizing and social justice?

Our program takes place in a Los Angeles Community Center situated in a historically African-American neighborhood that in the past ten years has become home to a large number of Central American immigrants. It is not uncommon to discover the underlying feelings of resentment that exist within the community. Within our numbers, the divide is clear. Less than ten percent of our participants are African Americans, with almost all of the remainder Latino. It would be easy to say that many African American students come from single parent households and thus have more transportation issues, or that they look to be more involved in sports. Perhaps they would prefer to sing gospel in the church choir than learn classical music in an orchestra.

Regardless of stereotypes, and perhaps even because of the falsities they promote, our program needs to step up to the responsibility of representing the whole neighborhood. Due to an already long waiting list, we have done little recruitment. Most on the waiting list are Latino who know of the program through word of mouth. Many African-American parents have told me that they assumed the program was for Latinos, and had doubts about enrolling their children. All of these children have an ear for music somewhere, and it would be a missed opportunity for the program and its Teaching Artists to not find a way to attract a most diverse group of kids and develop a
musical community less divided than their own neighborhood.

As the face of our program, the Teaching Artists are the ones who must learn to accurately represent the intent of the program. However, in several instances, I have heard Teaching Artists ignorant to racial issues. “I just can’t talk to Ishmael’s mother, I feel like she’s always
busy and not present like the other parents. I don’t think she cares.” In this particular case, Ishmael’s mother, who is an African American, works 2 jobs as a single parent while the rest of the students in the class, all Latino, have stay-at-home Moms that hang out with each other right outside the classroom. In another case, an African-American student quit her class because she felt like her Teaching Artist spoke Spanish in class too much. Her mother told me, “She felt like the class wasn’t for her kind.”

Our Teaching Artist faculty is a loving group of professional musicians extremely proficient. What we lack is training is in Sociology and Cultural Sensitivity, practices that would be fully relevant in a program such as ours, where practicing music is the mode towards building community and fighting for Social Justice. While it’s not surprising that ‘Social Action through Music’ is not a common course in today’s top Conservatories, perhaps it is time to think about the benefits of such training to assure effectiveness in marginalized communities.

3 thoughts on “REFLECTIONS FROM A NEW SISTEMA: Learning to build community through music

  1. I suggest you check out Teaching Tolerance distributed via print & online. This may throw u off but its produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center based in Montgomery, AL. An award-winning educational venture from a solid 40 yr old org.

  2. “Perhaps they would prefer to sing gospel in the church choir than learn classical music in an orchestra.”

    This statement is why I wouldn’t want to bring my child to the program. This is racial stereotyping at it’s best/worst. Certainly, it clearly demonstrates the lack of sensitivity and awareness that an African American parent would certainly recognize and cause them to hesitate before allowing their child to participate. I realize that as the writer you are acknowledging the need for training in this area but there are organizations out there to provide it. Why hasn’t anyone been proactive about seeking a diversity trainer to come and work with the teaching artists? I’m concerned that this article sounds as if there is nothing the organization can do except wait for deliverance from ignorance.

    I attended Oberlin Conservatory and never had an education class. I never intended to teach and scoffed at the thought. Even if they had offered a class like that, I wouldn’t have necessarily taken it at that time. However, as my life progressed, I CHOSE to seek out programs that offered diversity training for little or no cost. I CHOSE to actively seek ways to improve my methods of communication. In the African American community, nobody cares if your technique is flawless, they want to know that you care about them as a person. Ignorance of cultural and class issues is not an excuse.

    I was so offended by that comment that I can barely contain myself. I am a professional teaching artist and actor, a trained opera singer and diversity workshop facilitator, and I am African American. It is the responsibility of each of your teaching artists as well as your organization to find a way to address the cultural and class issues that are represented by that phrase.

    • Allison,

      This article was not meant to offend, apologies for that. Your points are well taken.

      Because I was also deeply offended when I heard that specific comment from a colleague, I decided to write about this topic. In the context of this article, the comment was intended to be an example of a blatant stereotype to serve the argument that diversity training is exactly what we need, and as a program, exactly what we have planned for this fall. I am very hopeful that our program will become better from it.

      My objective in this article is to suggest that it would serve our field well if cultural and class issues were brought to the forefront of the conversation as soon as any training to become an educator begins. Many of our teachers have performance backgrounds rather than music education, and are learning to be great teachers by simply doing it. I’m sure there are many on the east coast that I’m not aware of, but the programs I know of that are formally training Teaching Artists are mostly in beginning stages. For those who won’t have the foresight to seek it out on their own, I think it’s important to find a formal place for diversity training in these programs.


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