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.