One spring day in March, 2014, accomplished violist Virginia Barron and violinist Yuki Numata Resnick delivered a performance for an enthusiastic audience at PS 45 International School on Hoyt Street in Buffalo. What they received in return was priceless. The young attentive crowd exhibited a true eagerness to learn. The energy of the group and their hunger for learning inspired the musicians to create a viable avenue for these primarily refugee children to find their own passion for music. That September, Buffalo String Works (BSW) opened its doors offering free music lessons after school to 17 excited students.
Today BSW has 85 students and their enrollment continues to grow each year with a high retention rate throughout the program and into high school. Students range from grades kindergarten through high school – this year, the student base has expanded to include students from schools all over the city, enrolling through word of mouth as families become more committed to the program. BSW provides instruments to their students and offers free after-school lessons 2-6 hours per week in violin, viola, cello, and bass. All classes are taught by a professional Teaching Artist leading the class alongside volunteer Teaching Assistants, who range from high school and college music students to professionals in other fields who studied music as students. As the students have progressed through the program some of the older students have taken on the role of teaching assistants as well.
Julia Cordani is a senior at the University at Buffalo where she studies Voice Performance and has been with BSW for over three years. Cordani has primarily worked with little kids as a teaching assistant and has loved the experience. In her words, “Working with the little kids is extra special. Being that first person to introduce them to music is so rewarding. Sometimes just watching them open the instrument case for the first time can be emotional. It is truly a precious moment to be a part of.” She explains that BSW provides a valuable opportunity for kids to be taught by extremely qualified, high-quality instructors who lay the foundation for a life enriched by music, specifically to an under-advantaged population who might not be able to do so otherwise.
Hay Blue and Nay Blue Myint are twins who are in their freshman year at Sacred Heart Academy. The sisters arrived in Buffalo from Thailand with their family in 2008. While attending PS 45 International School one of their teachers approached them about BSW and asked if they would like to take violin lessons and they happily said yes. The girls are now in their fourth year in the program and have been in numerous performances. When I asked the girls about their violins and their music, their faces lit up. It was then that I understood a bit what Barron and Numata Resnick must have experienced that March afternoon.
I asked them each to tell me about their lessons and their music. Nay said that learning new music was very exciting to her. She particularly loves playing Karen State music, traditional music from her culture. Nay plans to stay with the program for as long as she can. Both she and her sister are examples of students who managed to bridge the transition from elementary school to high school while remaining at BSW. Hay states, “I feel so relaxed when I am playing, it is just so beautiful and I am proud that I can play music.” Her favorite is Burmese Water Festival Music. She says the slow music is quite calming.
As the program continues to grow, funding becomes more and more important. BSW will be holding their 5th Annual Benefit Concert this year on Saturday February 16th from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. at the Clement Mansion (the Red Cross Building and home of the Buffalo Philharmonic) at 786 Delaware Avenue. This concert has always been feel-good event; an opportunity for BSW supporters, new and old, to come together in celebration of our city’s newest residents. Guest artists will be Concerts for Compassion, Julliard trained violin duo Mariella Haubs and Jocelyn Zhu from New York City who perform at refugee camps around the world. Additionally, performance works by the classical Syrian composer Kinan Azmeh will be featured along with performances by BSW faculty and students, highlighting music from Burma and traditional Western repertoire. Admission for the event is $60.00/person. More information is available on their website. You can find other events throughout the Spring months as well.
Buffalo String Works works. It works by cultivating talent, passion, and creativity within the refugee community on the West Side of Buffalo. As Numata Resnick so eloquently puts it, “This refugee community is woven into the fabric of Western New York and is a true asset to our city.”
Lead image: Photo credit Zaw M Kyaw