Author: Neil Farrell
I am a member of a group of amateur musicians called the South Buffalo Fresh Air Music Club. Somehow, we were lucky enough to be able to recruit the talented violinist/singer/songwriter, Blair Sailer to join our group. As we got to know Blair, we learned that besides her work as an elementary school teacher and member of the celebrated Bel Canto string quartet, Blair is also a Teaching Artist at Buffalo String Works (BSW).
In short order, Blair enthusiastically invited us to one of the BSW concerts in which her students were performing and we were amazed at the work not only of the students, but also of this organization. We also got to meet their energetic and talented Executive Director, Yuki Numata Resnick. As I learned more about Yuki, I realized she is one of the best kept secrets of Buffalo music and one which all Buffalonians may be interested in learning about. I hope that you will enjoy getting to know the indefatigable Yuki Numata Resnick.
Good afternoon, Yuki. It’s a pleasure to catch up with you. I hear that you have been busier than ever during this awful pandemic.
Yes, about a week after our in-person activities were suspended in March, I was in my office trying to work through our next steps when I received a text from a student’s mother asking, “what about online violin lessons, Ms. Yuki.” I was surprised, but delighted that despite everything going on, the children and parents were interested in forging on. Since then we’ve had an intensive virtual program – we held a 6-week virtual summer camp in partnership with Say Yes Buffalo and our students are attending virtual classes 3 days a week. Can you believe we have a 96% attendance rate?! It’s quite incredible and we’re so grateful our families have stood by us. In fact, as I update this interview to be even more current, we just started 25 new students in our brand new, Intro to BSW curriculum and we have more students in the pipeline!
We wanted to take this opportunity to give the community and Buffalo String Works (“BSW”) supporters the chance to learn more about you and your interesting life. Now, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Western Canada, in the town of Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver. My father was a Japanese chef and my mom was a special education school teacher. When people talk about the immigrant story, that was my parents. My father came from Japan and my mother from Vietnam and Hong Kong and both believed that through their values of hard work, diligence and the importance of education, they could make a better life for my sister, Yumi, and I in Canada.
Both of my parents worked incredibly hard but I think that I was particularly influenced by my mother who really advocated for her students, often well beyond the end of the school day. I noticed that she seemed to see possibilities in her students that others couldn’t and she became kind of a pioneer in, for instance, integrating children with disabilities into traditional classrooms. She often said that she thought that music seemed to play a role in bringing out the best in students and I’ve tried to bring some of her best practices into our work at Buffalo String Works.
So when did you start playing music?
I started playing violin when I was three. Apparently, my dad says that I was so bad at first that he wanted me to quit, but my mom wouldn’t let him because she said then I would always quit if I think something is hard! I found that in my violin lessons, my Japanese/Chinese culture, the lessons of high expectations, obedience, and the belief that with practice you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor, prepared me well as a student.
So were you kind of a prodigy?
I wouldn’t say that, but both of my parents appreciated classical music, encouraged my practicing, and celebrated my successes. This support of my parents was so important to me. I found that music fueled my identity, made me feel good about myself, and set me apart from some of the other kids at school.
I became actively involved in the music program at school and also continued my after-school lessons and by age 12 I earned a spot in a local youth symphony with musicians ranging in age from 12-25.
You know, I remember these experiences now when I see our students at Buffalo String Works spotlighted on stage at our performances after all their hard work. Those experiences were empowering for me and I think they are for our students as well. And like my parents believed, learning to play music teaches life-long skills.
After high school in Canada you headed to the University of Rochester’s prestigious Eastman School of Music.
Yes, music was still fun but I began to realize the stakes were even higher once I got to college. It was a formative experience for me and I still have close personal and professional relationships from my undergraduate years. My teacher at Eastman was Zvi Zeitlin, a legendary professor known for his stern demeanor, and he scared me at first. But I realized not long after that this was his way of encouraging me to fulfill my potential, and he turned out to be like my musical grandfather in many ways. A scary grandfather on the outside, but warm and caring on the inside!
So after graduating from Eastman, you earned a graduate degree at the University of Michigan and began working as a musician?
My first music job was in the New World Symphony in Miami. This program was established by Michael Tilson Thomas, best known as the San Francisco Symphony’s longtime Music Director, who envisioned a training orchestra for aspiring professional musicians.
Completing graduate school gave me more time to myself and I enjoyed that. I learned to love just being in a room by myself with my violin and practicing. During this time I was also lucky enough to spend my summers playing and training at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.
While at Tanglewood I met some great friends and incredible musicians who were based in New York City. They encouraged me to give NYC a try, so I moved to Washington Heights and got busy with chamber music and performing new, modern music. This was my first experience as a musician without a safety net. It was exhilarating and nerve-wracking at times but I have such good memories from that time in my life!
Wait, you left out something about your time in New York.
[Laughing] Yes, this is where I met my husband, Kyle. He and I were both playing at the New Yorker Music Festival with the band “The National.” Living in New York, I had such unique opportunities to explore music making from working with living composers like John Zorn and Max Richter to recording on albums with bands like Passion Pit, Arcade Fire, and The National. It was a thrill to straddle many worlds at once and it taught me to be more flexible, courageous, and fluid in my definition of what music means to me. And of course, it’s made all the more sweeter because I did meet my partner in life through these new experiences!
So after all of this, how did you end up in Buffalo?
Well during my time at the Eastman School of Music, I had developed a relationship with UB from playing at their “June in Buffalo Festival,” so while I was living in New York City I was offered an adjunct professor role at UB. Every Tuesday, I got up at four in the morning, took the M60 to LaGuardia, flew out at 6am, taught all day and then flew home at night. I ended up making a good impression and eventually, they offered me a full-time, tenure-track professor position in 2013. So Kyle and I moved to Buffalo.
I taught undergraduate and graduate students at UB and found that I loved teaching. As much as I enjoyed performing I always felt that there was more to music than I was allowing it to be. I loved the idea of passing on the teachings from my own mentors and found that it completed something for me.
What have been some of your most memorable performances?
Probably at the top of the list was performing as a soloist at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. What a beautiful hall. Also at the Opera House, I played Max Richter’s “Sleep,” an 8-hour, overnight piece that the audience is meant to sleep to. The performance is timed with sunrise so that the final notes are played as the sun comes up. Another highlight was playing my entire “For Ko” album (for my son Ko) at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. Big Ears is this amazing endeavor headed up by Ashley Capps (who also produces the music and art festival, Bonnaroo) that brings together musicians of all genre, from classical artists to indie rock musicians and everyone in between. I read recently that the New York Times called the last Big Ears “A weekend of performances that soothed, jolted and intrigued.” I highly recommend it!
Tell us about about your most recent collaborations in the world of pop music.
Yes, my husband Kyle, who is a professional trumpeter and sound engineer, and I were invited to contribute to Taylor Swift’s new 2020 albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore.” As a touring musician, Kyle has been temporarily unemployed because of the pandemic, so he industriously turned our attic into an ad hoc recording studio that allowed us to record my violin and viola parts and Kyle’s trumpet parts—all from home. Kyle also got to do some engineering work on the recording which was a tremendous opportunity for him.
Do you have any heroes, musical or otherwise?
I immediately think of my parents who sacrificed so much to give my sister and me the best life possible. They instilled terrific values that make me love the work that I do. They also have become outstanding grandparents to our two children, and Buffalo boosters—making it here for visits about three times a year, of course, in pre-COVID times.
Speaking of your children, you sound proud. What are they like? Are they musical?
I AM proud! They are both so different. Most say my son is like me. He likes order and concrete plans. Our daughter, Khaya on the other hand, is carefree like my husband and is the happiest kid. Her name, which means “life” in Hebrew, embodies her.
Ko has been spending lots of time tinkering on our piano at home, making up new melodies. He also takes violin lessons – not from me though!
What are you proudest of?
Besides my kids, BSW.
You seem like you work pretty hard. What do you do to relax?
You might not expect it, since I tend to be so disciplined and orderly, but I love romantic comedies, listening to pop music, and watching what some would call fluff TV, including Schitt’s Creek starring my fellow Canadian-native, Eugene Levy. Kyle and I devoured HBO’s “Succession” and oh! We’re currently making our way through “Shtisel”. And yes, I absolutely watched all of “Bridgerton” during the holidays!
Do You Have Any Other Secret Talents?
Well quarantine has forced me to become a better cook, I can “get around” on a piano, and out of necessity, I have developed some video editing and website design skills with the help of our BSW Operations Manager, Julia Anne Cordani!
Finally, is it ever too late to learn to play a musical instrument?
No. Never! In fact we have a couple of parents at BSW who enjoy playing with their children. We love receiving videos of informal family performances and it makes me so happy to see them make music together. One parent, Eh Tah Mu, sent us a video of her playing violin with her children and she was yelling out the same instructions that we use: “1, 2, Ready, go!” “Ok and repeat!” She could be our next violin Teaching Artist!
Click here for Part II
Photos by Andrea Wenglowskyj