Author: Neil Farrell (see Part I)
Can you tell me about the origins of Buffalo String Works?
Well I got to know Elise Alaimo, a Buffalo Public Schools music teacher, and she invited me and our mutual friend Virginia Barron, who plays viola, to perform as guests in her music class at PS 45 International, in March 2014. When we got there I was struck by the diverse makeup of the school. I had no idea that Buffalo had such a large and thriving refugee and immigrant community.
I think that Virginia and I expected to show up, talk about our instruments, play a short piece, and then be gone. But something magical happened instead. I remember performing a movement from a piece by Brahms and the kids paid such close attention. Afterwards, we asked them what the music said to them, and a tiny seven-year old boy peeked out from under his desk and offered, “It sounds like, I love you.”
I thought to myself, there’s something different happening in this classroom and we could all feel it. We started talking, becoming excited about the possibilities of somehow offering greater access to music education for these kids. We knew that most Buffalo Public Schools aren’t able to prioritize a robust instrumental music program and yet we know there’s a huge body of research that show the positive impact of music learning on young people. That was the gap we wanted to fill.
This was in March 2014. We sat down and started discussing logistics and planning, and in September 2014 we opened the doors of Buffalo String Works. In the beginning, there was just Elise, Virginia, and myself leading the program. We all had different skill sets, but we were the teachers, chauffeurs, janitors, snack providers, you name it. We were also lucky to have violin teacher, Evan Courtin, who remains with BSW this very day! In addition to all three of us teaching, Elise’s job as a school teacher enabled her to recruit students, while I recruited my UB students as volunteer teachers, and Virginia secured rental space, instruments, and funding.
I began to talk up Buffalo String Works to my students at UB, and a number of them came forward to volunteer. In fact, our mutual friend Blair Sailer—now the stand-out fiddler and vocalist of the South Buffalo Fresh Air Music Club and then one of my violin students—was one of our first volunteer Teaching Assistants. (She’s now a paid Teaching Artist in our classrooms!) The added benefit was that many of my UB violin students wanted to become music teachers so this also became kind of an internship and training ground for them.
That model worked well for us, and though there were only three of us in the beginning, we now teach more than 85 students and have an amazing group of volunteers and paid Teaching Artists and Assistants.
But you had some growing pains, right? And all three of you still had full-time jobs…
Yes, that was definitely a challenge. When we launched BSW, I also had a nine-month old baby. It was a slow-go at first, and we had hits and misses. We were volunteer-led for 5 years. We’ve learned a lot about creating a culturally-responsive program that honors each and every one of our families. I remember once, we were teaching the Western nursery rhyme, “Old McDonald,” a familiar song to those of us who grew up in North America. However, it quickly became apparent that since most of our families were from all over the world , this song wasn’t familiar to them! So it was at this point that we started to add folk songs and national anthems from our students’ countries of origin. We continued to learn and improve, humble in our approach, and we saw the students doing the same. This idea of a cross-cultural, community-based musical practice has become essential to what BSW is today.
We’ve grown a lot by listening to our students and their families. We’ve had so many parents tell us about their own dreams of wanting to learn music as children in Burma, for instance, but not having the opportunity to do so. They feel so fortunate that a program like BSW is available in their new home. And we’ve found that if the children persevere through their first year with us, they begin to make more friends, they develop a sense of pride, and the music and the BSW community becomes a part of their lives. We recently surveyed our students and 100% of our students in 3rd grade and up said they were proud to be part of Buffalo String Works.
Now when did you become Executive Director?
Well, when we incorporated in 2015, Virginia became the Founding Executive Director and I was the Artistic Director. Elise stepped back in our 3rd year. Then in 2019, when Virginia stepped back, I took on the Executive Director role. By then I had left UB to devote my energies to BSW.
How does the program work?
When we’re in person, we offer 6 hours of music lessons each week to our students at no cost to families. Every student receives an instrument to take home for the year and they perform in concerts all over Buffalo from Silo City to Kleinhans. We just started a Student Leadership Program where our students are provided stipends to become Practice Partners (mentors to younger students) or Student Council members. We’re also developing an internship to train high school students to become teachers in our classrooms. We are, first and foremost, a music program, but we hope that our students will take away much more than the knowledge of holding a bow or playing in tune. We hope that they will feel empowered through music to be active citizens in our classrooms, at home, and in their own communities.
Virtually, our program is similar and our Teaching Artists have been incredibly creative and resilience in their online teaching approach. Of course, we can’t wait to be back in physical classrooms because nothing compares to making music together in real time!
Can you think of some success stories from your work at BSW?
Yes, a couple come to mind. This past summer, four BSW students attended Archipelago, a music camp that taught leadership skills and music composition and it was the first time any of our students had collaborated with musicians outside of BSW. I felt like a protective mama bear, letting my cubs go out into the wild! Our students did beautifully and I was so proud of Teresa, especially, who was invited back to be a Student Leader for the camp.
Another recent success was our fundraiser at the Hotel Henry last March. In the beginning our fund- raisers were literally held amongst a small-group of people in the living rooms of our supporters. Our spring fundraiser had hundreds in attendance, so to see us filling a beautiful ballroom was exciting, and such incredible evidence that the Buffalo community supported what we were doing. We felt that we had arrived. The children played so beautifully and had improved by leaps and bounds and got to show off their skills in front of nearly two hundred people. Our students also gave 5-minute, pop-up lessons to audience members and I think they got a kick out of that. We were so proud of them!
You recently posted a heart-warming video on your website with BSW teachers playing a K-Pop song. Can you tell us how that came about?
Yes, that was fun! As you know, we closed our physical doors on March 13, 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Well, a couple of months earlier we had asked the students to help choose a song that they wanted to work on for the year. This was one of our goals, to empower our students by offering them more input in the music they were learning. Anyway, with their help we narrowed it down to ten pop songs and played 30 seconds of each song for them to vote on. The one with the most votes unfortunately had some, let’s say, risky lyrics so we moved on to number two which was “Love Scenario,” by the Korean pop group iKon.
They learned the first half in time to perform at the Hotel Henry Benefit Concert, but because of Covid we were never able to teach the students the full song, and that was such a bummer. So the teachers started talking and came up with an idea to surprise the students by playing it for them. We each recorded ourselves playing our parts, I was able to convince musicians from all over the world to submit videos as well, and luckily I had a friend in New York who edited the videos into a single video collage. Our teachers loved making the recording for the students, and the students loved it too.
Love Scenario was posted as the final number of our virtual Spring Concert, but looking back, I think that the highlight of that concert was a poem read by one our young students, Teresa, that she had written in honor of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. I had heard about her poem on social media and went to her home to talk more about her activism. When I asked Teresa how BSW could support her social justice work, she responded by saying that, “As a minority I feel that I am not often given a voice and I thought I had something to say.”
So, as a first step, BSW’s Spring Concert gave Teresa that platform she asked for. It’s important to me that our students see their musical lives intertwined with every part of who they are. An essential part of BSW’s mission is to inspire community transformation, and so it’s amazing to see our young musicians finding ways for music to inform and support who they are as, for instance, social justice activists.
How can ordinary folks help out?
There are so many ways! Our program has grown so fast in the past six years, and we are getting ready to embark on an exciting and challenging expansion that will join our West Side location with two additional locations across the city. By volunteering in our program, at an event, donating an instrument or your talent, or making a financial contribution, you can help us make this happen. What I have heard inspires people the most is the energy and enthusiasm of our students and we warmly welcome everyone to join the BSW family.
We have a great Monthly MusicMaker program, where for as little as $10 a month, an individual, family, organization or business can sponsor a student, including their lessons, instrument rental, BSW uniforms, snacks, and transportation.
As I said in our Spring Concert Video, especially given our current environment, we are renewing our resolve to fight racism through education and if you believe music is part of the solution, please join us! Our community is stronger if we work together in support of our young leaders.
Thank you, Yuki. It was a pleasure and Buffalo is lucky to have you!
Get connected: buffalostringworks.org
Photos by Andrea Wenglowskyj