By Janice Mah
On February 7th 2021, the Suzuki Association of Ontario hosted their first session in the Teaching Education and Action (TEA) series. Sador and Alador Bereketab hosted a workshop opening the dialogue in regards to the lack of accessibility and inclusivity for Black Youth in music.
Janice Mah: Thank you so much for such an informative workshop, I’m sure those who attended were able to reflect upon their own practices. I’m curious to know what drew you to share your experiences as black youth with Suzuki teachers?
Alador Bereketab: Music is a big part of our lives. As the only black students in our music programs, growing up, I was continuously reminded of the importance of bridging the gap between black communities and educators. Thanks to our parents, my sister and I are very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to be involved with music from such a young age. They started with my sister, then me at the age of 5. At that age, our parents knew the impact a musical education could have throughout our development and beyond. Something I realized as I grew older was that this was certainly not the case for several black youth, especially black children in our community that are the children of immigrants.
JM: What are your personal experiences growing up with music?
Sador Bereketab: I started violin at the age of 4. Learning violin at the time was more about the process instead of the learning. Being so young, this wasn’t something I didn’t know I wanted in my life, but my mom found it important to engage in music. Looking back, I know it was so important to have my mom involved, she helped me a lot with practicing at home. I soon began piano with Music for Young Children (MYC) which consisted of music theory and group lessons. As a shy child, being engaged in this environment forced me to branch out and I began singing and playing piano. In 2011, I began learning violin through the Suzuki method, and found myself more engaged in private lessons, group classes and orchestra. I enjoyed being around like minded children, which in turn fostered more motivation and interest in violin as a whole. From here, I decided to audition for Canterbury High School’s arts program- specializing in the strings program where I was part of a vibrant musical community.
AB: My experiences are very similar to Sador, as I did follow in her footsteps two years after. After my parents had gone through the music education process for a couple years prior to me, they were aware of programs and strategies on how to guide me as a musician.
JM: You mentioned how parental involvement in your education played an important role. Why do you think it’s more of a challenge to engage black parents in music?
AB: That’s a good question, and I believe it’s oftentimes overlooked. When we witness the lack of diversity in any program or school, we automatically think it has to do with the lack of outreach amongst the student demographic, however the challenges for black parents to engage in music are the main barrier preventing black students to immerse themselves in the world of music. In my community, the majority of black parents are immigrants. They all grew up with different cultures and experiences, and in those communities, music education was not available to them. The value and the benefit of a musical education was never truly understood. Due to the gap in understanding when it comes to the arts, without immersing themselves, there’s no way of learning the benefits, essentially acting as a barrier when accessing opportunities. For many black families in Canada, there’s a large socioeconomic disadvantage, and the financial strain makes it difficult to access quality music programs. Another aspect that puts black communities at a disadvantage is the level of commitment there needs to be from the parents, for the child to musically succeed. For instance, taking the child to recitals, group classes, volunteering events, etc. if the parent’s schedules are inflexible, it can have an affect on the child’s musical upbringing. Making room for music commitments can be quite difficult, and if the parents are not able to make most if not all, oftentimes the child’s music education is sacrificed. So many challenges – but this is my last point, lack of representation. Not seeing people who look like you in everyday education, and especially those in the classical world can be very discouraging. It makes the goal feel that much more unattainable for both students and parents, as though this is not the right path for them. Making black communities think that they will have to take a more difficult path, perhaps being “the only black student” in string classes, could be very intimidating throughout the child’s growth.
JM: I never thought about the socio-economic implications this may have on preventing families from making musical commitments. How can music communities and black communities break down these barriers?
SB: Before talking about how to break down the barriers, it’s important to understand the differences and misconceptions between tokenism and misrepresentation. Tokenism can be harmful in its approach- it’s a way of bringing about change that can bring more harm than good because, oftentimes we are trying to cover up systemic racism with performative actions. For example- tokenism can be bringing in black students from the community without understanding how to make them feel valued and understood versus representation- looking at how black students can feel welcome, safe and included. This could be done by making websites more accessible- things like using language that’s easy to understand, having bilingual access to material and including the parent handbook on your websites. Representation should always be the goal when breaking down systemic barriers.
AB: In every music community, taking time to recognize and celebrate holidays beyond your own national celebrations goes a long way. In doing so, all members of the Suzuki community will feel seen and included. It could be as simple as taking a few minutes at the start of group class to recognize the holiday, and allow students that are interested to share how it’s important to them. As a music educator, you don’t need to be the one to always teach, opening up the floor for an open dialogue can make a huge difference helping to create a more inclusive space for students.
JM: Final question, is there anything else you’d like to add that would be helpful for SAO members?
SB: Yes! One point we haven’t mentioned is external outreach. This can be done in two ways. Outreach work is focused on youth and going to schools in low socio-economic neighbourhoods, but it’s important to reach out to black communities as a whole, specifically black parents/adults as they do have a huge influence on registering their child for music. A first step would be to go out to schools and ethnic communities (community centres), leading workshops for parents. During these workshops, it’s important to have parents ask questions, so they can appreciate the benefits of music and understand their role in their child’s music education. This would allow for a wider outreach within the community and teachers could tap into the musical potential of many black youth in our community.
AB: We should also note that there is ongoing anti-oppression and anti-racism training, that allow for ongoing conversations, which is very important for an educators’ learning process to create an equitable Suzuki community.
JM: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about this important issue. As a music educator, it was insightful to hear your perspective on some of the little things we can do to change the dialogue into a positive experience for everyone.