Lessons in Listening

By Yuki Numata Resnick, Cofounder and Executive Director, Buffalo String Works

Buffalo Public School #45 is the go-to public school for newly arrived refugees in Buffalo, NY. Speaking dozens of different languages and dialects, many of the school’s students are displaced from countries across the world. As we sat down in front of them, we introduced ourselves, our instruments, and the music we were about to play. Our audience was quiet, even distant. But as we placed our bows on our strings and the first notes emerged, everything changed.

The students sat up in rapt attention, surprising us with their focus and concentration. At the end of the piece, we asked them, “What did the music sound like to you? How did it make you feel?”

The class thought in silence until a hand rose at the back of the room. The hand belonged to a seven-year-old boy, hiding under his desk. He looked at us for a while, then responded:

“It sounds like, ‘I love you.’”

Students of Mexican-Puerto Rican, Eritrean, and Burmese descent pose together during the December 2019 Holiday Concert. Credit Andrea Wenglowskyj

It was this young boy and his classmates who helped create Buffalo String Works. Just six months after this school performance, in September 2014, we opened our doors down the street from BPS #45. In our six years, we have taught refugee students from 11 countries worldwide, including Afghanistan, Burma, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria.

Our inaugural class was an unassuming group of 17 young violinists, taught by energetic and passionate teachers who had little experience working with a global community. In our first semester, I remember teaching familiar Western songs; “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Old MacDonald” were staples of our repertoire. When we played our first concert for a grand total of three audience members, far outnumbered by the 17 young violinists on stage, we were shocked. “How could parents not come to see their child’s accomplishments? How could they not appreciate the hours we’ve put in as teachers?” we asked with a combination of pity and indignation. But then we reframed our line of questioning: “Why should parents come? Do they feel welcome? Have we tried to get to know our parents? Do our families want this?”

Listening Lesson #1: Listening means listening to what is not being said.

Our first step was to ask students for song suggestions from their countries of origin. They began to share YouTube videos with us, and we transcribed them; as their trust in us grew, parents started to provide song suggestions. We shifted the balance of repertoire to prioritize music of our families. Six years later, our repertoire routinely includes music from Burma, Liberia, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, and Somalia. One of our most popular pieces is “Welcome to Karen State,” a folk song from the Karen region of Burma, where many of our families come from. It’s particularly inspiring to hear a student of Venezuelan origin impatiently ask, “When can I learn ‘Karen State,’ Ms. Yuki?”

We began hiring interpreters and translators to put parents at ease. In fact, some of our own parents serve as interpreters for the other families. We now translate our student contracts. Every phone call to a parent is made in their language of comfort. And at concerts, all English spoken onstage is immediately interpreted for parents. Those parents have now become our students’ biggest cheerleaders and our program’s greatest advocates. Our growing waiting list is not due to any recruitment on our part—just the result of parents proudly sharing concert videos online with friends and family.

Listening Lesson #2: We can only listen and expect to be listened to if we provide the opportunity for a two-way dialogue.

As we became more familiar with the El Sistema community, we were swept away by the idea of a ten-hour-per-week program. “Imagine all we’ll achieve with such a rigorous program,” we marveled to ourselves. We were determined to achieve this goal. In Year Six, we expanded from a four-hour to a six-hour weekly program. Before the year began, we spoke with each family to explain our vision. We knew they would be on board once they heard our case. In these family orientations, we also asked every parent, “How can we help you?” This ended up being the most important question of all. We learned that our refugee parents were in total support of an intensive music program but had serious concerns about their children’s academic needs. We nearly fell into the trap of rattling off knee-jerk statistics—“Oh, but you know that students in music programs score 22% higher in English and 20% higher in Math standardized tests, right?”—but we stopped ourselves, and we listened.

The 2020 Benefit Concert. Credit Valkyrian images

Eh Tah Mu, mother of three BSW students, helped us understand her immense responsibilities at home. In the Karen culture, mothers are expected to be fully responsible for all household duties, including shopping, meal preparation, and childcare. Eh Tah had just received her GED (High School Equivalency Certificate) after five years of studying. She took community college classes, completing her homework while her husband worked the night shift, and—on top of all that—worked a part-time day job while her children were at school. This is a woman who moved to Buffalo ten years ago after spending her formative years in a Thai refugee camp. We asked ourselves: if this is the story of a parent who has acclimated to her American home, what about families who are newly resettled?

We finally understood how much our parents rely on teachers and afterschool programs to give their children a chance at a successful future. Most of our parents are working beyond capacity to provide basic needs for their families. The physical and emotional toll of working multiple jobs while providing for multi-generational families—layered over navigating an unfamiliar country with limited command of the English language, potentially with PTSD from their life as refugees—makes it nearly impossible for parents to provide academic support at home. Rooted by this fuller, culturally humble perspective, we set forth with newfound confidence, complementing our existing six-hour music program with four hours of weekly tutoring support.

Listening Lesson #3: If we listen without bias and ulterior motive, our dreams will be the dreams of the community we serve.

As we mature as an organization, we continue to learn lessons. We are proud of how far we have come, but we have much more work to do, particularly in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and ensuring our work is proactively anti-racist. Leading an organization in such turbulent times continues to be daunting, but our confidence grows because we have learned the most important lesson of all: if we listen to our Buffalo String Works community of students and parents, they will be the ones to determine our value and shape our future.

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