Back in 2014, while piling up 17 elementary-aged students in a large, rented room at what now is the Dream Center, Virginia Barron and Yuki Numata Resnick answered a unique call to the silent curiosity of Buffalo’s refugee children. With the goal of introducing and teaching classical music to underserved youth, the two musicians have created a larger movement of artists, performers, and teachers nurturing the future of the West Side.
“With the politics as they are, it’s really galvanizing some of us who may not have been quite so ready to speak up. For myself, I never really took part in my community before Buffalo String Works,” said Yuki, Artistic Director of the grassroots music program that serves Buffalo’s West Side. “It [BSW] is about community, about building bridges, about providing this place for students and teachers to get to know each other and get to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Live performance of the Buffalo String Works orchestra, performing at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in March 2018.
Buffalo String Works, inspired by the ideals and passion of “El Sistema,” [an educational initiative originally started in Venezuela that focuses on making classical music accessible to disadvantaged communities] overachieves this idea by not only training young children with assistance from professional musicians for free, but bridging the gap between the cultural barriers that plagues the West Side. With a choice of learning viola, violin, or cello, the students, predominantly immigrant children, have performed throughout the Queen City. With assistance from local teachers and their growing staff, BSW’s impact on the West Side has helped recruit more students. In a matter of four years, co-founders Virginia and Yuki have tripled their class size with kids ranging from 5 to 17 years of age.
“When I came to Buffalo, there wasn’t really a program like this…there are a couple of organizations that provide music lessons for underserved kids but not that many, so it seemed like a good opportunity,” said Virginia, Executive Director of BSW.
Originally from Canada, both Virginia and Yuki have extensive resumes in classical and chamber music. Fresh from performing with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in Poland just a few weeks ago, the two leading ladies have developed quite a reputation in Buffalo, and abroad. Yuki, who holds degrees from University of Michigan and Eastman School of Music has been an violin teacher for the last 10 years, working with countless orchestras, from University at Buffalo’s Slee Sinfonietta to the New World Symphony. And Virginia, who’s participated in six international tours and is a substitute player for both the Chicago Symphony and Buffalo’s own Philharmonic Orchestra, has training from the University of Toronto and Manhattan School of Music. With over 35 years of teaching the viola and violin, Virginia is also a program personality for Buffalo’s own classical radio station 94.5 WNED.
As one could imagine, the seamless execution of teaching young children classical numbers doesn’t come easy. The natural esteem and debonair of playing a stringed instrument comes second to the attention and patience needed to instruct a bunch of school-aged children. As unlikely as it was that two seasoned musicians would be the perfect people for this type of undertaking, indeed they were. Distinguished women in their field, Virginia and Yuki, who met playing chamber music in a piano quartet, found their joint inspiration for BSW quite compellingly. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that their successful, professional lives were pleasantly interrupted after a simple performance at International School 45, four years ago. The interest of the students, and their eagerness to play, encouraged both women to give an opportunity to these children.
The humble beginnings, or what Virginia likes to call “controlled chaos,” of BSW’s genesis set in the reality of the young lives she was teaching twice a week. The challenges of communicating with parents and students with limited English, organizing times to hold class, and motivating students to stay consistent with attendance, at times were overwhelming.
“It was everything from exciting and fun to scary, and it felt like we were putting out fires every day,” said Yuki, recalling struggling moments of that first year. Understanding the value of not only communicating with children, but their parents, Yuki began to integrate music from other countries into BSW’s teaching program. A few songs BSW have performed are from Nepal, Burma, and Somalia.
“When we first started, Ginny and I both learned in the Western tradition. We learned that the staple songs that you learn as a beginner don’t speak to our students, they don’t speak to our families. We’re hoping that if a parent hears their child playing a song that’s familiar to them, then maybe that parent will be more inclined to come to a concert…or put in that effort that it takes to bring your child to music class…It’s trying to reach the families and to bridge these communities and not at all about coming to learn what it is to be our version of American. It’s actually trying to find this whole new place to coexist,” said Yuki.
Virginia, who “fervently believes everybody should have music in their life,” is determined to push more programs into the area and around the city. Her concern for the loss of music programs in public schools have expanded her connections with schools in Buffalo, specifically Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, and collaborating with the staff there. Virginia’s urgency for music and passion for teaching explains why she serves specifically the West Side of Buffalo.
“The dropout rates are so high; a lot from Lafayette High School. So many kids came late to this country. They come when they’re 17 and so many of our kids are sequestered throughout the city and it’s hard, but there are ways for them to get to know each other,” Virginia said. “I have this wonderful viola class of five different nationalities — Somali, Serbian, Syrians, Burmese, and an Afghan girl. And there they all are and they probably never would’ve met in their school, but now they’re all playing violas together.”
As the program exemplifies the rich diversity of the West Side and builds positive rapport through classical performances around Buffalo, Virginia and Yuki’s goal to foster unity extends throughout the local music community. The teachers, college students, and musicians who offer their talents to these children every week is inspirational, and telling of the universal power of music.
“It’s a proven fact that the benefits of studying an instrument are far and wide. It goes into schooling. It goes into helping kids with math and English learning. The discipline, the pattern recognition; there have studies proving it’s beneficial to kids or to anybody playing an instrument,” Virginia said.
Currently in the process of adding the bass instrument to their repertoire, one of Virginia and Yuki’s biggest goals is to incorporate more high school students and college graduates as mentors to their growing number of students. Hoping to also teach note reading and expand BSW’s list of international music, Yuki is optimistic about future opportunities for her and Virginia’s students. The program’s first side-by-side orchestra concert, featuring students from Kenmore High School, is only one of the multiple opportunities BSW has participated in, in the last year. With coming performances at Kleinhans Music Hall, Silo City, and the Dream Center in the next months, Buffalo String Works is not slowing down anytime soon.
Buffalo String Works will accept the Rising Star award at the 2018 Arts Services Initiative Spark Awards this Wednesday, May 16, at Hotel Henry.