The transition for immigrants trying to start a new life in Western New York is fraught with challenges—and more so for refugees uprooted by war and social upheaval. Resettlement agencies in our community assist families with basic needs, but a performing arts education group is helping children in Buffalo’s immigrant communities to develop a sense of belonging through music. As part of a series on the arts and social integration, Arts & Culture Desk reporter Scott Sackett takes a closer look.
Buffalo’s West Side was long ago a German-Jewish community before Italian and Sicilian-speaking immigrants moved in and established a “Little Italy.” The next wave of immigrants to settle here were largely Spanish-speaking. Today, this neighborhood is home to immigrants and refugees from nearly 70 countries. At Public School 45 just around the corner, some 40 languages are spoken—prominent among them are Karen, Arabic, Somali, Burmese, and Nepali.
A music program at the Concerned Ecumenical Ministry on Lafayette Avenue near Grant Street is giving neighborhood children from various schools an expressive outlet and a place to develop friendships and a sense of belonging. Virginia Barron is a co-founder of Buffalo String Works and serves as the executive director.
“Why music? Well, we always say, we say everywhere, and I think everybody would agree, it is the universal language,” said Virginia Barron, co-founder and executive director of Buffalo String Works. If a family’s coming here and they feel isolated, if their children feel isolated, this is one way that we can help their children feel part of a group to be able to play music, to meet other families, so it’s not a frill. Art is not a frill.”
Barron noted that music education facilitates language learning and success in school. Her co-founder and Buffalo String Works’ Artistic Director Yuki Numata Resnick added that music also provides a healthy diversion from every-day cares.
“I can only imagine the daily stress that parents and children are under, and we all need a break at some point, no matter how serious things are, no matter how serious things feel,” said Numata Resnick. “And so I think music is such a great way to just relax and to take your mind off those daily necessities and, you know, hopefully a way for our students to kind of maybe just get a little bit of space for themselves.”
Echoing that was one of their violin students, Daynya Paw, who shared the feeling she gets while playing.
“I feel good, because like music, you can express your feelings in different ways through music,” said Paw. “Sometimes, when like you’re able, when like you’re playing music, it feels free.”
As Barron recalled, the program started in September 2016.
“Yuki, myself and a couple of other people went over to at P.S. 45 International School, which is just nearby here, to play some chamber music that was funded by the Friends of Vienna. And we played some Brahms, Brahms piano quartet, for two groups of kids. And I think both of us can say that I never had children that were just so focused, so interested, they were such great listeners. They came around afterwards and just said, ‘We want to do this! When can we play?’ And BSW was born from that sentence.”
Although music can resonate with listeners on a human level across time, culture, and language, familiarity can be helpful in this environment.
“I remember our first semester, we did Old MacDonald because there’s a scale coming down,” said Numata Resnick. “The kids just played two, we would sing, ‘Old MacDonald had a farm,’ and they would play, two-two-one-one-D. Second finger, first finger, D string. And I was watching this and realized these kids don’t know this song, you know, and we were suddenly like, ‘Oh wait, they didn’t grow up with Old MacDonald.’ ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ doesn’t really mean anything. ‘Mary had a Little Lamb,’ and that coupled with wanting to forge a stronger relationship with not just the kids but their families and their parents and their community, we decided to add folk-songs from their countries into our repertoires.”
As for the social aspects of Buffalo String Works, students Jullianne Dang and Num Moie were not shy to talk about it.
“I actually didn’t know her, but we became pretty good friends,” said Dang.
“Well, some kids are…let me say, some of the boys are jerks,” proclaimed Moie.
“And pretty annoying too,” said Dang.
“But, um, there are some friends that, you know, around here and more friends that you could become friends with,” explained Moie.
“Yeah, just sometimes they gossip too much, like every girl does,” said Dang.