• Alexis Alabado

Orchestra: a diverse and dynamic future

Part II: A conversation with Harmony Project instructor Sabrina Hu

In consonance with the Black Lives Matter Movement and outpour of support, the conversation of systemic racism and working against racial biases has been a poignant one. Here at Harmony Project Phoenix, we are continuing to grow and hone our professional development curriculum to better prepare teachers to address our students' needs with a more holistic mindset.

Our second conversation comes from within our organization. Sabrina Hu is a flute teacher at Harmony Project Phoenix and has 15 years of teaching experience. She has taught flute lessons at several non-profit organizations, universities and colleges (Rhodes College, Lycoming College, and the National University of Ireland), and has given masterclasses around the world.

Alongside teaching, Sabrina has performed in many prestigious venues, such as Carnegie Hall in NYC and the National Concert Hall in Ireland. Sabrina has worked in several orchestras, including the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, the Wexford Opera Orchestra, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to performing and teaching, Sabrina is also the founding Co-Artistic Director of The Walled City Music Festival in Derry, Northern Ireland. She has also worked as the Director of Operations and Educational Programming for the PRIZM Ensemble in Memphis, TN.

Alexis (interviewer): First off, can you give us some background on how you got into music and teaching specifically?

Sabrina: I grew up in Houston, Texas, and as a young child, I took an interest in all things creative and was naturally drawn to several art forms. In middle school, I joined the school band and I started playing the flute. By the time high school came around, my main motivation was playing music and I was lucky that my parents were supportive and encouraged that I audition for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA). I also auditioned and joined the Youth Orchestra during that time.

HSPVA was a great school and very progressive at that time. It really allowed for students to flourish through creativity and was inclusive of all students, no matter what race and socioeconomic background they were from. There are lots of well known musicians that attended the school; many famous jazz musicians, and Beyoncé attended the school. We were actually there at the same time!

I decided to continue with my musical studies after High School and I went to the Mannes College of Music in New York City. After that, I went to study at the Royal Northern College of Music in England. Then finally, after a few years of living in Europe, I completed my doctorate at Michigan State University.

I have always really loved teaching! Some of the most exciting work I’ve done is for nonprofit organizations. The non-profit organizations that I’ve worked with all have a common thread- they value inclusion and giving access and opportunities to underserved students. I had inspirational teachers in my youth and being able to attend an inclusive school like HSPVA, I often feel like teaching for non-profits is like coming back to my roots. I want to be able to inspire students to love music and I want all students to be able to experience it, especially students that may not have access to music lessons.

I moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 2013. I became friends with Lecolion and Carina Washington and they ran a wonderful nonprofit organization called the PRIZM Ensemble. Lecolion also worked for the Memphis Music Initiative as the Director of In-Schools Programs. The Memphis Music Initiative was a new organization that placed teaching artists (all types of music teaching artists: Classical, Rap, Hip-Hop, Soul, Jazz, etc.) in city schools. I was thrilled to be asked to be part of the pilot program and to help kick-start the project. It was a unique and wonderful experience. I worked with the Memphis Music initiative for 3 years in conjunction with teaching at Rhodes College, and a busy performing schedule! In 2017, Lecolion and Carina Washington moved to Boston and there was an opening as the Director of Operations for the PRIZM Ensemble. I knew that I wanted to continue the legacy and the great work that they had built with the organization. I was honored to have been appointed as the Director of Operations for the PRIZM Ensemble. In this role, I was able to further expand my ability to provide access to high quality music instruction to thousands of students throughout the city.

Last fall in 2019, I moved here to Phoenix with my husband as he was offered a great position at Arizona State University. When I came here, I made it a mission to try to understand the many communities in this city…. I am still trying to figure it out! Every city has its own landscape and unique feel, as well as issues, and I wanted to be able to contribute. I even googled “non profit music organizations in Phoenix” and the Harmony Project popped up! I just love the mission, and it's a wonderful organization to be involved with.

Alexis: What does it mean to have a culturally responsive repertory?

Sabrina: When I worked in Memphis, I was in a city that was 63% African American. I wanted to be sure that any organization that I worked with was intentional on how music was programmed and also to make sure that it was diverse and a reflection of the population of the city. I wanted to make sure that when students were learning a piece, they could look it up and see themselves in that music. In my position as the Director of Operations for the PRIZM Ensemble, we were very aware that students needed to be able to see themselves in their teachers and we were intentional in hiring teaching artists that were reflective of the demographics of the city. I had students tell me that seeing a teacher who looked like them was inspiring because they truly believed that someday, they could be in the same position as their teacher.

I believe that the less restrictive you are on repertoire, the better it is for students as well as concert programs. There is a lot of great music that has been written and is currently being written by diverse composers. We need to continue to think outside of the box and have our students learn music that might be out of the tradition of what we as teachers were taught in music schools. There are more resources now than 15-20 years ago when I was a young music student and it is much easier now to find music by diverse composers. I think it is important for teachers to be creative in finding music for students. I had a High School flute class that I worked with through the Memphis Music Initiative. At the beginning of the semester, I asked the students what was on their Spotify list. We ended up arranging various flute quartets out of music that they were listening to. The students helped create the quartets, they all improved in their playing, and they had so much fun playing it at the end of semester concert!

Harmony Project Phoenix young musicians.

Alexis: In your years as a music educator, what have you noticed about the structure of music education when it comes to being culturally responsible?

Sabrina: I think we are making progress. There are many great organizations - Sphinx, non profit’s such as Harmony Project, and many more - that are really helping to give a voice to diverse composers that have been underrepresented in music education. Music Colleges and Universities are adding classes to explore music of diverse composers. I see friends and colleagues on social media programming and recording music of diverse composers. I don’t remember this happening when I was a young music student, so I think it is progress. There is still a lot of work to do but we all need to keep pushing in order to keep music alive and relevant in today's diverse and changing world.

Alexis: How can music educators become more culturally aware in order to better instruct their students, especially for those who might not have that background?

Sabrina: I think it is important for teachers who have a different cultural background to their students, to listen, to communicate, and to be humble. I do feel that it is a teachers’ responsibility to learn about different cultural backgrounds, especially if they want to be effective teachers. Ask students about the music they listen to when they are out of school and what music they grew up with in their homes, and explore it. Read books by diverse writers. Have conversations with people that are different from you. Be open and learn when listening to students' experiences.

Alexis: How can we best serve our students who are BIPOC in making them feel like their voices and backgrounds are heard?

Sabrina: I think we are making a start with organizations like Harmony Project, and other nonprofits that are doing amazing work and helping BIPOC students to be heard. I am a first-generation Asian American. My parents immigrated here from Taiwan/China in the late 1970’s. I grew up in Texas and was often one of the few “non-white” kids in my class. I often felt like I was not heard and throughout my youth and into my adult life, I often felt that the classes, courses, and music that I studied did not reflect my background and history. It is extremely important that curricula change to reflect the demographics of the U.S. It is important that BIPOC teachers and students have a voice in creating curricula. It is important that underserved students have access to music lessons - financial support, emotional support, and transportation to music lessons.

Alexis: What kind of legacy would you want to leave behind?

Sabrina: I hope, as a teacher, that I will have been able to add some inspiration, joy, knowledge, love for music into the lives of my students. I hope to have been able to add towards the steps to racial equity in classical music, and I hope that my energy and dedication for these causes will show progress in the next generation. When I think back to some of my really great teachers at the different times throughout my life, I think about what they meant to me. The great ones helped me feel worthy and gave me confidence, and made me believe in myself. I think that is a really important thing for a teacher to be able to do for a student.

To reflect on this, we pose the question to you: How do you build empathy in your classroom, at work, and in the community?

Alexis Alabado is the social media & marketing manager for Harmony Project Phoenix. Now in her senior year at Arizona State University, Alexis is pursuing her degree in journalism and mass communication with an emphasis in public relations. Her passion for the arts and helping others stems from her experience playing violin in her youth orchestra and believing that music transcends language.