Music a universal language for UB student violinists and Buffalo’s refugee children

Refugee and immigrant children on Buffalo's West Side have the opportunity to learn to play an instrument, thanks to Buffalo String Works. Video and photos: Douglas Levere

Published November 18, 2016

“Music is a universal language — it’s a good way of helping them ease the stress of experiencing an entirely new environment and culture.”
Lisa Gagnon, UB senior and teaching assistant
Buffalo String Works

One recent afternoon, the sounds of the first movement from 19th-century Russian composer Aleksandr Borodin’s “String Quartet No.2” filled the auditorium of Buffalo P.S. 18 on the city’s West Side.

The audience, a group of students from the school — fifth through eighth graders — had stayed after class for the concert, performed by four student musicians from UB.

The UB students, current and past teaching assistants with Buffalo String Works (BSW), were playing an outreach concert for the P.S. 18 students, the first time BSW musicians had performed at the school.  

Lisa Gagnon, a UB senior from Amherst and a current teaching assistant with BSW, was playing cello as part of the string quartet. An English and linguistics major, Gagnon is minoring in music.

“It is wonderful to have an opportunity to do this,” Gagnon said. “I heard about Buffalo String Works from other students at UB, and they had very good things to say about the organization.

“I began playing and doing a little bit of teaching with them last spring and I am back this semester.

“Many of the students we play for are here from other countries,” she said. “Music is a universal language — it’s a good way of helping them ease the stress of experiencing an entirely new environment and culture.”   

Gagnon

“Many of the students we play for come from other countries — music is a universal language, said Lisa Gagnon (R), a UB senior majoring in English and linguistics. Gagnon played cello together with three UB student violinists recently during a string instrumental concert for fifth to eighth graders at Buffalo P.S. 18.

More than 70 different language groups are spoken by refugee and immigrant children at P.S. 45 International School, also on the West Side.

For students arriving from countries around the world, music — both listening and playing it — also provides a way to connect with others.

“Our goal is to provide Buffalo’s refugee children with an opportunity to learn to play music, and in the process grow in a way that may not have been possible in their home countries,” said Yuki Numata Resnick, one of three co-founders of Buffalo String Works.

Yuki Numata Resnick co-founded Buffalo String Works with Virginia Barron and Elise Alaimo Golove.

Yuki Numata Resnick co-founded Buffalo String Works with Virginia Barron and Elise Alaimo Golove.

BSW, a nonprofit organization, offers personalized instruction on violin — and soon, cello — at no cost to refugee children who comprise a significant portion of the West Side’s underserved population.

Resnick, together with Elise Alaimo Golove, a music teacher at P.S. 45, and violinist Virginia Barron, founded Buffalo String Works following a March 2014 concert for students at the school.

“They were genuinely passionate about this, with their enthusiasm and the way they just clamored to learn the instruments,” said Barron, who has been teaching violin for more than 35 years and has played with the Buffalo Philharmonic and Chicago, Milwaukee and Toronto symphonies. “When can we learn to play? We also want to play!

“Our goal is to give underserved students the chance to play an instrument,” she said.   “Our student base ranges from first to seventh grade — pretty much all beginners.

“They are learning from us, of course, but we are also learning from them.”

From left: Emily Vosburgh and Linnea Cremean play violin and viola as part of a UB string quartet that performed a classical music concert for students at P.S. 18.

From left: Emily Vosburgh and Linnea Cremean play violin and viola as part of a UB string quartet that performed a classical music concert for students at P.S. 18.

For many refugee children, English is not their first language, said Resnick, who also teaches violin.

“Music provides them with a way of expressing themselves that has nothing to do with words.

“And the benefits go to our student instructors as well. Many of them come from UB.”

For the concert at P.S. 18, Gagnon was joined by three other UB student musicians: Emily Vosburgh, a Clarence senior majoring in business administration, who plays second violin; first violinist Blair Sailer, a graduate student in music education from Hamburg; and Linnea Cremean, a linguistics major from Clarence who plays the viola. All three have been teaching assistants at BSW.

Ellen Aroune, a first-year graduate student in music education at UB, is a pianist who also teaches violin with Buffalo String Works.

“I accompanied a lot of Yuki’s students while I was an undergrad at UB,” Aroune said. “I was a piano major, but I played violin a lot in high school and I thought I should get involved.

“I was torn between music education and accompanying for my graduate work. I started doing this and I really love it. I love the kids; it’s great to be able to play for them and teach them how to play their instruments.

“The opportunity to play and practice an instrument is an experience that every student should have,” she said.

Resnick said BSW hopes to begin offering lessons on cello within a few weeks.

UB first-year music education graduate student Ellen Aroune teaches violin to Buffalo refugee and immigrant students. Aroune plans to begin a teaching career following her graduate education.

UB first-year music education graduate student Ellen Aroune teaches violin to Buffalo refugee and immigrant students. Aroune plans to begin a teaching career following her graduate education.

“The students are mostly West Side, from School 45 and West Buffalo Charter School,” she said. “There are also some from Charter School for Applied Technologies and Tapestry Charter. We started out with 14 students two years ago and this year we are up to 50. Our plan is to continue growing.”

Barron said BSW would love to have a summer program: “Music camp is something that every student should experience.”

BSW also would like to begin working with a composer-in-residence.

“We would like to work with a group based in New York to come up and do some workshops with the kids and have a composer write a piece for them,” Resnick said.

BSW offers free violin lessons Mondays and Wednesdays during the school year, from 2:30-3:30 p.m. and 3:45-5 p.m. at Concerned Ecumenical Ministry, 286 Lafayette Ave.

While BSW offers the lessons at no cost, there is a $10 registration fee, which students’ families get back at the end of instruction. Families pay a dollar a class if they can afford it. BSW’s funding is donation- and grant-based; the organization has just received a $20,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

Additional information about Buffalo String Works can be found on their website.