“As artist-educators, we need to practice and continually fine-tune our composition. Making mistakes, seeking feedback and learning from them is the sweet melody in our collective magnum opus.”
- Jen Sung
Self-expression through music can be validating and freeing, but it can also be scary: for young musicians, sharing their journey of self-exploration through art can feel profoundly vulnerable. At Sistema Toronto we work diligently to create an inclusive and welcoming space where our students feel safe to be their whole selves. Celebrating our students’ racial, cultural, sexual orientation and gender identities (SOGI), as well as their ideas, interests, hobbies, and aspirations, make our community brighter, richer, and more vibrant.
In this blog post, we'll delve into what we’re doing to create a safe and affirming environment, a repertoire representative of our community, and a diverse team of staff trained in inclusive teaching practices. It’s our mission to ensure that every student finds a place to flourish within our program.
Students at Sistema Toronto come from some of the most diverse communities in Toronto. Over two thirds of our students are people of colour, speaking a host of languages including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Malaysian, Spanish, Tibetan, Jamaican, Korean, and Vietnamese. The shapes and sizes of our students’ families are varied, as are the neighborhoods they live in, their cultural values, and lived experiences. The 2SLGBTQ+ community is also strongly represented, with 5% of students in the program identifying as non-binary.
We take great pride in the rich mosaic represented by our student population, and we honour our commitment to diversity and inclusion by ensuring that our students see themselves represented amongst our staff. Inclusive teaching practices, accommodations, engagements, and accessible activities are made possible by our staff’s diverse perspectives and experiences and help us ensure that all students are having their needs met. Moreover, by hiring diverse staff, we send a powerful message to our students that they are seen, heard, and celebrated.
As another means of honouring diversity and inclusion in our program, we are passionate about presenting our students with a diverse and culturally rich repertoire of music. We prioritize the inclusion of music from different cultures, both contemporary and historic, and value music that resonates with our student body. From learning to play iconic melodies from the Mario games and Avengers movies, to exploring contemporary artists like Drake, BTS, Lilly Singh, Maestro Fresh Wes, and the Snotty Nose Rez Kids, our repertoire spans across genres, cultures, and generations.
It is our hope that both the historical and contemporary musicians we include in our programming can function as role models for our students as they navigate their musical journeys. This year, for example, students will learn about Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George: an 18th century Black composer, athlete, and soldier, who prevailed through the deeply entrenched racism of 18th century France to become the first classical composer of African descent to garner mainstream recognition in European music. Students will also have the opportunity to meet and work with Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, a conductor and musician from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, who will visit our Lambton Park and Yorkwoods centres to teach students Bologne’s music. This workshop will be the first in a series of engagements with the TSO that Sistema will be involved in this year.
It is our priority not to echo the traditional canon that leans so heavily upon white, male, European composers. Our students deserve to understand, through the structure of our program, that their voices, ideas, identities, and creativity are vital parts of an authentic and complete arts scene in this program, this city and beyond.
Our Workshops and Special Projects
Sistema’s workshops and special projects are a valuable opportunity for cross-cultural learning.They also give us the chance to look deeply and ask questions about important topics surrounding inclusion, sensitivity, and acceptance of each others’ differences.
This month, students at our Scarborough centre had the opportunity to learn from Juanita Muise, Indigenous Engagement Coordinator at York University, while students at our Lambton Park centre were visited by South African composer and singer Bongani Magatyana. Juanita Muise led students through a workshop to learn about the significance of the drum to the Mi’kmaq people. Students had the opportunity to hear about how the drums are made, honoured, held, and played, and to sing Indigenous songs along with Juanita. For his part, Magatyana led our Lambton Park students in a workshop about South African music, particularly songs from his Xhosa background. Students sang and danced with Magatyana and learned about his work to decolonize Western music and put people in touch with their roots.
The workshops we provide extend to our teaching staff, too, with facilitators whose extensive classroom experience has given them unique perspectives on working inclusively with young students. One of our most recent Professional Development (PD) sessions, generously provided by the Aubrey & Marla Dan Foundation, was facilitated by Jen Sung, a queer, Taiwanese-Canadian, interdisciplinary artist with expertise in creating safe and inclusive spaces, particularly for 2SLGBTQ+ students. This learning provided context and background for our teaching artists to draw upon when working through this year’s Pride activities, which are focused on identity, respect, and learning about each of the terms in the 2SLGBTQ+ acronym.
Reflecting the importance of representation, Sung spoke about what we can do right away to make our classrooms more inclusive: “Take direction from students and ask them how they want to express themselves. Students are smart, they know what’s up! Active and empathetic listening goes a long way.”
It is our hope that Sistema Toronto can stand as a beacon of the transformative power of inclusivity in music education. We firmly believe that the universal language of music can be a catalyst for transformative social change, and that ensuring our students are seen, heard, and supported is an important part of their training as musicians, engaged citizens, and future leaders.