By Lucinda Ali Landing | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
For years, I’ve known that one day I would need to find a way to articulate precisely what makes our music school unique. By that, I mean what makes us who we are, why this experience feels special, and why our students generally do so well in music and life.
My Studio is a space for teachers to discuss their influences, profound teaching moments, daily quandaries, and the experiences that helped define their approach to teaching.
The short backstory is that the Hyde Park Suzuki Institute is a music school that I started on Chicago’s “South Side” (that’s code for mostly Black people) near the University of Chicago. We teach music lessons like every other music school in the city. But the question that I’ve been asked from day one has been, “Why does it feel different than any other music school when I walk in the door?” And the answer is exactly what inspires my passion in teaching: my connection and commitment to families in our music community. But community isn’t something that just happens, and it isn’t something I could create on my own. It takes the will to connect by everyone involved. These are a few of the things I’ve learned about creating the right environment for that spirit to thrive.
Building an intentional space where families can come together with a shared purpose for the children is only the start of building a community.
As a child, my dad drove my sister and me to the “North Side” (that’s code for mostly white people) for lessons at a community music school. It was really far, so we spent a long time in the car. We learned how to play our instruments well, and the people were nice enough. However, that music school was not where I went to see my friends, laugh, or have fun—or find lifelong relationships.
When I started the Hyde Park Suzuki Institute, I was young. I didn’t know much about business. I did have a vision that I wanted the kids to have what I didn’t have growing up in classical music. I wanted friends and fun, with rigorous classical-music education close to home. In hindsight, I realize that I must have willed this into existence. With no strategic plan, metrics, or data, I just knew that individualism would not work for us. We have to connect socially in love to thrive.
That meant this community music school needed to be more than just a school—it had to be a part of the fabric of life for the students and the teachers. And it is. An early personal experience of this connection in love is when I had my first baby. When I opened my eyes from my C-section, I saw my mom. Then I saw my student’s mom, Imani, who was there to help with my baby’s first latching on to nurse. When I got home, my Suzuki-parent-class teacher Martine was there, teaching me how to wrap the baby and bringing me meals.
Neither of these love actions had anything to do with music. Still, we became connected forever because of those acts of love. Martine recently spoke about her experience at HPSI in an interview. “Parents, families, students, teachers, and staff all come together to create first and foremost a community, and music is taught in this environment of trust, love, and care. When new students join my class, I work on connecting them to the rest of the class.”
Maintaining relationships is part of the job.
Showing up for celebrations, crises, or just taking responsibility for another person’s child are acts that bind the community together: parents, faculty, and staff know it is part of the job. The best part of HPSI is that “bring your child to work day” is every day. For parents with multiple children at HPSI, there is the peace of mind that comes with knowing your children are loved even when you’re not watching. In the hallway, teachers will say hello to your child with a smile. Someone else is going to ask your child how they’re doing, and someone else’s mama is going to sternly tell them to stop running in the hall, but with love. There’s always a built-in babysitter around to give parents a moment to breathe!
Today in education, I think they call it (SEL) Social Emotional Learning. But at HPSI, we’ve always known intuitively that when children feel emotionally connected, that is the foundation for all learning. The commitment to connect, help, and collaborate as parents and faculty is contagious and almost palpable to a new parent as soon as they walk in the door.
I am passionate about teaching families that are committed to learning and committed to each other, resulting in children who excel. The children are friends beyond music. They encourage and cheer for each other to be their best, or at least not to quit so they can see each other.
My passion for teaching children intentionally to a high skill level is fueled by this extended family, however, this ideology doesn’t always come naturally, and our school is not a good fit for everyone. After 21 years of nonstop parenting, I understand wanting to be a “JDO” (Just Drop Off) parent. My favorite sign we have posted at the entrance says, “Children without a parent will be given an espresso and a puppy.” Families do best here when they’re deeply involved—and there is definitely extra encouragement not to be a JDO parent!
Perpetuating and sustaining this community model into the future is my new work.
How do you mandate love in an employee manual? How does one convince funders that this critical connection is the measurement that creates excellence in children? How does one train teachers to be open to the extended family concept?
We shall see: HPSI is a work in progress. But for now, I use this as a gauge: I tell our new teachers in training, “If you’re not receiving invitations to students’ birthday parties, bat mitzvahs, baby showers, and anniversaries, then you haven’t connected to the family yet.” Just start with being genuinely interested in the student and family, and then teach the lesson.