Teaching young musicians the joy of collaboration
St. Olaf College alumnae Natalia Romero ’15 and Sophia Butler ’15 are currently working as music educators on opposite sides of the Mississippi River — Romero conducts the Harding High School choir in East St. Paul, and Butler conducts the orchestra at South Minneapolis High School.
But on February 27, the two friends and colleagues brought their young musicians together for a performance of “Take What You Need” by choral composer Reena Esmail.
The purpose of this collaboration was not only to expose their students to a unique performance experience, but also to share a musical theme of community and love. Romero and Butler felt that “Take What You Need” was an especially important piece because of its focus on accessibility to students of diverse backgrounds and to build a crucial sense of community with students across the Twin Cities.
“We were purposeful in doing repertoire that included orchestra and choir so that we could include more students in this collaboration,” Butler says. “Last spring as I was browsing for new repertoire, I stumbled across Reena Esmail’s composer page and this piece.”
“Take What You Need” was a piece originally composed for the LA-based Street Symphony, an organization that is focused on connecting professional musicians with communities affected by homelessness and incarceration. The format of the piece allows members of the community to engage with it through musical interludes intended as an open-mic experience.
Since graduating from St. Olaf, both Romero and Butler have been committed to providing an accessible and welcoming musical community in their choral and orchestral classrooms. Romero previously commissioned and led the performance of a choral work featuring a Hmong text, as well as other literature that is representative of other marginalized communities.
Romero and Butler have been friends since their time as music majors at St. Olaf, and have continued this relationship as colleagues working in inner city schools. They both feel that having similar passions relating to community music making and access in their classrooms has greatly benefited their relationship with each other and their relationships with their students. Performing as a group has brought the schools and students together.
“I also think the idea of ‘Take What You Need’ is opening up a great dialogue within our students about who we are and what our community consists of, and I’d like to think the connection to another school is challenging students to think BIG about what community is and how we create it,” Romero says.
The idea of ‘Take What You Need’ is opening up a great dialogue within our students about who we are and what our community consists of, and I’d like to think the connection to another school is challenging students to think BIG about what community is and how we create it.Natalia Romero ’15
Students at Harding and South Minneapolis High School have also engaged in a pen pal exchange in order to get to know each other, which makes the connection over their shared music-making even more substantial.
While at St. Olaf, both Romero and Butler had experiences and opportunities that shaped their ability to prepare this collaboration. Their classes prepared them by exploring ideas of power and injustice that shaped their teaching philosophies to one of inclusion and accessibility.
“My experience playing in the St. Olaf Orchestra instilled in me a passion for community in music that fuels my everyday work with students as orchestral musicians,” Butler says.
Both Butler and Romero are looking forward to bringing that experience to their students.
“I’m excited to get to bring together my classroom with the classrooms of new friends and colleagues,” says Romero.
Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein says that Romero and Butler’s work ethic, talent, and earnestness are representative of his students as a whole, but that “they were and remain extraordinary in their attention to the ways that music can be used to improve lives and address historic, systemic inequalities.”
This concert is the first collaboration between these two schools. Although they differ in their immediate communities and identities, they come together in that they represent diverse schools with strong music programs. Romero and Butler feel that this collaboration is acting as a way for the ensembles to lift each other up and celebrate the power of music that brings them together.
It has been valuable for students to see that other city schools are achieving high levels of music.Sophia Butler ’15
“I am excited to have these students make music together because it is such a cool experience to play in a group of 100 musicians, instead of the usual 30,” says Butler. “I also think it has been valuable for students to see that other city schools are achieving high levels of music. Often times, our programs are compared to suburban schools with a lot of resources and support, and students feel they aren’t good enough.”
Romero and Butler believe that this collaboration between their schools will pave the way for future performances that focus on accessibility and welcoming students into their classrooms.
“Minneapolis Public Schools and St. Paul Public Schools have so much to offer,” Romero says. “We make good music with good people and we teach so much more than music in our ensembles.”