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Broad Street Review


The Mann Music Center brings music education to the neighborhood

by Camille Bacon-Smith | Broad Street Review

For Naomi Gonzalez, creating programs as Mann Music Center’s vice president of education and community engagement runs deep in her heart. “You don’t see many people of color in my position, doing what we do,” she said, and added. “This is a full circle moment for me.” That circle begins with the violin. “I grew up in Puerto Rico. My mom was very savvy; she found an el sistema type program.” The program used student orchestras as an intervention for at-risk kids.

A different chord

DePaul University was another turning point. “I was assigned to teach lessons in the south side of Chicago. Those are the neighborhoods where you have Black and brown people. The children saw somebody like me having a violin. They were like, ‘Oooh, you look like me, I look like you, you have a violin, What?!’”

Gonzalez shifted her focus to education and spent the first 15 years of her career as a teacher. When she creates programs for the Mann, she uses her personal experience as a teacher and as a kid in Puerto Rico to understand the needs of the community. “I was there,” she said. “That was me. So it’s come full circle, because now I am creating those opportunities for others. And it’s awesome!”

Digital opportunities

When the pandemic hit, teachers suddenly needed quality virtual resources. Gonzalez met the challenge with the Mann Music Room, a series of multicultural episodes, and a six-lesson curriculum. “We love to feature the tapestry of cultures that make up Philadelphia. We had classical Indian dance, we had oud from Syria, we had African [music].” Artists received a stipend for the use of their work.

Summer brought a virtual version of the All City Orchestra Summer Academy, but as the new school year approached, Gonzalez knew they had to address the needs of their own Parkside neighborhood. “We are in people’s backyards,” Gonzalez said, “We are their neighbors.” Parkside had few community resources, particularly after-school programs for middle schoolers. “It is an age range that really needs serving, and it is also an intervention point.” (And privately, she says, they are the best: “hard on the outside and gushy on the inside.") To help fill that need, she created the Motion and Music Academy, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Sister City Girls’ Choir, and Mad Beatz Philly, a drumline program, all delivered virtually.

Gonzalez said that the kids needed tangible items to feel like they were equipped for success, so the Academy provides materials like dance shoes and instruments and ring lights for the choir. Students mostly use the Chromebooks provided by the school district. Connectivity is still an issue but she says it is getting better. For some children, however, access remains a barrier.

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