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In Notes from the Classroom, we're highlighting MMI Fellows who are going above and beyond to bridge music skill development with creative liberation and creative expression. Today we're chatting with violist Amaro Dubois, who works with students at Middle College High School, about how he prepared the group for an unforgettable spring concert. 

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MMI: As you're thinking about how you're going to work with young people, and how you're going to incorporate creative liberation into the curriculum alongside music instruction, what is your approach? 

Amaro: So this year, the teacher that I worked with at Middle College has been dealing with some serious health issues, so I stepped up in the classroom. I really love working with her and with her class—she's been my mentor, and an inspiration to me. It’s been an emotional experience.

I put together a performance last year during Christmas, and this spring I started leading rehearsals and, of course, teaching the creative liberation curriculum. I usually spend about 10-15 minutes talking about the history of music, composers from all around the world, and so on. I want the students I work with to have a broad idea of what music is, beyond the music they hear every day on the radio. I also cover music theory and things like that. And then we rehearse. 

Sometimes I’ll open with a five-minute discussion, and I’ll preface it with, "This a safe place. Tell me what you think about this song." I encourage students to express themselves. Sometimes they come up with wild answers! But it usually prompts great discussion. They can be really, really expressive when they play as well, because there is no room to be afraid of making mistakes. That's our slogan: “This is the place to make mistakes. Mistakes are welcome here.” The classroom is the place where we come to make all the mistakes we can. 

I really love being there—it’s one of the highlights of my week. 

MMI: Can you tell me a little bit about the students’ spring concert, which took place on April 26? 

Amaro: For our spring concert, I really wanted to focus on a diverse repertoire, one that would really challenge the students. We opened the concert with the Ukrainian Anthem. We’ve been talking a lot about liberation, and connecting current events with what students see here in the US. Often, students think that what’s going on in other parts of the world is so far away, but it’s not that far, really. When you think about our community here in Memphis, we’re all struggling with the same things. We’re all fighting to be free. 

After that, the students played a classical viola concerto, which featured a student soloist. They also performed a cello concerto, and then “Libertango” by Astor Piazzolla, an Argentinian composer. Tango is an Argentinian musical style, and liber means free. It's music to free people. Piazzolla wrote that music to protest one of the big civil wars in Argentina.

The students also performed a lullaby, which we dedicated to their original teacher, Ms. Johnson. 

Then, we prepared an arrangement of “Lift Every Voice,” which is very purposeful and beautiful. And “Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel.” It's very jazzy and is a nice arrangement. It's the last piece of the concert.

All in all, it’s about an hour of music. And it was challenging to pull that all together! 

MMI: When you're talking with students about music history, how do you keep them engaged and interested?

Amaro: I always try to be myself—to be honest and funny. Also, I’ve never liked the idea that because I’m the teacher I’m above the students in some way. Of course, it’s important that they respect me, but we’re all people. I was the student just a little while ago. But if you create a safe space where students feel like equal participants, and where they can be free with their thoughts, they pay attention.

So, for example, I might walk in and say, “Today we'll be playing ‘Libertango.’ "What does ‘Libertango’ mean? What does it mean to you, personally?” And I’ll revisit those questions each time I’m there, with slight changes, so they expect that I’m going to ask, and they have had time to really think about how they want to respond. I might ask them to come up with a little story where this music is in the background, and to describe it to the class if they’re comfortable sharing.

Often, we’ll spend maybe the last five minutes of class just chatting about the music they’ve been listening to lately, or something cool that happened to them that week. And I learn a lot of new music from them, too. Music is a tool to connect everybody with everybody else in the class, but also with me.

I make sure to talk about my background as well. I’ve told them about how we don’t have music classes in school in Brazil. I know that there are plenty of things that could be better here in Memphis, but at least we’re all able to play music at school. It’s good to make those connections with students, and to share a little bit about where I come from and what I know. It helps us relate to one another.