Alumni-led organizations Marigold Music Program & Opera InReach address systemic barriers in traditional music education

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Article by Camille Rogers, Doctor of Musical Arts candidate, University of Toronto Faculty of Music & Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, and Co-Artistic Director, OperaQ

In the past year, the music industry has seen many new organizations form in response to the increased momentum of equity work. This article highlights two such organizations founded in 2020 by alumni of the Faculty of Music: Opera InReach (led by Andrew Adridge and Daevyd Pepper), and Marigold Music Program (led by Khadija Mbowe, Charlotte Siegel, and Kevin Mulligan). Recently, I was able to sit down for conversations with Mbowe, Mulligan, and Adridge, as well as Perri Lo, one of Opera InReach’s provincial coordinators, discussing barriers that marginalized people, and youth specifically, face when engaging with traditional music education.

Marigold Music Program

Inspired by the belief that “everyone has the right to create and perform,” Marigold Music Program (MMP) works to offer marginalized youth opportunities to participate in the arts. Program Director Kevin Mulligan explains that the organization’s founders weren’t seeing enough community outreach: in particular, post-secondary music students like themselves weren’t being given training to support work with youth, which Mulligan identifies as a serious gap in curriculum. “There's not enough focus on the sort of community change that can happen through music.” MMP aims to address that gap through post-secondary-focused initiatives, as well as youth-focused programs like their recently launched Summer Music Intensive. “If we can work with [youth] through music, foster their skills, and give them opportunities to succeed in any way in music—but especially if they want to get into a post-secondary program—that's where other change can start growing, and slowly begin to creep up through the system.”

“It all starts with the self—bringing self-awareness, and then social awareness, and using that to help others to be good allies.”

- Khadija Mbowe, MMP Co-founder

Executive Director Khadija Mbowe expands on another aspect of MMP's programming: “We’re doing a civic engagement and community co-op course with Bina [Professor Bina John]. It’s giving [university] students more training, but not just anti-oppression training—more perspective and introspection. It all starts with the self—bringing self-awareness, and then social awareness, and using that to help others to be good allies.” MMP's undergraduate course, “Radical Music Dialogues: Internship in Music Education,” will have its first iteration in the winter term of 2022. “A culturally responsive pedagogy and a student-centered focus: that's what we're about,” Mbowe explains. “It's about making sure the university students feel like they have the right support needed to go into schools.”

The organization’s goal is to eventually expand into one-on-one mentorship as well, says Mulligan. “Young people in Toronto can have the opportunity to go through the whole cycle if they want, as a participant and then hopefully [Marigold Music Program will be] hiring back those university students [and] hiring mentors from the community down the road.” All programs will be fully funded so participants can be involved free of charge, Mbowe adds, identifying financial access as a “strict mandate” for Marigold Music Program.

Opera InReach

Similarly, Opera InReach was formed in response to systemic barriers faced in the opera sector, which traditionally has embraced a culture of elitism and ethnocentricity. Co-founder Andrew Adridge says that his commitment to accessible opera education comes from his own personal experiences: “Opera is not the music of my parents, let alone my grandparents. I would have never interacted with this music at all if it wasn't for the school that I went to, and having that that connection.” Over the past year, Opera InReach has developed digital sessions for their H.O.N.E. program (Helping Opera’s New Existence), which are aimed at secondary schools. “We bring opera to them, with dedicated individuals that look like them, like the fabric of our city,” Adridge says, “but also do everything that we can to make the art form accessible by introducing it in terms of entry points to the society they’re comfortable with.”

Opera InReach currently has cohorts operating across Canada in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario. Perri Lo, provincial co-ordinator for British Columbia, explains that while Opera InReach is currently focused on serving high school students, she would be thrilled to see the organization continue to expand its educational outreach in consultation with other companies, potentially creating sessions to pair with specific productions. Earlier this year Lo also participated in a performance project for Opera InReach: a digital mini-concert in celebration of Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, in collaboration with Renee Fajardo and Luka Kawabata. For Lo, who says the process of choosing the repertoire was “heartfelt,” it was an opportunity to share her heritage through music as well as text, and she hopes to continue to produce more work in this vein.

“Opera in Canada should look like whatever the society of Canada looks like,” says Adridge, “and should [be] constantly redefining itself.” In particular, Adridge wants every potential opera-goer to feel comfortable forming their own opinions, without fearing that they’re not educated enough or don’t belong. Adridge sees some parts of the opera sector embracing such values, with smaller, more independent companies “wanting to be community-centric in their funding and their programming, and wanting to reflect equitable values [and] amplify oppressed individuals.” Unfortunately, he hasn't seen that shift in priorities transfer to more traditional opera companies, which have access to the largest support structures and the most donor funding. Instead of a split between underfunded independent organizations and more established, less accessible companies, Adridge would like to see “something that's more collaborative.” Lo agrees, adding that she wants to see the opera sector fully embrace both new, more overtly political works, as well as relevant takes on older operas, allowing for many approaches to exist side by side.

The Future

“The first step is to take a step back,” Adridge advises, observing that many organizations want to approach equity work “from a place of having all the answers already.” Instead, Adridge would like to see industry leaders take the necessary time to engage with their wider communities: by taking opera out of traditional venues, commissioning more new works and collaborations, initiating free outreach programs in communities, and understanding the logistics of digital content.

Mbowe points to Yale as a model of what could be possible: “They do [a] summer camp for two weeks and go into the community, and then every couple of years, they have a symposium where the teachers around the community and the Yale faculty discuss what's working and what isn't.” Similar approaches, Mbowe says, would allow music institutions to better adapt to the changing realities of their students’ lives and careers. “[Currently] we're not educating students to realize that there's going to be a world beyond school. A lot of [education] is so focused on the bubble of what happens in the university: on what masterclass you can get, what performance opportunities you can get… How do we teach young artists to have a digital footprint, to manage themselves, what's a fair wage for them to charge?”

Even faced with these barriers, Mbowe expresses hope in the youngest generation: “For me, I've had to live in this body my whole life, and at one point I just had enough. And I think a lot of the students currently in second, third, fourth year have had enough. I don't even know if I can give them any advice, because I feel like they're already doing a lot more than a lot of us did while we [were in] school. But I do want to encourage them to keep doing it, and to understand that they will find places and people to support them that have the same vision.”