Angelica Cortez (she/her) is a Los Angeles-born arts leader working at the intersection of music, education, and justice. She is the newly appointed Executive Director of the Suzuki Association of the Americas. Previously she served as the Interim President and CEO of El Sistema USA. She is a Sphinx LEAD (Leaders in Excellence, Arts, & Diversity) fellow, and an active speaker, educator, and consultant. She has held positions with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Juilliard School. She’s also taught trumpet, brass, and band in public schools and after school music programs. Angelica has degrees in trumpet performance and teaching from University of California Davis, Longy School of Music, and Bard College.
RC: Suzuki Association of the Americas is a membership organization that serves over 8,000 members from North, South, and Central America, and 200,000 students, parents, and music professionals. The organization has a very broad reach in classical music, and a long history of musical excellence based on the teachings of Japanese musician and educator Shinichi Suzuki. Many of its students come to the Suzuki method at an early age and are shaped by the Suzuki method. In addition to your extensive experience in music education, what personally drew you to being part of SSA?
AC: Everyone that I’ve talked to has some relationship in the music world to Suzuki. Their teacher was trained in it or their parents were involved in it. Everyone is like one person removed at most from Suzuki. To me, it was such a huge opportunity to connect with the organization, and to really build on its history. The Suzuki model and the Suzuki philosophy is founded on this idea that music can be a tool for developing youth, instead of music being just kind of this gift that we give to people. We’re using music as a tool for young people to understand themselves, to understand how they want to contribute to society, to understand how to connect with each other, to connect with their families.
When the position opened up, it was an opportunity to get to connect with the Suzuki history and legacy of musical excellence, focus, and teaching, and also to bridge a new connection to what we’re thinking about when we’re talking about community. A lot of pressure is being put on arts organizations right now to think about what their contribution is. And that’s really fair. That’s really right. Suzuki is the prime example of an organization that can do that work well.
RC: Suzuki training is often seen as a learning method that starts at a very early age. Parental involvement is a large component of lessons. In what ways is SAA looking at that and seeing what they can do to meet the needs of people where they’re today? Are there ways that SSA has sort of examined that direct role of the parent or guardian, and how that might be changing?
AC: A lot of what I talked about in my interview process was an interest in making SSA more accessible, and that’s not negating the work that anyone who’s been involved in Suzuki so far has done to try and make it more accessible. But certainly requiring parents to be involved directly in music education, that’s a barrier point. Not every young person is going to have a parent who can be available readily for this. Certainly my parents wouldn’t have been available to attend every single lesson with me. They were kind of like “You do you kid, good luck!” That can be a barrier to access and that’s something we definitely want to examine and think about moving forward.
In an ideal world it would be great if parents could have some sort of involvement as their young people are learning music. I think it’s not about getting rid of that system entirely. It’s about thinking really creatively. For example, if a parent can’t come to every lesson. Is it one or two? And certainly there are teachers, Suzuki teachers, who do this already and who are thinking about this already.
I’m really thinking of my role as facilitator: how do I connect with the teachers who are thinking about that and who have already helped come up with solutions for that? Not try to reinvent the wheel, but instead say “this teacher has done this and approached that particular problem in this way”.
It’s great to have parental involvement with your young person. It’s really great to have a parent involved in your young person’s education period. That’s an ideal. But when we can’t meet that, what are the adjustments and tweaks that we make to make it as good as we possibly can?
RC: I want to ask you a little bit about SSA teacher training, based on the method that was developed by Shinichi Suzuki. It’s a very unique method. Many parents look to this specific style of music learning, based on its success in teaching very young children. Are there ways in which the method is going to evolve a little bit? Obviously there’s many proven techniques that have been successful. Is there anything that SSA is looking to sort of add? Or perhaps get some feedback on it?
AC: If we want our teachers to be relevant to the work that’s going on today, then they have to have some kind of training in equity practice. We’ve done a really good job of focusing on the kind of pragmatics of helping musicians be really excellent, but how do we support our teachers with equity practice, understanding that equity centered practice is practice. It’s not like “I took the training and now I’ve got it.” It’s something that you know, Is just like learning your instrument. There’s no end point. There’s no “I’m done. I’ve got it down now.” It’s something that you continue to grow and develop.
One of the most common trends is that musicians today aren’t necessarily just on stage, they’re online, they’re doing Zoom lessons, they’re playing in 50 different types of musical adventures. They’ve got their own creative projects. They’re also usually volunteering with a nonprofit. If we can find a way to support teachers both artistically and on the more entrepreneurial side (building out a website, how to set your rates, etc.) in a way that’s more business savvy, that’s something I would love to support our teachers with.
RC: Will there be changes to the repertoire in the Suzuki training books? They often include folk songs and classical pieces that are very well known and well loved. Is there any effort to include the works of other composers or broaden the repertoire in some of the more advanced books? Or even some of the early etudes?
AC: We definitely know that the work of BIPOC composers is often ignored. I have questions about what we can do to make sure that we’re highlighting those voices. The way that Suzuki books end up working is that we’re not the publishers of those books. Ultimately, that’s not in our hands. But if we can’t find a way to contribute to that particular group of books, then my question is: okay, then what’s our next route? How else do we contribute? I think that there’s plenty of work that we can do.
RC: Sometimes a child’s journey isn’t going to put them on the path to studying music in college or conservatory, or becoming a professional musician. What role does SSA play in that? How do you promote that desire to make music for the joy of it, and how does the Suzuki method fit with what families are looking for in terms of varied arts experiences for their children?
AC: If I didn’t believe that there was potential for this organization to do really meaningful and relevant work, I wouldn’t have taken this position. The reason I believe in the Suzuki philosophy so much is that its roots, the fundamentals of the philosophy, are that we’re here to share music in a way that centers love. What an incredible philosophy, and how relevant that is to what our kids need right now. The execution of it, I think, has focused a little bit more on excellence. So how do we think about a different calibration? What does it look like for us to really focus actually on building the character of a young person and not just the musical excellence of the young person?
If we are to stay relevant to today, the most important thing we can focus on is that concept of putting love and building character at the center of musical learning. I also think along with that is community building, making sure that young people connect with each other. It’s really interesting having come from the El Sistema world where the primary mission is really about building community through music, using music as a tool for social justice.
On the Suzuki side we have this really interesting philosophy and practical, pragmatic pedagogy. How do I bridge these two ideas? What does it look like if Suzuki lives in public schools? Why can’t we educate a general first grade teacher on Suzuki lessons? Why can’t we partner with organizations that want to give away instruments and make sure every young person has access to an instrument? There’s so much opportunity to bridge all those worlds and my goal is to build as many bridges and connections as I possibly can.