Practicing Partnership: A Music Education Collaboration

The story of a program developed by the Tucson Girls Chorus and the Native American Advancement Foundation to serve students in the GuVo District of the Tohono O’odham Nation shares lessons about centering relationship-building and community-centered collaboration.  

When Nicky Manlove, an associate conductor for the Tucson Girls Chorus, signs into Zoom on Wednesday afternoons, they know that a number of possibilities await. As they log on from Tucson, students will begin logging on from their homes in the GuVo District of the Tohono O’odham Nation, nearly three hours’ drive away. Perhaps there will be rows of boxes on Manlove’s screen; some containing a single student’s face, some in which a grandparent or sibling can be glimpsed in the background, and some which feature a black square, indicating a switched-off camera. Or perhaps today will be a day when only a handful of students turn up. Numbers might fluctuate over the course of the session, as students contend with shaky internet connections or find themselves called away to complete a family chore. Yet no matter which of these unpredictable circumstances arises, the goal of the program remains the same: to create a space where students feel seen, heard, and welcomed.  

Last fall—as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to hinder in-person connection, and as the United States continued to reckon with the ongoing crises of racism, white supremacy, and inequality—the Tucson Girls Chorus (TGC) and the Native American Advancement Foundation (NAAF) embarked upon a partnership which brings weekly remote music education to Tohono O’odham students. NAAF, founded in 2011, is a community-based organization led by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation; it serves GuVo District, one of the Nation’s 11 sovereign districts. TGC and NAAF connected after both received the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona’s CORE Grant. At an event for grant recipients, TCG’s executive director, Marcela Molina, met Jen McCormack, then the senior director of research and development of NAAF. Mutual admiration for one another’s work led to a series of conversations about the possibility of a collaborative partnership. From there, says NAAF director of student support services Monica Cleveland, “it bloomed into something awesome.” 


Reckoning with a Fraught History 

To embark upon such a partnership is to reckon with a fraught history. “Partners need to recognize that there was a negative legacy in terms of imperial effects,” McCormack says, with “outsiders saying they were going to do one thing and doing something very different, and often detrimental.” Native communities have withstood profoundly destructive efforts to erase their histories, identities, and traditions, often at the hands of outsiders intent on compelling their assimilation into white settler society. Music education has not been exempt from this pattern. At the federal boarding schools which Native children were forced to attend throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, European classical music was considered a “civilizing” tool through which students could learn proper behavioral habits and uplift themselves culturally.  

Such overtly racist rhetoric is rarer today, but recent efforts at musical “outreach”—however well-intentioned they may be—risk extending this harmful legacy. Programs that uncritically center European classical music and celebrate its purportedly “universal” relevance give credence to dangerous ideologies about the presumed superiority of Western culture. And one-directional “outreach” programs also often proceed from the misguided assumption that the marginalized communities they seek to engage exist in a cultural vacuum in which only local traditions matter, and in which there is no previous knowledge of or enthusiasm for classical music. This assumption enacts its own process of erasure, as Native people and other marginalized racial groups have engaged with classical music from the earliest days of the art form’s history. Given the enduring impact of these histories, McCormack notes, it’s vital to recognize that “the way you design a youth program in Tucson is going to be really different than in the Tohono O’odham Nation. You’re going to need a different level of buy-in.”  

In addition to considering these broader contextual factors while developing the partnership, TGC reflected critically upon past institutional experience working with Native communities. Molina candidly describes a short-lived 2013 project, in which TGC engaged members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, as a “total failure.” Because she took for granted that the project would be of interest to the community, she says, “I was not curious enough about what they were curious about.” The outcomes were “average” and the partnership dissolved after about six months. “It wasn’t sustainable because I never asked the questions,” Molina reflects. “We really never had a partnership. It was just me bulldozing my way through their community.” This past experience influenced Molina’s work with NAAF. From the outset, she was careful to ensure that the program was collaboratively envisioned—an approach that NAAF’s own team also endorsed. “When we first met, we wanted to make sure that we got input from everyone,” says Cleveland. “It really felt like we were all putting this together and designing it specifically for our O’odham children.” 


A Program Approach Centering the Tohono O’odham Community

Crucially, both organizations shared a baseline commitment to centering Tohono O’odham needs and perspectives—a commitment that is fundamental to NAAF’s work writ large. One of the organization’s many initiatives is an after-school program, whose myriad offerings range from academic subjects to gardening to sports. Local schools do not offer music or other arts education, so TGC was able to fill a clear need. It also offered an opportunity for students to engage more closely with Tohono O’odham culture through music. “Everything that we do within our traditions is done through music,” Cleveland explains. Accordingly, the program was designed to introduce students to new musical experiences while also honoring O’odham ones. TGC staff worked closely with Cleveland to ensure that both NAAF staff and Tohono O’odham students would be involved in curriculum development. Jordan Evans, who now serves as NAAF’s CEO, notes that “generally speaking, programs have to be adapted for the community that they’re being hosted in. [TGC] just did such a phenomenal job at approaching us on the front end, saying, ‘In your communities, what things should be celebrated and what things should be kept more private or be protected? Are there topics that we should avoid? Are there things that we should bring up?’”  

Beginning with questions like these, McCormack notes, allowed the program design to be informed by Indigenous research methods. Unlike Western models, in which the activity of researching is thought to be separate from the identity of the researcher, Indigenous research methods center the relationship between the two. While there is of course abundant diversity within Indigenous approaches, generally speaking, the paradigm eschews top-down approaches to gathering and distributing information, respects the knowledge generated by Indigenous elders and communities, and recognizes that not all researchers will have equal access to cultural information. In the Tohono O’odham context, employing Indigenous research methods means considering a project’s relationship to the culture’s lifeways, or himdag. This approach generates important questions, McCormack says: “Is this project going to promote good life? Is it going to hold to seven generations? Does this heal trauma from the past?”  


Planning, Reevaluating, and Adapting 

The partnership began with a four-week pilot in fall 2021, followed by a longer, 10-week cycle this past spring. In preparation, Manlove constructed what they describe as a “big romantic plan,” with themes and units outlined in a detailed spreadsheet. They ended up scrapping most of it. For example, Manlove initially had not planned to foreground solfege, as they found it “pedagogically complicated,” but they switched gears when students responded with enthusiasm. And when, at an early session, Manlove asked students what they liked to sing, the answers took them by surprise: “Ariana Grande! Dua Lipa!” These were useful reminders that the program needed to account for students’ Tohono O’odham identity while also affirming their full selves, which encompass but are not limited to that identity. Manlove notes that they are “hyperaware of—or I’m trying to be—of legacies of colonialism and erasure and the particular violence that music has played in the role of colonial genocide in the United States.” But they have also come to recognize that such awareness doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it needs to be directed toward meeting the needs of the program and the individual interests and personalities of its participants. As Manlove puts it, “It’s important to stay in touch with scholars and pedagogy, and it’s also really important to be really responsive to the people who showed up to the room.” 

Manlove and Molina also emphasize that these pedagogical decisions are not theirs alone to make. To that end, the program includes several “student leaders,” community members who can serve as a bridge between TGC staff and their younger peers. Molina explains that the student leaders “are educating us in what is important for them.” One day, when Manlove was teaching a “super goofy” folk song—a jig featuring dancing animals and a horseshoe-clad grasshopper—they paused to ask if students knew what a jig was. It wasn’t until a student leader named Mazey offered the equivalent word in O’odham that their understanding of the piece clicked—precisely the type of spontaneous insight that a preplanned spreadsheet could never capture. Such an approach deviates from pedagogical convention. As Manlove puts it, “the idea of sharing power on the podium is actually very taboo in arts organizations. Our field hinges on the idea that one person is in the front, one person is making decisions.” Yet that model seems increasingly outdated: “to be really honest, I don’t think that is a skill that will carry us into a future.”  

Even as the partnership works toward a flexible, collaborative model, it also contends with significant material challenges: pandemic-related restrictions, technological limitations, and other logistical barriers that are amplified and compounded by historically rooted social inequities. Native Americans have suffered disproportionately high rates of infection and death from Covid-19, attributable in part to disparities in access to healthcare, and the Tohono O’odham Nation has implemented a strict lockdown in response. Because many O’odham families live in multigenerational households, and elders are especially vulnerable to the disease, NAAF has taken particular care to ensure that students do not put their families at risk. For the music program and many other afterschool activities, for example, students log on from home rather than gathering communally. (Molina and Manlove are hopeful that, as restrictions lift, students will be able to attend collectively, and that they will be able to make occasional in-person visits to the Nation.) Moreover, says Evans, “when you pair those restrictions with the challenges of infrastructure, it makes participation difficult for a lot of families.” GuVo District is remote and vast. Services and resources can be challenging to access. Internet access is inconsistent—a situation that stems from longstanding inequities in technology—and temporary solutions, like Verizon Jetpacks and other mobile hotspots, can be unreliable. Students’ ability to participate consistently in the program is also informed by cultural and familial obligations. Cleveland explains, “A lot of time in our O’odham households, your chores come first. They have to do their daily duties. So sometimes they’ll be so eager to log on, and they’re like, ‘I’ll be right back. I gotta take out the trash.’ And they run and do that. Then they’ll continue their music program, and they’ll start singing again.”  

These factors have shaped the partnership’s design and implementation; Molina describes TGC’s approach as one of “constant reevaluation.” Students are free to come and go at any time, rather than being required to attend each session in its entirety. Manlove says, “I learned pretty quickly that a continuous educational program that relies on previous knowledge that we got from the prior weeks just wouldn’t work.” Instead, they’ve adopted a curriculum that includes warmup exercises, repertoire similar to that sung by other TGC ensembles, a focus on movement and physicality, and a compositional component, in which students pursue activities like coming up with an original text for a given melody. Recently, students have also been working collectively to choose a name for their ensemble, and student leaders have volunteered to help translate potential names into the O’odham language. And despite the complexities of access, students have made their enthusiasm about the program clear. For instance, Cleveland notes that she’s regularly asked during other programming about when the next music session will take place. At first, “some kids will come on and they’re a bit sluggish,” she says, but she’s seen them become more and more comfortable: “halfway through you see their smiles come out, and you see that energy.” 


A New Definition of Success: Long-Term Investment and Relationship Building 

Because of these unique circumstances, evaluating the program’s success requires a distinct approach. Traditional, funder-friendly metrics—the number of students reached, for instance—seem inadequate. “In this field, where resources are scarce and finances are tough and grants are tricky, there are so many pressures to oversell or to understate challenges. I think that’s really dangerous,” says Manlove. Rather, Molina recognizes that this partnership, and the hard work of cross-cultural community-building that it entails, require a “long, long, long-haul investment.” “We do get discouraged,” she acknowledges. Yet it’s vital to “always try to step back, try to see further down than the immediate challenge.” Both Manlove and Molina also recognize that NAAF staff—as community members themselves—have insight into how students feel about the program that isn’t necessarily accessible to them. Some NAAF staff are themselves parents of student participants, and they know the other participating families well due to their involvement with the broader After-School Program. Molina and Manlove also seek out feedback from the student leaders, who they describe as a “pillar of building this program,” and check in frequently with Cleveland to evaluate the program’s direction. “We are trusting Monica,” Molina says.   

In a different situation it could feel unsatisfying to invest copious resources in a program only to have a handful of students attend, but both TGC and NAAF recognize that the partnership’s ambitions exceed the acquisition of musical experience. “You can feel the energy coming from the screen,” says Cleveland. Many students initially were shy or embarrassed to sing with the group, but when “you see them and you hear them on the screen it’s something entirely different. Their voice just carries. It just stays with you because this is our culture, our future, our youth.”  Evans notes that since many O’odham children rarely leave the lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the partnership offers “a whole new awareness and appreciation for what it looks like outside of our communities.” It also allows for the strengthening of family and community bonds. Under current conditions, this can be a paradoxical benefit of home-based, remote instruction: a grandparent might listen and even join in while their grandchild participates, for instance. In the future, Evans hopes it will take the form of a live performance: “a stage where our families can come, our community members can come” to hear students showcase their talents.   

The overarching goals of the partnership are, ultimately, less about music itself than they are about the kinds of personal and social experiences that music can facilitate. The entrenched systemic injustices which have been exacerbated in recent years by the pandemic can seem overwhelmingly intractable, but small-scale interventions can play a role in addressing their impact. Cleveland connects the two, noting, “We wanted to see this music be a part of the healing process for everything that our kids have been through, through this pandemic. Not just through the pandemic, but, you know, their entire lives. There’s a lot of historical trauma that Native Americans have been through. We need to take time to heal, and this music program is doing that for our kids.” These are monumental aspirations, yet it’s important to recognize that in practice, the process often takes modest forms. Manlove reflects, “I have had these really romantic ideas about what this should be that are deeply connected to my values about justice. Honestly, what I have learned is that the most important thing is: Do these kids have a good time?” At the end of the day, what matters, says Cleveland, is simple: “We want our kids to always feel welcome. We want to make sure that our kids are smiling at the end of every session, and that they go away believing, ‘This is so much fun, I’m going to come back tomorrow.’” 

Editor’s note: In May 2022, the Tucson Girls Chorus received a grant from Chorus America's Music Education Partnership Grants program. The organization plans to use the funds to further develop this collaborative program during the 2022-23 school year. 

Lucy Caplan is a writer and scholar based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches at Harvard University.