Earlier this year, we began a series introducing you to the Washington, D.C. based music group The String Queens (TSQs), comprised of three members: Élise Cuffy, Kendall Isadore, and Dawn Johnson. All three women are known faces to the next generation of arts education students—they are the orchestra directors at various KIPP DC campuses.
Dawn Johnson, a graduate of the prestigious The Juilliard School in New York City, can be found inside a classroom at KIPP DC: KEY Academy, where she shares her musical talents with the next generation as the orchestra director. Johnson, a professional violist and music educator has been featured as a soloist with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and was a quarter-finalist for the 1st Annual GRAMMY Music Educator Award. When Johnson is not in the classroom she is sharing her talents with the rest of the world as a member of The String Queens.
To get to know the motivation behind her work I sat down with Johnson for Q&A.
Who was your most inspirational music teacher growing up and why?
My first music teacher, John McMinn, or “Uncle John” as I affectionately called him, put a violin in my hands when I was in kindergarten at Charles R. Drew Elementary School in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. I remember immediately falling in love with its rich red color and soothing sound. It was a welcomed contrast to the rapid rhythm of gunfire that I heard most nights right outside my front door growing up in Liberty City. I practiced as much as I could and used the violin as my escape from the daily tragic events that I endured during my childhood. Whether it was watching drug addicts overdose on their “poison,” suffering through my parents’ divorce, or losing a family friend to gun violence, playing the violin was my reliable refuge from having to face these daily hardships..
Judy Frishman and Richard “Uncle John” Fleischman of Miami were also life-changing music teachers for me. Mr. Fleischman all inspired me to dream bigger than my circumstances. Through their actions, they taught me the value of grit, dedication, empathy, and resilience. Today, I am most grateful that all three of them are still very much a part of my life. They continue coaching and mentoring me daily, so that I can be a source of inspiration for my students today as the three of them still are to me.
Lastly, my mother Sheila Austin believed deeply in my journey as an aspiring musician and offered me relentless support along the way. When I was 12-years-old, she purchased my first viola for $1,200. She had been saving money for quite some time to buy it for me and she was so proud the day she presented it to me. Today, it is the only instrument that I have ever played since she gifted it to me over twenty years ago! Over the course of my career, it has taken me from Liberty City and gun safety protests to concert halls in countries around the globe.
Dawn, as the orchestra director at KIPP DC: KEY Academy, what does your job entail?
As the orchestra director at KIPP DC: KEY Academy, I have spent the past ten years working with KIPP DC’s network of students, families, teachers, community members, and administrative personnel to establish one of the highest-performing instrumental music programs that serves students in Washington, D.C.’s most underserved community. To this end, I conduct seven ensembles and implement performance assessment systems that provide clear and specific feedback to students and parents. I also maintain a string instrument inventory of nearly one hundred instruments. A large portion of my job is to also encourage open communication with parents, students, teachers, community members, and administrators to develop curriculum standards, mapping, and innovative lesson plans. This helps me to program and effectively present concerts that showcase high-quality student performances of a variety of musical genres. I’ve also implemented the coordination of educational trips to increase student exposure to a variety of artistic disciplines, and create and foster a positive learning environment for students.
How does this differ from your previous role as the Director of Music and Arts for KIPP
As the interim director of music and arts for KIPP DC in the 2016-2017 school year, I effectively provided instructional coaching and written and verbal feedback to music teachers in the KIPP DC network, developed and facilitated professional development workshops on building culturally relevant and high-performing music programs in underserved communities, managed arts education-related grants, and created and sustained partnerships between KIPP DC and community organizations.
Describe your emotions when you were elected as a recipient of KIPP DC’s Executive
When I was awarded with KIPP DC’s Executive Director’s Award and the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Performing Arts Teaching, I experienced overwhelming feelings of joy, humility, and gratitude. The “joy” was in knowing that the work that I do with KIPP DC students has a positive, long-lasting impact on their development. The “humility” came in knowing that while much work has been done, there is still much more work to do. And last but not least “gratitude” in being recognized for my work amongst some of the best educators and performing artists in Washington, D.C.
How important is it to ensure that children have access to music and the arts while in school?
Access to high-quality music and arts instruction while students are in school is a KEY determinant of their overall success as high-performing, active, engaged, and civic-minded global citizens. As we navigate our way through a difficult and divisive times as a nation, music and the arts are universal languages that speak to the heart of our shared human experiences. They teach discipline, empathy, determination, and cooperation that are all necessary in living connected and productive lives. Furthermore, these necessities should not solely be reserved for a small percentage of students who attend private or elite public schools, but access to the magical world of music and arts should be an opportunity afforded to all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background.
If you could change anything about the way society looks at music education, what would it be?
Music education should always be viewed as an integral subject area in all schools. According to the National Association for Music Education, research proves that when students participate in music classes, they demonstrate improved language development and spatial-temporal skills. The research also showed that music classes increased IQ and standardized test scores, and most importantly—these students can transfer their acquired musical knowledge and skill set to other areas of their social, emotional, and academic development, thus resulting in a more well-rounded student and human being. Conversely, if there was one thing that I could change about the way society generally looks at music education, I would shift the mindset of music classes being considered an accompaniment to a student’s core academic studies, to music classes being incorporated as a core content subject area for all students.
Kelsey Nelson is the manager for campaigns and publications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.