Imagination Thriving in Structure

by Ron Oshima

Photo: Stacy Kaat Photography

Imagine being a sixth grade violinist in Milwaukee Public Schools in 1978, and your string music teacher has you play “Eleanor Rigby,” and arranged ear training courses, in-person, with Jean-Luc Ponty, as ways to introduce you to different musical genres. That’s how Ijoister Harris, our new String Orchestra Central music director, started his musical career. He had the outstanding fortune to have Bonnie Green as his music teacher. She was as innovative as they come and way ahead of her time in the 70s and 80s.

Through Bonnie Green, Mr. Harris joined Music for Youth (MFY), what MYSO was called back then. So, Mr. Harris is a MYSO/MFY legacy who has come back full circle. He also serves as a coach for Prelude Orchestra in addition to being a String Orchestra music director. He has been serving as a music teacher leader in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) for the past four years after serving as a classroom music teacher for 28 years. He is the first music teacher leader for MPS where his role is to mentor music teachers to be better educators.

He started out in college as a computer science major, for that all-too-familiar reason of trying to please his parents. But his heart was in music, and he switched to a music education major after the first year. He knew that he wanted to teach and give back early on in his career. While in college, he played professionally with the Rochester Symphony in Rochester, MN.

The connection back to MYSO occurred when Mr. Harris came to Milwaukee Youth Arts Center last year to work for the annual Wisconsin School Music Association (WSMA) large group festival. MYSO Artistic Director Carter Simmons reached out to Mr. Harris and invited him to be part of the String Orchestra faculty.

Coming from MPS, he shared that MYSO, from an MPS perspective, felt like it hadn’t been attainable for MPS kids unless they’ve been playing at a certain level. He happily acknowledges that MYSO, in currently expanding its Community Partnership Programs, has scaled up its efforts to bring in more City of Milwaukee students who are able to join MYSO and develop their musical skills, with financial barriers removed.

As an African-American music teacher, he proudly serves as a role model for kids “who look like me” who play string instruments. He has gained parental support for his students by keeping an open-door policy, and the first step was getting the parents to come to their very first concert. He said, “after the parents saw the love and the compassion on their kids’ faces, they became very active in wanting their kid to be a part of this. I found that all my music kids also improved in their academic studies.”

There are two traits that have sustained his love of teaching music over the past 32 years—compassion and curiosity. He said, “just having compassion about what you’re doing, and changing lives one note at a time, has been an incredible experience. And to see that light go on when kids are learning and playing has sustained me.”

Mr. Harris wants kids walking out of his music classes to “know that any and everything is attainable, if you work hard, and you’re consistent at it.” He would say to his kids, “whatever your passion is, make sure that you put in a very consistent effort toward that.”

After Bonnie Green, Mr. Harris’ private teacher was Philip Grossman of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Grossman was extremely structured, which was what he felt he needed at this stage in his development. There was structure in his lessons with Bonnie Green, but it was the kind of structure that allowed him to have imagination about the music, as well. He reminisces, “and I think that’s what got me hooked, because I could have an imagination with whatever it was we were playing in class.”

He ended with this thought for his students, “Through imagination, any and everything is possible.”

Fire up the imaginations of kids through music. Give now.



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