Playing with Passion

A conversation with Neil Goh about BruNotes

When students think of community service at Brown, the larger, more well-known organizations associated with the Swearer Center often come to mind. Meanwhile, smaller, overlooked student groups, whose main recruitment strategies are booths at the activities fair, tend to have more specific goals that may better fit people’s personal interests. For example, BruNotes is a music outreach program at Brown that connects volunteer student teachers with low-income youth in the Providence area, allowing students to find a group of like-minded people who love music and enjoy teaching. By eliminating the cost of private lessons, the student-run organization helps students develop a passion for music while promoting hard work and creativity. The most popular types of lessons that BruNotes offers are for piano, both acoustic and electric guitar, and violin; but the full extent of their teaching repertoire ranges out into voice and even music theory lessons. In this tight-knit community, the members are bonded by specialized shared interests.

Neil Goh ’20 is a school coordinator for BruNotes, pairing students from one of BruNotes’ partner schools, the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, with volunteer teachers from Brown. To get a more intimate look at the BruNotes experience, I asked Neil a few questions.

How long have you been involved with BruNotes, and how did you hear about it?

Neil Goh: One day as I was practicing for an audition at Steinert in the beginning of freshman year, I saw a BruNotes poster up on the wall of my practice room. As soon as I left the building I sent an email to the president expressing my interest in the organization, but unfortunately all spots were filled for that semester, so I actually started to teach at the start of second semester.

What is your favorite memory from BruNotes?

NG: Meeting my very first student, a third grader from William D’Abate Elementary, was a really encouraging moment for me, since the third grade was also the year I began my musical career as a violinist.

What are some challenges you’ve faced?

NG: Having both patience and empathy as a teacher for beginner violinists. In my excitement to teach, I almost forgot that violin isn’t something you can just pick up in a couple months. But the greatest difficulty I faced wasn’t as much concerned with teaching my student as it was about learning the teaching style I work best with. While it was difficult to gather my own materials for a beginner violin curriculum, I knew that my third-grade student had to learn the technical rudiments of playing the violin, like holding the bow and comfortably wedging the instrument underneath the chin. The real struggle was personal, pointing to the question: What did I specifically have to do to spark a passion? To shape her musical path so that it driven by her own motivation to play? To prevent her from quitting two years later, like most other elementary-school musicians do? It had always been easy to attribute my skills to my own merit, but my experience working with BruNotes brought to light the importance of the teacher. Everything I knew, I realized, came from someone else.

Why do you think this work is important, and where you see it going in the future?

NG: I think art, not just music, is an essential human need that should be accessible to everyone. Empowering youth with a source of creative expression is something I’m really passionate about, since I know that realizing my musical ability at such a young age ended up opening so many doors for me. The BruNotes community was the perfect place to start doing that in college.

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BruNotes may not fit everyone’s personal interests, but there is an abundance of teaching programs available at Brown that allow students to explore their passions in a new way, get involved with the larger Providence community, and be reminded of why they love what they do. No matter where an individual’s interests lie, there is an organization for them to share and create meaningful connections with others through those interests.