Shanna Lin

Director of the Paterson Music Project (PMP)
Photo of a woman with a flower pattern blouse.

Photo Credit: Mariangela Quiroga

Music Credits: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive

Excerpts from the live performance performed in New Jersey on May 18, 2024 by students of the Paterson Music Project


Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works podcast, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, Josephine Reed.

(music up)

You just heard students from the Paterson Music Project in a live performance—the work and mission of the Paterson Music Project or PMP is the subject of today’s podcast. My guest is Shanna Lin, she is PMP’s Director of Education and Violin/Viola Teaching Artist.

We know that music education plays a crucial role in fostering discipline, teamwork, and a sense of belonging among young people. The Paterson Music Project an El-Sistema inspired program exemplifies this impact by providing students with invaluable opportunities to grow both musically and personally. Begun in 2013 with 32 second graders, it now has over 500 students at 25 schools throughout Paterson New Jersey. Long-supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, PMP is an after-school program that provides both music instruction and instruments for free to its students. Its aim is community-building through music. Today, Shanna Lin shares the story of the Paterson Music Project, its impact, and the centrality of the  Paterson community to its success. And we begin our conversation with a discussion about El Sistema. And just a word, Paterson is a busy city and you occasionally will hear traffic noise

Shanna Lin: So El Sistema is a program that originated in Venezuela. It originated about 50 years ago and is actually a social impact program. The whole idea is that through music education, students can really learn things like discipline and grit and teamwork, and how to build their community and how to support their peers in a musical setting, which should carry over to their everyday lives. So, in Venezuela, this was started as a social program and it has really exploded all over the world because of famous faces like Gustavo Dudamel, who was a product of the original Venezuela. So, there are hundreds of programs all around the world that kind of follow this model of social impact through music education. There are over 140 programs in the US that follow the exact same model, and 5 programs in New Jersey, including the Paterson Music Project. 

Jo Reed: Tell me, where do you find your students? 

Shanna Lin: So our students come from the Paterson Public School District. So, we, and also charter schools in the area, send out an application at the beginning of every school year. The program is fully funded for them, so we have a lottery system, because we have a limited number of spots for the students. They apply, we do the lottery, and that's how they’re accepted into the program. 

Jo Reed: Since PMP is an El Sistema-inspired program and El Sistema is a social impact program, tell me about the community of Paterson where this program takes place? 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, so Paterson is the third most populous city in New Jersey. It is a really, really cool city that is full of immigrants and diverse populations. At one point, I think there were over 52 languages represented here. It is one of the biggest Peruvian populations outside of Peru. It has the second largest Muslim population in the United States. So there are a lot of Middle Eastern families that live here, a lot of Dominican and Puerto Rican families that live here. So it's a really rich city, but there are also some challenges here, and there are many students that live below the poverty line. So, it is not easy to have access to things like music education. Although the public school district does have a lot of general music teachers in the public schools, they do not have a lot of instrumental programs, and so that's where we step in. 

Jo Reed: So we’re clear, explain the differences between a general music teacher and an instrumental music teacher. 

Shanna Lin: The general music teacher might actually see many students throughout the week. So they might see hundreds of students during the week for an hour a week. So, there's only so much impact that they're able to make. Of course, this is still a vital part of the music education ecosystem, because it is really a lot of times where students are first exposed to music education, that they might do some singing in general music. They might do a lot of music history and those types of things. But instrumental’s a lot more intense. That's where you get a violin in your hand, or a clarinet in your hand, and you can really apply those skills to an instrument, play in an ensemble. Also, there are outside opportunities where you might play in a band or an orchestra outside of your school as well. 

Jo Reed: Got it. We know when counties and communities face tough budgets, arts education programs are typically one of the first to go. So, do students have a real alternative to access instrumental music education? 

Shanna Lin: So unfortunately, in Paterson, they don't, and that's a big part of the reason Paterson Music Project exists. Back in 2010, there were huge budget cuts, and unfortunately, the public schools did have to cut a lot of their arts programming. So in 2011, Jeff Grogan, who was the former artistic director of New Jersey Youth Symphony, and the board members he was working with, decided to start an El Sistema-inspired program in Paterson to kind of fill that gap so that students have that access. There are a handful of instrumental programs in the city, and they are doing an amazing job. But just playing an instrument takes a lot of time and a lot of discipline and a lot of money. The cost of the instrument is very high. Private lessons cost a lot of money. So, programs like Paterson Music Project help to fill that gap if students don't have the access on a daily basis. 

Jo Reed: How do you involve parents in the program? 

Shanna Lin: So we actually have what we call the parent committee, and this is a parent volunteer group. We meet with them every couple of months. They give input on things like how the concert should run, what kind of programming they would like to see, and they are really wonderful. We couldn't run the program without them. They help during our events. We always serve food at our events, so they help to serve food. They help with setup. They help with breakdown. They help to make sure the students are getting to the right place. I think this is true of any music program, but especially for a community-based program like ours, having the parents involved and having them understand how hard it is to learn an instrument and how much time it takes is really important. They're the ones that come and make sure their kids are in our program every day after school. 

Jo Reed: The Paterson Music Project is a program of Wharton Arts. So it's sort of under the umbrella of Wharton Arts. Can you just briefly place Wharton Arts and where PMP, Paterson Music Project, exists in their ecosystem? 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, absolutely. So Wharton Arts is one of the largest music education providers in New Jersey. It consists of four different programs, including the New Jersey Youth Symphony, the New Jersey Youth Chorus, a performing arts school located in Berkeley Heights, and the Paterson Music Project. So we are four separate programs, but we do share an artistic director and an executive director. So there are times where we overlap, and sometimes we'll do joint events. We have a joint annual gala that we perform at together. There have been times where, for example, the New Jersey Youth Chorus and Paterson Music Project choir students got together to perform at an event. So there is a little bit of overlap, but we also are four distinct programs. 

Jo Reed: You are the co-founder of the Paterson Music Project, and right now its director of education and violin, viola, teaching artist. So, what inspired you to co-found this program? 

Shanna Lin: So I'm one of the co-founding teaching artists. It was not my brainchild, <laughs> I wish it was. But it was actually the brainchild of Jeff Grogan, who I mentioned earlier, who was the former artistic director of New Jersey Youth Symphony. He reached out to me and two of my very close friends. We all actually were reached out to separately by him. So he wanted to start this project, needed three teaching artists to help him get it up and running. So the three of us got hired together, and that's how we ended up starting the program. 

Jo Reed: So tell me this, how do you even begin? <laughter> I mean, you're starting from scratch. What were your first steps? 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, it was not easy. It was a lot of fun though. It was very exciting to be part of this new project. We're very fortunate that we have an amazing resource in New Jersey. Her name is Tricia Tunstall. She wrote a book called “Changing Lives”. That's all about the original El Sistema program and Gustavo Dudamel and the whole El Sistema movement. So she was our consultant in the beginning and helped us. We met with her frequently, we came up with the name, and then we had to figure out “How do we get instruments? Do we buy them? Do we rent them? How do we put together an application?” So there was a steep learning curve, but it was a lot of fun and very exciting to be a part of that original team. 

Jo Reed: So tell me a little bit about you. How did you come to music? 

Shanna Lin: So I am a violist. That's my primary instrument. My mom is a singer. She's also a choral conductor. So I do come from kind of a musical family. My dad isn't a professional musician, but he plays guitar. My sister’s also a violinist. So it's something I've always loved since I was very young, and I knew from the moment I played in my first symphony orchestra that I wanted to be a professional musician. As I got older and was deciding what I wanted to do with my career, I did know I wanted to go into music, but I was also thinking in the back of my mind “Music feels almost selfish to me because it's something I love to do.” So when I learned about El Sistema and about this type of impact through music education, it really clicked for me. I was like “This is exactly what I want to do. This is exactly what I've been looking for.” 

Jo Reed: Were you born and raised in New Jersey, in Paterson? 

Shanna Lin: I was not. I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and I moved to Texas when I was younger, but I mainly grew up in Virginia. I ended up in New Jersey because I attended Rutgers University. I had a lesson with the viola teacher there and really loved it. I was very grateful for my time there. I just ended up sticking around. 

Jo Reed: You studied with notable musicians like Choong-Jin Chang and Honggang Li. How did their mentorship influence your development, not just as a musician, but as an educator? 

Shanna Lin: Well, they certainly had a huge impact in how I perceive music education. First of all, they were just so thoughtful and caring. They really thought about my progress. They really cared about me as a person and also how I was doing on the viola. As world class musicians, it wasn't necessary for them to feel that way. I was not a superstar at the viola. I felt like I was pretty average coming <laughs> into school and studying with them. So I felt very fortunate that they put so much time and energy into me. I feel the exact same way about my students. It doesn't matter what talent level they might be at. I really think about the fact that every single one of them has potential, because I feel like my teachers treated me the exact same way. 

Jo Reed: You’ve just really sort of led straight into my next question and half answered it, because I was going to ask how this background influenced your vision for the program?

Shanna Lin: Yeah, I mean, I think this is very typical of El Sistema programs. It's not about how much talent someone has. One of the big components of El Sistema is group learning, because it's about the community and it's about supporting those around you. So it's really not about who has the most skill when they first come in. One of the things that we're very proud of at PMP is that the teachers have built strong relationships with the students. We're not just here to teach them and then leave. We get to know the students in a personal way. We get to know their families. So, definitely music excellence is important to us, but the program’s really about a lot more than just that. 

Jo Reed: Well, tell me about some of the goals for the program and some of the missions? As you said, music excellence is one part of it, but so is community building. 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, definitely. I mean, community is the big one. We really focus on building teamwork through playing in an ensemble. So that's why group playing is so important to us. We really talk about things like discipline and grit, because you do need those things to be able to be successful on your instrument. We have students who are playing at a high level, but not necessarily going to be professional musicians. We always tell people, that's not the goal; we're not a conservatory. We're not trying to produce professional musicians necessarily. We want to provide them with the tools to go down that path if they want. But we really want our students to walk away feeling like they were part of something, that they learned how to support other people, they learned how to empathize with others, and that they have this bigger picture of being a part of a community, having a place of belonging, more so than just playing an instrument. 

Jo Reed: Why do you see music education as being so impactful? Now you have over a decade under your belt with one program. You've seen a lot. 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, for sure.  I think music inherently, and the arts, not just music, provides this outlet for people, for our students. You see them light up when they play music that they really enjoy, or when they watch other ensembles perform and they say “Oh, I want to play that.” So I think just being in the arts alone and being in music alone really lends itself to giving space for students to express themselves. Of course, on top of that, the thing that we hear the most from students is that they feel like this is a big part of who they are. This is a place of belonging for them. We've had students who've moved away, and their parents still want them to come back, or they still want to come back, and their parents will drive a half hour to bring them back to the program because all of their friends are here. It is an affordable place where they can have access to all of these opportunities and have these music lessons that they might not be able to have somewhere else. But the biggest one, I do think, is the place of belonging and the community that is built here, because they just really love being a part of this ensemble that is provided at PMP. 

Jo Reed: Right, because it's not just about creating something, which, of course, is fabulous, but it's about creating something together. 

Shanna Lin: Yes, absolutely. As a musician, it's hard to put this into words, but there's something about that communication that happens when you're playing music and when you really lock in with someone, or your eyes meet up when you're playing in a chamber group, or you really hear how your part fits in with someone else's part. There's a lot of communication that happens in music without words. So that's something that's really beautiful, and I think the students can really feel that when they're playing with their friends. 

Jo Reed: You have over 30 teaching artists now. Tell us who they are, where they come from, and how are they trained? 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, so we have a really diverse group of teaching artists. We have some that are public school teachers, who work all day and still come to us after school because they love teaching, and they love working with our students. We have a lot of freelance musicians. We've had a jazz violinist on our staff before. We have a teacher who plays regularly on Broadway. We have teachers who are jazz musicians in New York City. So we have a really wide range of teachers who work with us, and they all have varying degrees of experience and backgrounds. We have teachers who come from different countries. For example, we have a hand drumming teacher right now who's from Peru, but trained in Brazil. So he brings in a whole different set of skills with our hand drumming class that's really exciting for the kids. So we're very fortunate that we have such a diverse community of teachers. 

Jo Reed: You also have PMP high school students who are paid to perform and teach in the program. I'm so curious about how that opportunity impacts them and the skills they gain from that experience? 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, and that is one of the programs that we are trying to grow and that we are also the most proud of. So they go through an application process and these high school interns, these PMP interns, help us with things. We have production assistants that do set up and breakdown for classes and help out at events. They also teach in their classes. So some of these students have actually expressed an interest in becoming professional musicians down the line or learning more about arts administration and other things like that. So this is actually giving them an inside track to gaining the skills that they need for those types of careers. So one of our students, who we're very proud of, is going to school next year, going to college next year for music education, and she's been teaching in our program for a couple of years already. So she already has a lot of experience doing the thing that she loves to do, and she's already getting paid for it, which is something that we're more than happy that we are able to provide that for the students. 

Jo Reed: The students at PMP have 30 to 40 performances a year? 

Shanna Lin: That's right. So not every single student performs that much, but our oldest students do perform very frequently. Some of those performances are bigger and some are smaller. So we do have big concerts a couple times a year where we might get all 200, 300 students together to perform in a concert. But then we also do smaller performances where they might play in a recital, or they might play in a chamber group. Sometimes we partner with other non-profit organizations, and they'll request a group. So an example of that is we are going to be performing at a local hospital on Juneteenth with a small choir. So our students also are getting a lot of different types of performance opportunities by being a part of this program that maybe a typical school program wouldn't have. So it's really great for them to be able to go out into the community and perform for other organizations and friends and families of theirs outside of just the typical traditional concert set we might have. 

Jo Reed: What are some of their notable performances? 

Shanna Lin: So in the past, we've performed at William Paterson University with Black Violin. That was a really fun one. Black Violin is a violin, viola, hip-hop duo. So that was a really cool performance for us because it's also music that the students might listen to, maybe a little bit more than classical music. So that's really important to us, too, to make sure that the music that they play is culturally relevant to them and it's something that they enjoy. So we've been able to perform at their ceremonies. We participated in “Mozart in the Jungle” one year, and that was a lot of fun to meet Gael García Bernal and to have that experience for our students. 

Jo Reed: Okay, back that one up. How did that come about? 

Shanna Lin: <laughter> So that one, I think, was a little bit of luck. It was just a friend of a friend of a friend <laughs> who needed students quickly for this episode that they were shooting. Of course, for that show, Gael García Bernal, portrayed a character similar to Gustavo Dudamel. So in this episode, he was working with a community-based school and teaching them music. So they needed some extras to play the students in this scene. So we were more than happy to send some of our students for that. <laughs> 

Jo Reed: Well, I heard on YouTube the students playing with Black Violin, which was really fabulous. That also came about because of funding from an NEA grant, and the NEA actually has been longtime supporters of PMP. 

Shanna Lin: Yes, that's right. We've been very fortunate for the past few years to be supported by the NEA. Yes, you're absolutely right, that performance was also supported by the NEA. So, we can only exist because of supporting from foundations like the NEA. Of course, we also have other foundations that support us, as well as generous donors. I do want to point out that the Paterson Public Schools, we do have a contract with them as well. They're very intentional about the fact that they do want music education in their schools, and they are supporting us so that we can bring this instrumental program to the students in their schools. 

Jo Reed: As you mentioned, you added a jazz program. That just got added this year--

Shanna Lin: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: -is that correct? Yeah. So how did you get that up and running, and suddenly here's a whole new thing, improvisation? “Ah, what’s that?” 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, <laughter> and I have to admit, as a classical musician, that is one of my biggest fears. <laughs> But I'm learning along with the students. So with the jazz program in Paterson, we were really fortunate to have the support of the district supervisor, Michelle Van Hoven. She asked us to actually help with the two programs that had been started at School 6, in New Roberto Clemente in Paterson. They had already started a jazz program previously, but then needed someone to take over that program for this year. So we were more than happy to step in and support that program. We did actually have some small improvisation classes that we started in our Saturday program coming out of the pandemic, but nothing like this. So when we went into these two schools, we were able to add 60 students at each school, specifically for jazz music education. We hired a program coordinator just for jazz. So now we have a really intentional jazz curriculum and a dedicated jazz faculty. So this is a really exciting branch for us that we've been wanting to start in our program. Because Paterson has a lot of links to jazz music, there are a lot of wonderful musicians that are from Paterson, but also one of the best jazz programs in the area is at William Paterson University, which is very close by. So, for us to be able to start this jazz program was a dream come true. 

Jo Reed: Now, I'm just pivoting a bit here. You've traveled internationally to learn from El Sistema-inspired programs. Can you share some insights or experiences from those travels that have influenced the way you approach teaching now? 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, for me, the biggest thing I see when I travel is just how joyful all the students are in these programs. The programs I have seen are mostly South American programs and other programs in the US. But I think that's one of the biggest things, is sometimes we get caught up, as classical musicians, or people who play classical instruments, we get caught up in this idea of perfection. That's the typical traditional conservatory mindset. When you visit these other programs, you see how much joy there is, and it just kind of reminds you and inspires you to make sure that is still happening in your own program. So whenever I go to visit other programs, I really think about “Are we doing something that the students love? Is this something that they are going to really enjoy and think about outside of just playing their violin? Do they have real takeaways just outside of musical skills?” So I'm always inspired when I go see other programs. Of course, at the same time, we also learn about other models of teaching. They might use different types of curriculum. There's always repertoire that is shared among different programs. For example, our symphony orchestra this weekend is playing a piece that we brought back with us from Lisbon, but it was actually from a Colombian program. We had so much fun playing it in Lisbon that we wanted to play it in our own program as well. 

(Music Up)

Jo Reed: You strongly believe in the transformative power of music education. Arts education generally, music education specifically, because that's what we're talking about. Can you elaborate on a specific instance where you've really witnessed this transformation in a student? 

Shanna Lin: Yeah. So, one example that I've seen in our program has to do with a student who I've seen grow from a second grader all the way to being a college freshman now as a viola performance major. He often credits music for finding his place of belonging. When he was younger, he had trouble sometimes making friends and wasn't always sure about his place in school. But he always consistently came to PMP and always did really well in PMP, and this is where he thrived. He was able to participate in national festivals and local orchestras and really made a lot of friends in the musical world, and in El Sistema world. So now he's a freshman in college as a viola performance major on a full scholarship. So that's the type of thing that I feel like being part of a community-based program like PMP, we're able to see this over time because we follow the students for so long that we're able to see them grow in this way. It's such a privilege to be involved in their lives and see this transformation. 

Jo Reed: You also have an open-door policy. Explain what this means and what its importance is? 

Shanna Lin: Yeah, so I had mentioned earlier that musical talent is not a requirement here. We really want to be a place of belonging for a lot of these students. So for us, this open-door policy means that even if you leave, you're able to come back and join the program no matter what happens. So if you move away, have to take a year off, things like that, you're always welcome to come back. Even in the past couple of years, we've had students who were seniors in high school, and they were really busy. They were not necessarily the most serious about music, meaning that they weren't thinking about it as a career, and they only came to rehearsals sporadically, but they still kept coming, and they wanted to play in the performances, and they wanted to be involved with certain events. When we asked them “Why do you still want to keep coming, even though you're so busy and you're not as connected as you used to be?” They always say “Because it's part of our identity. We've been doing it for so long, this is what we love to do.” So, of course, we're going to welcome them back with open arms. 

Jo Reed: You're still performing throughout New Jersey as a musician, correct? 

Shanna Lin: That's correct. I'm still a freelance musician, although I do not play as frequently as I used to. I do have three young children <laughs> of my own. I have a five-year-old daughter and three-year-old twin boys. So I'm pretty busy with that, <laughs> in addition to being busy with PMP. But I do, I play with the Ridgewood Symphony, and I do take gigs here and there. 

Jo Reed: I'm just in awe of teaching artists, artists who make it a point to have teaching also be a central part of their lives. I think you are a gift <laughter>. 

Shanna Lin: Thank you. I also feel the same way. When I think about our team of teaching artists and how busy they are, many of the teaching artists are much busier than I am in terms of having to scrap together schedules. They're traveling and gigging and going on tour with different groups, and they still make the time to come to us and work with our students. We are very lucky that we have such a dedicated team of teaching artists working with us, and they always go above and beyond. Last Sunday, some of our students participated on Mother's Day at a recital outside of our program, and one of our teaching artists came and stayed through the whole recital that was almost two and a half hours long. So we can't ask for a more dedicated team than that. It's such a blessing to have all of these musicians working with our students. 

Jo Reed: Agreed. So if you think about your 11 years thus far with PMP, what's been the most rewarding aspect of the work for you? What keeps you going? 

Shanna Lin: For sure, the answer is the students. <laughs> That might be the cliche answer, but I see the students almost as my own children. Like I mentioned before, I've seen them grow up. Some of them I saw as younger siblings of other students when they were babies. So for me, having been here 11 years, seeing someone go from eight years old to now 18 years old, it's just incredible. I've been involved in a lot of birthday parties and first communions and other celebrations in their families. So it really does feel like a family to me, and that's what keeps me going with this program. 

Jo Reed: What are some of the future goals for the Paterson Music Project? 

Shanna Lin: One of the things that we really want to do is be able to go a little bit deeper with some of our more advanced students. We think of our program a little bit as a pyramid. The youngest students that we have in the program are being introduced to music and just kind of figuring out exactly how it fits into their lives. But at the top, as students get more serious, we want to be able to provide the most advanced students, the oldest students, with the possibility of becoming professional musicians, or give them the training if that's something that they really want to do. So that ties into our youth leader program. We are very fortunate to have partnerships with local universities. Montclair State University has a Pathways program that supports students from underrepresented areas that are exploring a career in music. So we have some students in that program as well. So, we want to really be able to go deeper with our students while still growing the program, the base of our program, and introducing more students to instrumental music. 

Jo Reed: Okay, Shanna, I think that is a good place to leave it. Thank you. Thank you for giving me your time. Thank you for the terrific work you're doing. 

Shanna Lin: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for inviting me to this. 

That was Shanna Lin, she is the Director of Education and Violin/Viola Teaching Artist for the Paterson Music Project.  If you find to find out more about Paterson Music Project, hop over to its website. We’ll have a link to it in our shownotes. A special thanks to Alice Hamlet for all her help in arranging this.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcast and leave us a rating—it helps other people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed—thanks for listening!

Shanna Lin, teaching artist and director of the Paterson Music Project (PMP), gives us the program's history: it’s an El Sistema-inspired program established in 2013 with 32 second-graders that now serves more than 500 students from 25 schools in Paterson, New Jersey. PMP offers after-school programs four days a week and on Saturdays, including string orchestra, concert band, guitar, jazz, hand drumming, keyboard, and choir, and provides instruments to students at no cost.

We discuss the principles of El Sistema, which started in Venezuela about 50 years ago as a social impact program and uses music education to teach discipline, teamwork, and community building. She notes that El Sistema has spread globally, with more than 140 programs in the U.S., including five in New Jersey. Lin notes that students in PMP come from Paterson Public School District and celebrates the diversity of the city with its significant immigrant populations. She talks about the importance of parental involvement through a volunteer parent committee and shares how parents support program activities, provide input, and help during events, as well as talking about the importance of long-time supporters like the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Lin also discusses how PMP fills the gap left by budget cuts in Paterson schools that reduced programming in instrumental programs and explains that PMP is part of Wharton Arts, which includes New Jersey Youth Symphony, New Jersey Youth Chorus, and a performing arts school.  She recounts her own path to becoming a co-founding teaching artist at PMP and shares how her mentors, Choong-Jin Chang and Honggang Li, influenced her approach to music education.  Lin highlights the expressive outlet and sense of identity that music provides for students and shares stories of how PMP offers a supportive community where students feel they belong and can thrive. Also discussed are the diverse backgrounds of PMP's 30 teaching artists, including public school teachers, freelance musicians, and international artists, and how these teachers bring unique skills and experiences that enrich the program for students. And finally, Lin shares the joy of knowing students and their families a decade or more—which is central to community music programs like PMP. 

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