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.
KIPP DC has one of Washington, D.C.’s best keep secrets in employing The String Queens (TSQs) as a part of their music education programs. As TSQs series continues, today we will be introduced to Élise Cuffy. Cuffy, a native Washingtonian plays the cello in the group—an instrument she began playing in the DC Youth Orchestra Program when she was just eight-years-old. Cuffy is currently in her third year as Orchestra Director at KIPP DC: Northeast Academy.
To learn more about her musical passions and to get her thoughts on the current state of arts education, I sat down with Cuffy for Q&A.
What role do music programs play for KIPP DC?
Music programs at KIPP DC develop, strengthen, and solidify teamwork among the students and staff. The music programs enable students to sharpen listening skills and provide an outlet for creativity. Our programs also give our children the boost of confidence they need, when faced with environmental and societal challenges. Academics have always considered music programs vital to a well-balanced education and at KIPP DC we take pride in producing a well-rounded student. Through our music program, we have been able to reach students at their various levels of learning.
What is your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of the job is watching my students grow musically. The beginning stages of learning any instrument can be quite challenging and can sometimes lead to frustration. That frustration can then turn into a student doubting their ability to learn music. My heart smiles when I see a student turn those negative thoughts into confidence and pride. They start to see that through practice, they are capable of meeting the challenge. I have the privilege of seeing them grow from timid beginners to confident musicians. The “ah-ha” moments are priceless—seeing a student accomplish something they thought was impossible.
As a native Washingtonian, how have you seen the education landscape change for the better in Washington, D.C.?
This shift in the education landscape has provided more options to the communities in which they serve and has offered more choices to meet the diverse individual needs of the child. The inclusion of technology and the multiple options in language classes—in addition to the availability of having the entire city as a living classroom—contributes to a broader knowledge base for students to learn from that was not available in the past.
Élise, you’ve performed for three former United States Presidents. What was the experience like?
When I think back on the experience, it all can seem so surreal. It was quite an honor to have performed in front of three past presidents of the United States under the artistry of music. My first performance for a president of the United States was the late President George H.W. Bush’s inaugural parade when I was a cellist in the Youth Orchestra at the DC Youth Orchestra Program. I was eager trying to perfect my craft. The second time was when President Bill Clinton came to speak at Howard University while I was a student there. The last time I performed was as one of the conductors at the DC Youth Orchestra Program. I was selected to direct an ensemble of cellos to perform at the White House during President Barack Obama’s administration. Each performance was unique and humbling. But I must admit being African American and to have played for the first African American President of my country, rendered me a great wealth of pride.
Kelsey Nelson is the manager for campaigns and publications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.