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2023 "40 Under 40" Educator Jabari Tovar

Jabari Tovar

Instrumental Music Teacher,
Percussion Specialist
Salem Public Schools
Salem, Massachusetts

Developing a culturally responsive curriculum is one of the tenets of Jabari Tovar’s teaching philosophy. The instrumental music teacher and percussion specialist at Salem Public Schools in Massachusetts says, “I’m fortunate to work in a community as diverse as Salem. Our community is composed of families from many different backgrounds, and a large portion are from the Dominican Republic, so I’ve incorporated traditional songs from there when selecting repertoire.”

Recently, Tovar arranged the Latin American folk song “Pin Pon es un Muñeco” for his 4th-grade students, and last year, he taught a unit on Reggaeton to his 6th graders, focusing on the style’s roots from Jamaica and Panama (and how it migrated to the Dominican Republic), the importance of Dembow rhythm, and how students can perform Reggaeton patterns on their band instruments.

Because the core of Tovar’s job is working with beginner percussion students, “any repertoire must be at an appropriate level of difficulty for them but still challenge them,” he explains. “I do a lot of research and usually start by looking for folk songs or children’s songs that are melodically and rhythmically appropriate. I spend a lot of time on YouTube and Google finding pieces that fit my students’ needs.”

Tovar also reaches out to some of his Dominican-American faculty colleagues for guidance on repertoire. “Hearing the thoughts and perspectives directly from people who come from different cultures is invaluable,” he exclaims.

As a teacher, Tovar is all about the “small” wins. To reach those wins, he regularly pushes his students and himself. In 2019, he shifted the high school concert percussion ensemble to a marching one. For the first season, the group was a “standstill” ensemble. Marching elements were added the following year. “Shifting from a concert to a marching group has come with its own set of unique challenges, but it has been an incredibly rewarding experience,” he says. “I’m looking forward to further growing and developing the program for years to come!”

Tovar himself is an alumnus of the Salem music department, and he’s thankful to give back to the community that has given him so much.  One way he shows this gratitude is to address the unseen obstacles faced by students and families that might prevent students from participating in the music program. “I try to look at everything we do from the perspective of students and parents,” Tovar says. “I consider everything from noise constraints when practicing at home, to making sure students can transport instruments to and from school depending on their mode of transportation. If there’s anything I can do to make the non-performance aspects of their musical lives easier, I’ll do it.”