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2023 "40 Under 40" Educator Nicole Wakabayashi

Nicole Wakabayashi

Director of Music and Drama
Notre Dame School of Manhattan
New York, New York

Notre Dame School of Manhattan is a small Catholic, all-girls, college preparatory high school with a mission to provide education to any student regardless of demographic or socioeconomic standing. The program that Nicole Wakabayashi, the school’s Director of Music and Drama and the Arts Department Chair, runs formally started six years ago when she began working at the school.

“This was the first time, in the recent past, that the school has had a choral music program that was integrated into the curriculum,” Wakabayashi says. “I re-built the extracurricular glee club, put on three shows each year with all of the choral ensembles, and music directed the spring musical. While I may not have some of the resources of more developed programs, such as a formal music room or a plethora of instruments, I do have the continued support from the faculty at Notre Dame and, most importantly, the incredible talents and energy my students bring every day. They make my experience as an educator extremely rich.”

Wakabayashi has found innovative ways to bring more inclusion and diversity to her program. In 2019, she started an arts showcase — this first production revolved around the immense contributions of Black artists and musicians to American culture. “The impetus of this project, titled ‘What is Black? Celebrating Black American History Through Music, Art and Poetry,’ was to provide a platform for Black students to tell their own stories through art in a way they might not have been able to in other academic settings while highlighting the importance of antiracism throughout our school community,” she says.

While Wakabayashi produced and music directed the show, she had a group of her senior students curate the entire program. “The main curator of our first showcase, a Cameroonian-American student, told me she wanted to show that Blackness was more transcendent than the binary ways we often look at race. By using the humanizing nature of art, we were able to better celebrate a sense of self through a Black lens,” she says. “The first performance, pre-COVID, had an overwhelmingly positive impact, which propelled us into a virtual edition in 2020 and finally an in-person show in November 2022.”

The 2022 production included a heavy amount of dance, led by professional choreographer Angel Kaba, as well as a six-piece band (with Alphonso Horne on trumpet, Norman Edwards Jr. on drums, Patrick Sargent on saxophone, Mariel Bildsten on trombone, Raul Reyes Bueno on bass and Wakabayashi on piano) to accompany the vocal ensembles. “The rehearsal process and letting the kids create something together really formed a deep sense of community. I am excited to continue this tradition every year going forward,” Wakabayashi says.

Another way she has incorporated diversity is through the Introduction to Music Theory elective she started. “In this course, we cover all the basics of Western music theory and delve into music history during the later parts of the year,” Wakabayashi explains. “I make sure to stress that this type of music analysis is only how a certain part of the world understands music. In order to open their eyes and ears to different types of music, I try to cover a little bit of everything from Hindustani Ragas, the influence of the Indonesian gamelan ensembles on French Impressionistic music, Eastern European folk music traditions, West African Gyil music or anything that might be a little ‘different’ from what we’re used to. I want my students to learn how to listen empathetically and honor the performance practices and styles of different traditions.”

As a music educator, Wakabayashi says that she lives by this quote:

Why We Teach The Arts

Not because we want you to major in the arts,

Not because we expect you to sing, paint, act or dance all your life,

Not so you can just relax or have fun,

But so you will be human.

So you will recognize beauty,

So you will be sensitive and be closer to an infinite beyond this world,

So you will be closer to others,

So you will continue to grow in love, compassion, gentleness and peace.

The arts are not something you do, but something you are.

Of what value will it be to make a prosperous living unless you know how to live?