Bronx violin teacher named a national music award finalist

Dr. Kokoe Tanaka-Suwan, second from eight, stands with three of her former students, (Left to right) Leslie Gutama, Madison Rodriguez and Victoria Flores, and the two current music teachers, Jessica McWilliams and Jennifer Hosten inside the auditorium at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls. Dr. Tanaka-Suwan has been nominated for a national music educator award by the Recording Academy and Grammy Museum for her work at BGLIG.
Photo by Kyle Vuille/Schneps Media

The founder of a Bronx school string orchestra has been named one of ten finalists for the 2020 Music Educator Award presented by the Recording Academy and Grammy Museum.

Dr. Kokoe Tanaka-Suwan, of Cos Cob, CT, has been become the only finalist nationwide from New York for her contributions to the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls Charter School.

BGLIG (Big League) opened in the south Bronx back in 2008 with Tanaka-Suwan as one of the founding faculty members.

“What really drew me to this school was they (administration) said they wanted a string music program,” Tanaka-Suwan said.

Every student at BGLIG from kindergarten to eigth grade learns to play the violin with lessons taught on a daily basis.

“The concept is, not only, are they learning to play a complex instrument like the violin, but they are really given all the tools to become well-rounded individuals,” Tanaka-Suwan said. “The mission of the school is to create future women leaders.”

Tanaka-Suwan, started playing the violin at age 4, attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston for her undergraduate and received her Graduate/Doctrine at Columbia University.

Including her time at BGLIG, Tanaka-Suwan has taught in the borough for 16 years, 11 of those at BGLIG.

“It’s rare to have a teacher or classroom that I would see them every single day every single year,” Tanaka-Suwan said. “So I really was able to create close relationships with students and their families and I think that’s important to work collaboratively and looking beyond that, I’m now writing recommendation letters and they are going off to college.”

Statistically, BGLIG sits in the poorest congressional district in the nation. Ninety-eight percent of BGLIG’s students qualify for federal free/reduced lunch, which puts them under the poverty line.

The administration, faculty and staff at BGLIG all find it their mission to open student’s minds to future opportunities and possibilities.

“We want them to raise their sights on what’s possible,” Tanaka-Suwan said.

Three of Tanaka-Suwan’s former students can attest to ‘Ms. Kokoe’s’ charisma and drive to indulge into the world of music.

Victoria Flores, 11, who was a student of Tanaka-Suwan’s, fondly remembered her teacher using ‘violins’ made of cardboard to learn proper posture when she was just a kindergartener.

Another former student of Tanaka-Suwan’s, Madison Rodriguez,11, said ‘Ms. Kokoe’ was the kind of teacher she could talk to and used scholarships to weekend music schools as an incentive to keep practicing.

Tanaka-Suwan not only left a distinct impression on her students, but also former colleagues like music teacher, Jessica McWilliams.

“The biggest takeaway from her was her positivity and resilience,” McWilliams said. “She always brings that positivity and it makes a world’s difference.”

McWilliams emphasized the appreciation the students, the staff and the community have for the string orchestra program.

“The most special thing she did was create the strings program,” McWilliams said. “The students, the staff and the community all feel it.”

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