Classical Musician Confronts Cultural Norms in East Flatbush

Tracey Dixon-Neverson demonstrates the Suzuki technique with her daughter in her home studio. (Photo by Joy Notoma for Voices of NY)

The room is sparsely furnished, yet inviting. The combination of hardwood floors and a curtainless window that frames a backyard adds to a sense of spaciousness. Tracey Dixon-Neverson’s voice is measured when she describes the transition into her new home in East Flatbush, where she lives with her family and teaches violin, viola and cello.

A Jamaican-American classically trained violist who has played in orchestras and taught stringed instruments privately and in school programs for more than 20 years, Dixon-Neverson is accustomed to transitions. But the most recent change, purchasing a home in March 2016 and trying to build a new business in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, has brought unexpected challenges.

Residents in the area, says Dixon-Neverson, have tended to value practical skills over arts training. Still, she hopes her new music studio, Dixon String Studio, will fill an untapped niche. Located in her brick townhouse, the studio offers neighborhood residents the unusual opportunity to take private lessons just steps away from their own homes.

East Flatbush is identified as one of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn, with home prices that are cheaper than in other parts of the borough and a recent influx of white residents. The NYC 2010 census reported a 9 percent decrease in non-Hispanic Blacks in the district that includes East Flatbush, while the Caucasian population increased by 14 percent.

While some may think gentrification bodes well for private music lessons, Dixon-Neverson is finding unexpected barriers. For one thing, she wants to make it clear that playing stringed instruments isn’t only for non-Black people.

When Dixon-Neverson asked to leave her fliers at a local church, a worker’s shock was palpable when she explained that she was a viola player. He looked at her with surprise and said, “You?”

Dixon-Neverson, 42, started playing viola when she was nine. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, the musician benefited because her mother, she said, “treasured the arts, making sure I didn’t quit.”

Dixon-Neverson says she has “mixed feelings” about the changing neighborhood. As the daughter of immigrants, she has a “deep understanding” of the people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. Still, she would like to change what she perceives as a mindset about arts education being impractical or somehow less important than other forms of education.

And while Dixon-Neverson expects that the changing neighborhood will bring in more clients, she doesn’t want to change her marketing: “Some people have told me to change my flier to two white children to get more clients. But I won’t do that. There aren’t a lot of us, but we play too.”

Over more than two decades, Dixon-Neverson has taught hundreds of students both in school programs and privately. Currently, in addition to offering private lessons at Dixon String Studio, she teaches strings in the music program at I.S. 392 in Brooklyn. She was the string department chairwoman of Brooklyn Music School in Fort Greene for nine years. She has three children of her own, ages 2, 4 and 8, the oldest of whom plays the viola.

Flier for Dixon String Studio

There’s no direct competition for Dixon String Studio.

Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, a noted arts organization in the area, offers classes in drumming, guitar, and voice, but “does not offer private instruction in any of them,” said Ayoka Wiles, the organization’s associate executive director.

Roy Haynes, a 38-year-old African-American father, has been bringing his daughter, 5, for violin lessons with Dixon-Neverson for a year and a half.

“It’s one thing to take a class at the Y, but to actually have an affordable class on a one-on-one basis is truly a blessing. Tracey bridges that gap,” said Haynes.

Monique Jones, 39, whose 8-year-old daughter studied with Neverson for two years at Brooklyn Music School, believes that private instruction is key to making progress in playing stringed instruments.

Dixon-Neverson’s teaching style combines traditional strings training and Suzuki, an approach that mirrors how language is learned by “listening first, then reading.” Lessons range from $50 for a half-hour session to $100 for an hour of instruction.

She’s optimistic about the future of Dixon String Studio in East Flatbush.

“I’ve been doing it so long that I breathe it. I just need people to know that I’m here. That’s all,” she said.

One Comment

  1. Cole Boyd says:

    Your statistic that the white population of East Flatbush is incorrect. You said that it increased by 14 percent while according to the 2010 census, it actually decreased by that amount.

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