Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Abreu Fellows Seminar with Eric Booth

September 6, 2011 “Training distinctive 'Habits of Mind.'”

Leading up to our seminar with Eric Booth, Erik Holmgren explained that our time with Booth would be spent asking questions. “Come with any questions you have, and Eric Booth will try to answer them.” I had been fortunate to work with Eric Booth in the past (check out his most recent blog on Columbia's Batuta program) and knew how much fun it is to dig into juicy questions with him, but I took this to mean, “Sure, we'll ask some questions, but they have other plans for us to fill up those five hours besides our just asking questions.”

I was wrong. In fact, the five hours flew by in an instant. Eric has that genius quality of being a master story-teller, and being able to answer the toughest questions in the most thoughtful and elegant way, without missing a beat. When we left, we marveled that we had spent so much time on discussing only a few questions (albeit, really big ones).

While I won't repeat everything here, some questions were asked that I would suspect are on the minds of everyone involved in the El Sistema community. One thing is true: we need to let go of pre-conceived notions about music, about music education, about Venezuela, and begin to shape our “habits of mind” in asking the kinds of questions that will drive our work forward. We're at the beginning of this journey together, and while we most likely can't answer these questions, our search for their answers will help us look with a more critical eye toward bringing the inspiration of El Sistema to children around the U.S.

The monster-sized questions:

  • What learning is different from Western classical traditions of teaching and learning?

  • What is social change? What does it mean to “save” children?

  • What training is happening across the U.S for teachers in El Sistema-inspired programs?

  • How might values of El Sistema disseminate into other fields and learning?

And the questions that – with some time and patience – we may be able to answer a little sooner:

  • What is the verb we're using to describe what we're doing? Are we transplanting El Sistema in the U.S? Reinventing it? Adapting it? Interpreting it? (I personally like the last two. Interpreting is musical; perhaps we're interpreting the El Sistema symphony in a way that creatively engages our own musicians and communities.)

  • How do we create functionality for many different programs with similar missions? (In other words, are there models outside the arts that have worked as a national network?)

  • What are the nay-sayers saying about El Sistema in the USA? (Check out Phyllis Freeman's blog to find out more.)

  • How do we give others interested in the Abreu Fellows program an opportunity to learn more about what we're learning? (One answer: we write about as much as we can, and invite people to seminars when we can. The former Abreu Fellows have blogged extensively-- check out my links to their pages on this blog.)

  • How can we best leverage artists in our communities who want to get involved?

  • When does it make sense for El Sistema-inspired programs to collaborate? Or, what's the point of collaborating?

  • To the last point: What intersects among El Sistema inspired programs are already happening?

  • Seminario with Dan Trahey of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's ORCHKids

    • A seminario is a Venezuelan concept, kind of like a flash-mob for a musical project. Several kids come together for a short period of time and work on something together intensively. It could be a new piece, a new genre of music, or a workshop with a renowned musician.

    • In Baltimore, Dan Trahey hosted a seminario, in which children from YOURS project in Chicago, Soundscapes from Virginia, and Tune Up Philly from Philadelpha, came to Baltimore to work on several pieces with the OrchKids participants for one day and give a performance together.

    • It was a success!

      • About 157 children connected with one another from different states, and musically, they all gained an intensive experience in which they worked on Ode to Joy and William Tell Overture

      • Many parents and community members came to the final performance

    • This was perhaps the first example of El Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S joining forces for a common musical cause.

Phew! After re-reading this, I'm still wondering, “Why is it important to ask these questions?” Well, the answers will hopefully inform how we make the case for our programs, make decisions that will align with our missions, raise support and awareness for them, and allow us to provide our students and families with the best possible musical learning environments.

If you have thoughts on any of these questions, please comment away. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Some Inspiration from Youth Orchestra LA

The kids from YOLA got to play on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno! AND with Stevie Wonder at the Hollywood Bowl. Talk about transforming a kid's life through music...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Abreu Fellows: The Beginning (August, 2011)

August 29, 2011
A little background on the weather conditions leading up to the first day of the Abreu Fellows program: Last week, the news indicated that the East Coast would be hit with a hurricane so fierce, so vicious, as to threaten to storm us back to the Stone Age. Leading up to the weekend, stores were running out of milk and toilet paper as people stocked up. At least 370,000 people were ordered to evacuate their homes in New York City. The New York transportation system shut down for the first time in history. Ladies and gentlemen, this was an apocalypse we were talking about.

I had planned to leave for Boston on Sunday, after spending a day leisurely packing and enjoying a day at home in New York. No such luck. After flying back from Switzerland Friday night, I stayed up all night packing, then left on Saturday to catch the last bus leaving Port Authority before everything shut down. After 7 hours, I arrived in Boston and holed up at a friend's house to watch the storm pass.

And in Boston, that's really all it was: a storm.

At the orientation for new students at the New England Conservatory on Monday morning, President Tony Woodcock aptly expressed the beginning of our year, to the effect of “we'll always remember this class as the one that blew in with the storm.”

I'm not going to dwell too much on how that could or could not be an analogy for our journey in the Abreu Fellows program this year. But it did feel oddly appropriate to have weathered a storm as we left everything behind to delve into a program that explores music education as a vehicle for saving the lives of millions of children.

In our first meeting as a group (well, 4/5ths, as Aisha and José Luis got marooned in the Dominican Republic and Mexico from the storm), President Woodcock explained the history of how the Abreu Fellows program began at NEC, how and why the program has changed since its inception in 2009, and why he and his team feel that this program is so important to the field of music and music education. Much to the relief of the Fellows around the table, we learned a little more about our schedules for the year, as well as about the specific classes and projects we'll partake in. Looking around the table, I realized that there were 7 other people who were as passionate about the mission of El Sistema as I am, and equally eager to delve into this work. When I looked at the curriculum for the year, I felt like a pig in... um, mud. But seriously, it dawned on me how awesome it is to join a group of extraordinary people in asking questions, in getting our hands dirty in this work, in learning as much as we can about the exceptional program of El Sistema and how elements of it can be adapted to the U.S and beyond.

Already, several comments and questions emerged around the table that resonated with me. While we search as a group to communicate what we're learning in a way that's interesting and/or helpful, I'd like to simply echo some of the questions and comments that may become themes this year.

  • Leadership at every level of an organization is essential to the success of that organization. In describing the expectations of the Abreu Fellows, President Woodcock, and Leslie Wu Foley (Dean and Executive Director of Preparatory and Continuing Education) explained that this program is not attempting to create 10 new CEOs. Instead, it's positioning us to develop multiple skills that we can take with us to whichever direction we end up pursuing in this field. As Leslie explained, not everyone will start a program from scratch. The field needs more highly qualified people to help run existing programs in multiple ways, and this year's curriculum aims to position us to develop leadership skills necessary for several possible positions besides just CEO. 
  • What is El Sistema? This is a question we will be asked time and again, just as former Fellows have been asked for the last two years. A definition in progress as the program itself evolves and metamorphoses. Thoughts are welcome here. What's your definition of El Sistema? To be continued... 
  • How can we become better contributors to the field? I was overjoyed to hear that Erik Holmgren, our Program Director, has designed this year to be more project-based. We have so much capacity as a group to do something for the field, because we're not currently overseeing programs. We can use this year to make a contribution. Curious to learn more about how we're going to do this, exactly.  
  • Here's a big juicy one: When does it make sense for organizations to collaborate? Or, why do we collaborate, and how? In Venezuela, one major goal of El Sistema is to save children's lives through music. In order to do that, the nucleos work together in many ways to ensure that the maximum number of children can participate in a rich and engaging experience. It would seem natural that in the U.S., organizations would want to learn from each other and share resources to help advance the mission of saving numerous children's lives through music. But does it make sense? How does collaborating impact our fundraising culture? When should we collaborate, and why?
  • El Sistema in Venezuela has been a major supporter of the El Sistema “movement” in the United States. As we begin to identify what that movement looks like and how the El Sistema-inspired programs adapt to the needs of communities in the U.S., it's possible that our programs will look quite different from those in Venezuela. What implications will this have on our relationship with the Venezuelan program? I'll leave this question as it is, as it's probably far more loaded than I'm in any position to explore. But it came up, so here it is.

Update: please visit fellow Abreu Fellow Stephanie Hsu's beautiful blog on the art of getting lost and discovering in the world of education.