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.

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