Monday, December 31, 2012

Education Director at Orchestra of St. Luke's: The First 6 Months

If you could improve a life, would you?

This is what greets me everyday I walk to work at The DiMenna Center.  It’s displayed on a giant billboard for Shriner’s Hospital, with faces of children looming over it, facing east on W.37th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue, and it’s a gentle reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing. Everyday that I see it, I answer to myself, “Yes!” I love this work passionately, and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than creating meaningful experiences for people through an orchestra, a collective of musicians that exemplifies what a society can be: a collaborative (though sometimes disagreeing) community that has the same vision to perform great works of music as authentically as possible.

When I first started at Orchestra of St. Luke’s in June, I felt a sense of urgency to record and communicate my experiences. But now I’m beginning to wonder why. Why write this all down? Who am I really aiming to share this with? Basically, I've found that some of the most helpful advice I’ve been given has come from people who were transparent about the processes they went through to get their programs off the ground, so this is a way to share the process with others in the field who may be having similar experiences.

So in the spirit of transparency, I invite you to pick through the bits that interest you and comment if you feel it.

(Note: the blogs are organized into subjects and chronologically, not according to the date of posting. Also, I wrote some of these blogs back in August, and some of them in retrospect in the last couple of weeks.)

The first three months at OSL: June


Today marks 3 months since the Sistema Fellowship ended, and 2 months since I started my position as Director of Education at Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Before the year takes over and we become absorbed in planning and running programs, I want to take some time to honor the process. It is such a sweet time, to indulge in planning, to ask the hard questions about why we do what we do, and what our vision is that will guide our future decisions. I think it may be interesting to look back one day on how we arrived at our decisions.

As an aside, today, the ten 2012-2012 Sistema Fellows organized a conference call to catch up, and I realized how valuable it is both to share ideas with brilliant people with similar passions, and to stay connected to and inspired by their great work.  

So, here’s a play-by-play of the highlights of the last two months of Education directorship at the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

Introduction to the orchestra
During my second week, I sit in on a rehearsal with Gil Shaham and the orchestra, conducted by Roberto Abbado. They sound gorgeous, and I’m overwhelmingly happy to be surrounded by an orchestra again. This is going to be a beautiful relationship. (The first time I met Gil Shaham was when he played with the Berlin Philharmonic when I moved to Berlin in 2003.)

Team-building meeting with the education team.
I wanted to get to know the team I’d be working with, to spend some time learning from them why they do what they do and what they believe has been successful in their past experiences with OSL. I realized that asking these questions may seem a bit contrived, but I genuinely believe that our learning about each others' motivations and perceptions of success will help us develop our future meetings to be as productive and open as possible. We started with these questions:

What inspires your work? Kids making instruments; creating opportunities for students to participate in music; discovering the work/play and aesthetic experience that kids are having; creating and becoming part of a culture of music; continuing to see how music can give a child or another person a broader world perspective through music.

How do you define success of the education department? Students articulating musical concepts that they weren’t able to articulate at the beginning of the year; students performing together; students and teachers walking away from concerts with a deeper understanding of and connection to music; a re-defined vision of the department and program plans that fit within that vision.

What would be your personal inquiry question for our work this year?
How can an orchestra connect with its community?
What are the best ways of inviting people to an orchestra’s activities?
How do we connect with our audiences?
How do we define the OSL community?
What is our role in arts education?
What are the differences between arts education organizations, performance organizations, and educational systems?

I'm looking forward to looking back on these questions at the end of the year (May 2013) and seeing how we answer them.

Getting to know the community—what is the need in this community?
As I learned from David France, you can never know a community unless you get out and talk to people. So, we did. And what we learned was so much more than we could have learned looking online in an office. Mark (as in Mark Caruso, Assistant Director of Education at OSL) and I created a list of questions to ask people and a list of people to ask. We went out talking to local business owners, local residents to let them know about The DiMenna Center (DMC) and OSL, and to ask what community organizations they know about in the neighborhood. We learned a great deal about the neighborhood, and also realized that this was just the beginning of our investigation. In short, two big themes kept coming up:
1. People felt that there aren't many activities that draw community members together, and that they'd like there to be more events that do this. The neighborhood is becoming rapidly affluent, but there are still many people living in shelters and transitional homes, and little is being done to make all residents feel a sense of neighborhood connection.
2. The schools reported that they felt there could be far more family involvement in the school activities.

Both of these things will help us to make a case for creating a youth orchestra with inter-generational opportunities. 

The first three months at OSL: July highlights

July Highlights

We planned an El Sistema-awareness raising event for members of the orchestra, staff, board, and friends, to let them know about ES as we explore it as a model for our future programs. Then we rescheduled it when we realized it was too soon to plan and most people were gone on holiday. Lesson: don’t be too ambitious when you’re still learning about the day-to-day of an organization.

In late July, we organized a meet and greet for our Amateur Musicians Project, a chamber music program for passionate adult musicians. This gave people a chance to play a little, and talk about what their musical background is and what they’re looking to do in the program. It was a helpful way for us to recruit new people to the program.

I was especially excited to send OSL musicians to former Sistema Fellow David Gracia’s Washington Heights Inwood Music camp. So much fun to see his program get off the ground! The musicians loved teaching there, and we all can’t wait to do more of this. OSL violinist Eriko Sato, who coached at the camp, told me that one of the students waited around afterwards to speak with her. The student said, "I learned more from those 2 hours working with you then I've ever learned in my life!"

First Three Months at OSL, August Part 1: Hiring, Planning Existing Programs, Lessons

August at OSL, Part 1

Our coordinator of Education Programs leaves, and thus begins a search for a new staff person to support the Education and Artistic programs. This is an extremely time-consuming process in a mid-sized organization: drafting a job description, asking several people to weigh in, re-drafting it, getting ready to post it, realizing you don’t have the password for the sites you’d like to post to, asking for help locating those passwords, finally posting the job description, and then figuring out a system to review the dozens of applications coming in hourly.

Note to job applicants out there: make sure your materials have been proofread, by SEVERAL people. The last thing a potential employer wants to do is worry about correcting speling and grammar misstakes of an administrator whose job it is to support the work of the department as accurateley as possible. On that note, make sure you spell the name of the organization you’re applying to correctly. I can’t tell you how many “Orchestra of Saint Lukes” I saw. Finally, you may be desperate for a job, but spend at least 5 minutes on the organizations’ website so it at least appears you know something about the job you’re applying for.

Phew, I had to get that out.

Next, we launched our updated Arts Education pages on the OSL website. New photos, more accurate descriptions and organization of the programs. This is a good temporary site until we decide which new programs we’ll launch next year.

Planning Free youth concerts
When I started at OSL, I knew that Tom Cabaniss had been hired as a consultant to help plan the year’s Free Youth Concerts (known internally as CFOs –the acronym for the Children’s Free Opera concerts that long ago were the staple of the education programs- much to my total confusion for a couple weeks when I kept thinking people were referring to the Chief Financial Officer). I had worked with Tom when I was at Carnegie Hall, and knew that his suggestions would be brilliant. There had already been a decision on the table to highlight Stravinsky for the year of youth concerts, and Tom suggested Soldier’s Tale for the Fall and Pulcinella for the Spring. I thought, “sounds great!” knowing that we might go in a different direction in future years. I mean, Soldier’s Tale for young students sounded pretty provocative and totally cool. So we set off to get a minimal theatrical production off the ground, hiring a director, looking into set designers and costume designers and a cast.

Lessons learned
Looking back on plans for July, I wish I had set up more meetings with people in the community. And yet, I am aware that we still have some time and that "getting to know a community" takes awhile.

Despite my best intentions to set up a task force, I realized that some planning needed to take place before scheduling could happen in the summer, so Mark and I put aside several hours and started exploring answers to some of the bigger questions. I decided to first meet and get to know the existing Arts Ed committee, and then decide who else we needed to ask for help in designing and launching a Sistema-inspired program.

First three months at OSL, August: A Quandry about Violins

August, Part 2

Violin program questions
As the summer went on, it became clearer that our new vision for the Education department would look something like this:

The Education & Community Programs of OSL are committed to giving people opportunities to develop deep relationships with music and one another through connecting with the extraordinary collection of musicians of OSL, participating in music, and utilizing the state-of-the-art spaces at The DiMenna Center.

We were fairly certain by August that our future programs would fall into 3 categories: Access, Engagement, and Play (or something along those lines). To do this, we were also fairly certain that we’d launch an intensive music program based on El Sistema in our local neighborhood, and become a hub for existing El Sistema-inspired programs to add value to their program by building opportunities for children in their programs to connect with one another across the city and work with members of OSL.

There was one little issue, though, with how this jived with our existing programs. Most of our school partnerships were arts integration/curriculum based. That is to say, we developed a curriculum and our teaching artists created lesson plans, met with classroom teachers, and implemented the curriculum in our school partner classrooms in preparation for attending the Free Youth Concerts. A couple of years ago, one of our local partner schools wanted violin instruction instead, and we launched a program in which a musician from the orchestra taught small classes of violin students one day a week in school.

Now there is another partner school, which we’d decided to shift from the curriculum-based model to a violin instruction model. This decision was made before I had arrived, and the change had been negotiated amongst our funders, the school, and the parents and teachers of that school. The school was so excited for us to have a violin program, but as I was looking at the program, I wondered, Does it really make sense to launch a violin instruction program at this second school this year when we know it’s going to change dramatically next year? Most likely, a future program would be after school, and we can’t assume that many of the students participating in an in-school program will want to join an intensive after-school program. Furthermore, does it make sense to train teachers to teach violin in this program when the nature of the program will change to become far more intensive? Do we really have the time to invest in preparing a violin teacher for this program so that the program is at the level we want it to be?

Well, Mark and I went out to the school to meet with the music teacher and Principal. And again, I was reminded of that lesson about listening to people. Although Mark had told me this several times, I heard from the music teacher that she had fundraised herself to get enough money from the parents to pay for the violin program, and there were many students who were excited about joining it. On the way back to the office, I wondered, “What would Abreu do?” And I knew the answer immediately: Give the kids violins. You’ll figure out what to do with them and the program later, but for now, only good can come of putting violins in their hands.

We did make a few changes to ensure that we’d have the time we needed to prepare for the program sufficiently, so we agreed with the school to start in January as opposed to in the Fall. And we’ve asked the school to join us in planning sessions in January as we explore launching a Sistema-inspired program in our neighborhood.


OSL in September- Professional Development Sessions, Soldier’s Tale planning

 The start of September was exciting for a couple of reasons: it was the beginning of the season, Katy had returned from her sabbatical so it was great to be able to bounce ideas off her, and we had a new member join the OSL team as Vice President of Artists and Programs: the legendary Charlie Hamlen, founder of IMG Artists and Classical Action. The moment I met him and he said, “We have a friend in common: Fred Hersch!” I was instantly struck by his warm demeanor, and that admirable ability to connect with almost anyone and make you feel like a fast friend. I knew instantly that I’d have much to learn from this music industry giant (and he is, actually, a giant: he’s well over 6 feet), and that I was looking so forward to working with him everyday.

Professional Development Sessions
With our Teaching Artists, led by Tom Cabaniss
In our first PD of the year, I finally got to meet our rock-star team of teaching artists. They’re truly an awesome bunch of seasoned musician and dancer TAs, and as I observed and participated in the session led by Tom Cabaniss about concepts around the Soldier’s Tale story, and ornamentation, I wished I had seen these people in action back when I had started at Carnegie Hall and we were launching the Teaching Artists Collaborative. Hearing their approach to delving into new concepts and ideas with Tom highlighted how ingrained “inquiry-based learning” was to them.

With the Longy School of Music of Bard College, led by Lorrie Heagy
Early in September, Erik Holmgren (former Program Director of Sistema Fellows, when I was in it, and now Director of Teaching and Learning at the Longy School of Music of Bard College) called me and asked one of his very earnest-sounding questions: how does offering a Professional Development session in collaboration with Longy at The DiMenna Center support the mission of your organization? When I answered, “The vision for our Education and Community programs is to connect people with and through music, and by utilizing the DMC. A PD across programs in New York City is exactly the kind of activity we’re positioned to offer and it will also help support the teachers in our current programs." Erik replied, “Good, that’s what I was hoping you’d say. Now, let’s plan a PD.”

It went enormously well. Lorrie shined in inviting us into learning about concepts of student engagement from many different angles, and we all got to learn alongside each other, teachers and nucleo directors from UpBeatNYC, Corona Youth Music Project, Union City Music Project, and Washington Heights Inwood program, not to mention a couple of musicians who would be teaching in our violin program. We finished each of the intensive 2 days by traveling out to Corona Youth Music Project to watch Lorrie in action with Alvaro Rodas’ students. I very much hope this collaboration becomes a tradition and a staple in New York City.

I did wonder, though, about our teaching artists. Were we missing an opportunity to broaden the conversation about student engagement by not having them there? It seems that we could connect our teaching artists with the events that we’re offering other teachers in Sistema programs, and those teachers’ opportunities to learn from the experience of our teaching artists.

Planning Soldier’s Tale
There was a lot of back and forth about how to put on a theatrical production of Soldier’s Tale with the orchestra. But it was sometime in September when Katy or Valerie said to me, “Well, this is why we stopped doing theatrical productions. We’re not exactly equipped to do a fully staged production, so we’ve instead focused on dance and other productions. But if you can do it on a small scale, go for it.” Something was beginning to dawn on me that the theatrical focus might not be the right focus. By this point we were so far along in the conceptualizing, though, that it didn’t make sense to re-think the vision for the production.

The more we started having to deal with questions about actors equity, set design, casting, and space for a costume designer to work, the more I became aware that this was a far greater challenge for us as an organization than perhaps I had initially realized. Still, we soldiered on. I was hell-bent on making this production successful.

OSL in October – With Sistema Fellows, and a Revelation

October at OSL

More planning Soldier’s Tale, more wondering how on earth this production was going to happen. And we were one staff member short. More looking through resumes and interviewing. More strategic planning.

Two highlights in October:

Sistema Fellows Sessions with OSL
Visit by Sistema Fellows during their residency. I invited them to spend 2 days with members of our staff and orchestra to explore questions about concert planning, invigorating communities around music, and thinking through questions that might be helpful for us to answer as we plan new programs. The Fellows were a tremendous resource to us in generating new ideas and questions that we'll most certainly integrate into our planning. Thanks, Fellows! We were particularly grateful for Elaine Sandoval’s help in doing a community map for us. Thanks, Elaine!

Different Direction for Soldier’s Tale
It took one of my TEDxNewYork salons to make me realize that the theatrical direction was not working, nor was it going to work until I developed my own vision for the production. I wrote a letter about this in December, focused more on the power of the TEDxNewYork community, but I’m re-posting it here because this was a huge lesson for me: whenever possible, develop your own vision and stick with it.

Dear members of TEDxNewYork,
We know that many of you miss the TEDxNewYork salons, and we’re working hard to bring them back and make them better than ever. In the meantime, I want to share a story with you about the power of this community, and why I’m personally looking so forward to starting up again in January.
A couple of months ago, I arrived to facilitate the TEDxNewYork salon, and I was having a really hard week. A project I’d been working on wasn’t going well, and despite all my best efforts, I felt at a loss as to how to move it forward.  I didn’t really want to be at TEDxNewYork that evening, but I went, showed an uplifting TED talk, and began to ask guided questions of the group to trigger a discussion. 
Sometimes a person will say something that irrevocably changes your perception, and sticks. I called on a woman to share her thoughts about the talk, and she said this:
“You’re either a warrior or a victim. The difference is that a warrior is a person who has a vision, and any obstacle is simply a hurdle on the way toward realizing that vision. A victim is one who does not have a vision, and any obstacle is a barrier that diverts you toward a path you may have no control over.”
This completely changed the way I thought about the project I was working on, and it was also a lesson to me about life. I realized I didn’t have a vision for the project: it was someone else’s vision that I was trying to implement, and it wasn’t working at all. So I went home, spent all Friday night imagining what I wanted the project to be, and two months later, it turned into a successful series of orchestral performances for 4,500 NYC school children.
It’s now December, and we haven’t had a TEDxNewYork salon since our sponsorship with Saatchi&Saatchi ended in November. I get emails from regular TEDxNewYork attendees asking when it will start up again, and while my team and I are working hard to find a new location, I personally feel stretched for time. I find myself asking, “Is this unintended break a sign that you should maybe walk away? You have so much on your plate right now—shouldn't you consider moving on from TEDxNewYork?” And yet there’s always a nagging suspicion that being a part of the TEDxNewYork community is really important, that exchanging ideas weekly with people we don’t usually have a chance to meet is essential to feeding our mind and spirit amidst all of the other things we do in our busy New York City lives.
Cut to Monday night. I find myself at an after-party of a film screening (how I ended up at said party is its own bizarre story for another time). I know the hosts, and I know my friends who scored the film. It should be noted that I am in the music field, and have very few connections to the film world. As I start to look around, I notice that several people in the room look familiar. I instantly think they’re friends of the host I’d met at other parties. Finally, I’m standing face to face with one of them: a beautiful woman in a large-brimmed hat, and we both say, “I know you, but from where?” We quickly established that there was no way we could have met through the host. And then it hit me: this was the woman at TEDxNewYork who told the group about the warrior and the victim. We both couldn’t believe it, and of course I gave her a big hug and thanked her for her wisdom, which spurred me on to discovering my own vision.
As we stood in the hallway, I began to see many other familiar faces of people who had come to TEDxNewYork. Each of them has shared a story or an idea that resonated with me and that I still think about today. We all came to this party completely by chance, and through the ideas we’ve shared at TEDxNewYork, we felt instantly more connected than we may have had we just been discussing the film screening over the cheese table. All of the people I saw that night from TEDxNewYork asked me when it would start up again, and explained what an important role the salons have played in their own lives: that hearing ideas from a diverse network of people opened them up to new ways of thinking and gave them courage in their lives they hadn’t realized before.
It’s for these moments that we all keep coming back to TEDxNewYork. It’s a community of people from a myriad of different backgrounds, and in the spirit of ideas worth spreading, we watch thought-provoking TED talks and share what they ignited for us. To stay open to hearing others’ opinions, and to learn more creative, courageous ways to relate to people and situations in our lives, makes us all richer human beings.

And so I am once again inspired  by the TEDxNewYork community to make sure we find a home and get the salons up and running as soon as possible.
We wish you a healthy and peaceful New Year. Thanks to all of you for bringing your honesty, your ears, and your enthusiasm to our TEDxNewYork community. We look forward to sharing a happier year in 2013 with you all at our TEDxNewYork salons.

With best wishes,

Jennifer Kessler and the TEDxNewYork team

Special thanks to our 2012 curators, designers, and connectors: Gina Bria, Christine Hart, Stacy Mar, Mark Monchek, Bobbi Van, and Parris Whittingham

To reach us, please do NOT reply to this email, but write to and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

This independent TEDx event is operated under license from TED. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At our TEDxNewYork salons, TEDTalks video and discussion will combine to spark deep connection in a small group.

OSL in November: Production!

 November is when things started to really take off. We hired Jose Rincon to fill the newly-created Administrator for Artistic and Education & Community Programs, as a way to create more fluidity across educational and artistic initiatives (the idea being that they shouldn’t be so separated—it’s all artistic, with slightly different audiences, repertoire, and goals).

Hurricane Sandy also struck New York, putting all of us back and causing much more hardship than just the inconvenience of lack of electricity for many. People lost their children. People lost their homes. Vanished, just like that. It made going into work and typing up notes from last week’s meetings feel a little trite. I wrote a blog about one volunteering experience I had during that week, here.

Soldier’s Tale, with puppets!
Despite many, many hurdles, our production of Soldier’s Tale in collaboration with the amazing Puppet Kitchen went off fabulously. I am deeply grateful to Emily DeCola and her team for being so awesome, to Damon Gupton for being so flexible and masterful as conductor and host, to the whole team at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse, to my wonderful team at OSL, and to the musicians and actors who made the production come to life.

Lessons learned: always be honest with everyone, including yourself. And work with friends whenever you can and it makes sense. Texting Emily on that Friday in October was the best call, ever.

Watch The Puppet Kitchen here!

OSL in December Part 1: El Sistema

Here’s what I told Matt at the beginning of December: you’re not going to see a whole lot of me in the next couple of weeks. Basically, when the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra comes to town, it’s one big party, and I was thrilled to spend as much time as possible with all of the people I love and admire who are a part of this movement.

Symposium in Philadelphia, Dec. 3-5
Mark, Jose, and I met up for a Symposium on El Sistema, hosted by Stanford Thompson and Play on Philly. Sistema Fellow Elaine Sandoval wrote an excellent article on the Symposium which can be found in the January 2013 issue of The Ensemble. 

To subscribe to The Ensemble, send an email to

December 8, Discovery Day at Carnegie Hall
Dress rehearsal of SBSOV. The Revueltas was like a force of nature. What a percussion section!

Really, check this movement out: 

Following the rehearsal was Discovery Day at Carnegie Hall. Keynote by Leon Botstein, follwed by the Dudamel movie, and a panel with Abreu and Dudamel, moderated by Jeremy Geffen.

Afterward, Ann Gregg gathered the nucleo leaders and myself to meet in a back room with Maestro Abreu and Gustavo Dudamel. Jose Luis Hernandez Estrada was there, and it was so meaningful for me to sit next to him only months after our trip to Venezuela and be able to share our intention to connect the existing programs in NYC as well as start our own nucleo. While I was busy with OSL making a case for supporting Sistema programs, Jose Luis wrote a new book about Sistema. And he’s become close with Abreu, as an ambassador to Mexican nucleos. I’m so proud of that guy.

From left: Julie Davis, Avi Mehta, me, Jose Luis, and Maestro Abreu, meeting in Caracas in April 2012

The spirit in the room was palpable – everyone seemed a little nervous and very excited to share their programs and plans with the Maestros. Gustavo stood there looking pretty pleased. And it gave me great joy to share with Maestro Abreu where we’ve arrived since I last saw him in April. He encouraged us to continue to work together and start an association in NYC to be able to help each other collectively, like by launching an instrument campaign that would benefit all of our programs. He said he would help in any way he could. That man has a sparkle in his eyes, and when he says something, you can pretty much believe that he’ll follow through. What an extraordinary day.


OSL in December Part 2: El Sistema Sessions at The DiMenna Center

Sessions at The DiMenna Center, organized by Heath Marlow, Dec. 10 and 11
Heath, formerly of Community Music Works, is now Program Director of the Sistema Fellows program at NEC. He wanted to organize sessions for the Fellows during the New York events so they could discuss various topics with the leaders of the Sistema movement. I offered our spaces at DMC, which seemed to be a perfect meeting place for them. On the first day, Gretchen Nielsen led everyone (current Fellows, Mark, Jose, several other guests) in a logic model exercise, much like she did with us last year. (For those of you unfamiliar with the expression, a logic model is a clever planning exercise to dream really big and identify your vision, the resources you need to turn that vision into a reality, and all of the outcomes you hope to see as a result of that vision.) What was surprising was the lack of music mentioned in peoples’ visions for their programs. Our vision last year was this golden dream of a program: a house that was spilling over with music-making, whole neighborhoods transformed by music and participating in music at a high level. This years’ Fellows, though, seemed to be more focused on the social outcomes. I wondered what they were getting out of the session (for me, it was transformative when we went through it), but then again, I couldn’t stay for the whole thing so I may have missed the heart of the conversation.

On the second day, Eric Booth led a larger group in discussions that connected to other conversations and themes that arose across the country during the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra's tour. The topics centered mostly around the motivation of the learner, and we also tapped into race and ethnicity and addressing assumptions in our work as administrators and teachers. It was exciting to be a part of the conversation and host it at our home. I was particularly thrilled to see who came: it was like all of the rockstars of the Sistema movement in one place! Jamie Bernstein, Karen Zorn, Erik Holmgren, Gretchen Nielsen, Eric Booth, all of the current fellows, three former Fellows, and Ken Cole from the National Guild for Community Arts Education. I hope that this is just the beginning of many more conversations and professional development sessions on Sistema-inspired work at the DMC.