Monday, November 30, 2009

On Children

Over the past few weeks, the Abreu Fellows have been on the road, visiting numerous music programs. This has afforded us the opportunity to see the day-to-day practices of artistic directors and music educators... and to interact with kids! In addition, we each have selected a research topic on which to concentrate for the rest of the year. I will be investigating the ways in which El Sistema music instruction addresses key child developmental issues. I wonder: How can we maximize the positive effects of music on children in the El Sistema USA classroom, considering different socio-economic groups, ages and abilities?

OrchKids (Baltimore)
For four days, we immersed ourselves in this after school music program, inspired by El Sistema and run by Dan Trahey, in partnership with the Baltimore Symphony and Lockerman Bundy Elementary School. To get a feel for our visit down there, you should check out these great videos by: Lorrie, Dantes, Stan and Jonathan.
During our time in Baltimore, I was particularly impressed by Eric Rasmussen, OrchKids' Early Childhood specialist. Eric teaches musicianship classes to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, introducing complex rhythmic patterns and melodic concepts with grace and Ella Fitzgerald recordings. He lead an interactive class without being waylaid by discipline issues, and he accomplished this feat because:
1. He uses positive reinforcement and gives the children multiple opportunities to succeed (e.g. by singing easy melodic patterns back to him).
2. He keeps the lesson moving forward and the work challenging. The kids do not have time to misbehave.
 3. He gives the students choices of activities throughout the lesson, so that they may control their own learning.
4. He does not pay undue attention to the unresponsive or disruptive children, thus avoiding potentially explosive situations.
5. He speaks with the voice of calm authority. His leadership could never be questioned, but he's no autocrat.
Thus, Eric creates an environment that is safe and structured, but that allows room for the students to be actively involved in their music education. In this way, he plants the seeds for the children to grow into responsible adults.

A LaGuardia-like high school for the arts (music, theater, dance and visual arts) that is aching for a "feeder" middle school music program. To work towards this goal, BAA runs a Suzuki strings program that does outreach work in four middle schools.
I enjoyed seeing a winds and brass ensemble play "When the Saints Go Marching In." The young teacher had each of the students improvise on a verse, and when some looked daunted at the task, he engaged them in a call-and-response. This allowed all the students, regardless of ability, to experience success, which is crucial in building self-esteem at this difficult age.

YOFES' music program, OAMEC (Open Access to Music Education for Children), may be small, but YOFES has been doing great work for Boston's Haitian community for years. With a social worker on staff, YOFES is able to support the whole child and address key issues in the family. They even facilitate parent-child communication through interactive group sessions. Their music students, of course, enjoy these same services, and Program Director Geralde Gabeau has recently started a music leadership course for teenagers, so that they can act as mentors to the younger string students.

Boston City Singers (Dorchester)
Jane Money's choral program feels like a family. Jane creates an atmosphere of excellence, while at the same time encouraging the students to help each other. Their pilot strings program is a nurturing environment in which the teacher uses singing to strengthen instrumental concepts.

Here's Dantes explaining his crazy instrument...

...and Katie helping a young violinist

We taught a song! And then I tried out iMovie!

Artistic Director Anthony Trecek-King spent three days with us, talking about choral conducting and welcoming us into the BCC family. He avoids discipline problems by setting the bar high... and it is high! When we visited the evening rehearsals, the students' abilities blew me away. The young chorus sang with beautiful tone and energy, and the high school ensemble sight read advanced music with ease. These high schoolers spoke about BCC's familial environment and how the chorus brings together students from Boston's disparate neighborhoods, thus encouraging the mixing of different socio-economic groups.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hello, NEC!

Fellas in Baltimore

Below, an article I wrote for New England Conservatory's student newspaper, The Penguin. Link to the PDF coming soon...

Now that we’ve been on campus seven weeks, we, the Abreu Fellows, feel that it’s time to introduce ourselves. And we hope that you, dear Penguin reader, will approach us in the halls, or in Zander’s Interpretation class, and tell us about yourself.

Like NEC’s student body, we are a diverse bunch. Our hometowns stretch across the Americas, and we have lived below the Equator and over seas. We span a 22-year age gap and support rival sports teams. But we share a desire to integrate music into every aspect of our lives. We all started with practicing our instruments, but our experiences have pushed us to grow beyond that. Now, we strive to live as Artists, Teachers, Scholars[1] and Citizens of the World.

Of course, there is no better opportunity for growth than our current project: bringing El Sistema to the USA. El Sistema is Venezuela’s musical network, 180 “núcleos” that bring 350,000 youth together to play and sing. This exemplary musical education uplifts and empowers students, families and entire communities.

NEC’s Mark Churchill has had a long working relationship with El Sistema’s visionary founder, José Antonio Abreu. So, when Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema grad par excellence, became the Music Director of the LA Philharmonic, and when the TED Organization gave Abreu a 2009 Prize, Mark was ready. The Abreu Fellows Program is the training component of El Sistema USA, a developing network of music educators who follow El Sistema’s core values. As fellows, we study the translation of El Sistema into English, considering the points of view of educators, neuroscientists, community organizers and economists. We spend two months in Venezuela and visit musical initiatives across the USA. Next year, we will run our own núcleos and be leaders in the El Sistema global movement.

Since October, we have continued to develop as Artists, Teachers, Scholars and Citizens, so I asked the fellows about key past moments in these journeys. What does it feel like to expand your relationship to music in this way?

Lorrie Heagy, Alaska dweller and Seinfeld enthusiast, has fused Artist with Teacher:

“When I began working at an arts integrated school, I experienced teaching as an art form. In this open environment, I applied the skills that I had learned as a musician to my teaching. This creative, dynamic and informative process has pushed me to constantly take classes and better my work as an artist.”

We have seen NEC students plunge into teaching[2], and their enthusiasm and willingness to learn has inspired us. Surely this has enriched their artistry, too.

It is not always easy, however, to shift the focus from performance. Katie Wyatt, a violist with a Southern twang, remembers her first foray into orchestral management:

“I wrote my teacher a tearful message of apology. I felt like if I wasn’t auditioning anymore, I was failing him. He replied: ‘Katie, you’re being ridiculous. I’ve trained you to be focused, motivated, inspired and passionate. I used the viola to teach you these skills for LIFE. Go do whatever you like. Apology not accepted. Good luck!’ ”

Thus, the very act of playing music triggers personal growth and cultivates community-building skills. Dan Berkowitz, trombonist and devoted Phillies fan, developed as a Global Citizen when performing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth with the Xiamen Philharmonic:

“As the final trombone chorale faded, we collectively exhaled, sharing an emotional musical moment.  Through patient teamwork, we had transcended cultural barriers to deliver a gift to the audience.  In the process, we had gained new perspectives on learning, communication and life.”

Lorrie, Katie and Dan all suggest: if we follow our artistic impulses and open ourselves to new experiences, we will grow as Artists, Teachers, Scholars and Citizens. Indeed, David Malek, clarinetist and ’80s music lover, believes that these identities are inextricable.

“Each is a vital component to a fully realized human being and flows naturally to the next. Being a citizen implies a duty to better the community. For me, this means engaging my sensibilities in order to make something beautiful and honest. When, through this process, I discover something new about my world, my first inclination is to share, to teach. Finally, reflection and study enable us to communicate with people on the fringes of art.”

For all of us, music is central to our morality, the way we balance the world. So we feel not only inclined but ethically compelled to share. Dantes Rameau, a bassoonist and samba drummer-in-training, elaborates: “I don’t think I could be satisfied or find enough meaning by just playing music. I want to pass on the rush I feel to many different kinds of people and make what I have accessible to everybody.”

So we should share our music with the world. But why do it together? Why El Sistema USA? Or, why orchestras? Why not perform as millions of soloists? Abreu sees orchestras as models for society, in which everyone works together towards a common goal. Alvaro Rodas, percussionist and marathon runner, has experienced this vision firsthand. In 1997, ten Venezuelans led a hundred young, inexperienced Guatemalan musicians in a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. “The energy that the Venezuelans brought out in us and the way they pushed us to solve technical problems convinced me that we could become important agents of change in our country.” The group experience transcended individual abilities and thus empowered the young musicians.

This is not just about El Sistema USA. We know the sad state of the arts in this country. We know how many orchestra positions are available each year and how old an average symphony concertgoer is. But here, in our ensembles, in our teaching, in our groups of friends, we can find inspiration to become “agents of change.” As Artists, Teachers, Scholars and Citizens, we can transform orchestras into more relevant, sustainable institutions. It is up to us to make this country a place where we want to make music!

[1] The concept of the Artist-Teacher-Scholar was taken from Larry Scripp, as expressed in the Journal for Music-In-Education

[2] Thanks to Tanya Maggi’s Community Performances and Partnerships Program

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Weeks 3 and 4: Shaping the World

The Kid: Pedagogy and Child Development

During the third week of the Abreu Fellowship, we were lucky enough to meet with experts in four music education philosophies: Dalcroze, Suzuki, Orff and Kodály, or Lisa Parker, Linda Fiore, Ruth Debrot and Jonathan Rappaport. Our own lovely Lorrie did such an excellent job summarizing what the different pedagogies represent, that I won't go into too much detail. I will, however, list some of the key underlying themes that particularly relate to El Sistema and that have been a catalyst for my own thinking...

1. Joy: All four philosophies are founded on fun and games. Dudamel cites this aspect as one of the two core tenets of El Sistema.
2. Active or kinesthetic listening: Even when observing, students should not be passive. By moving and interacting with the music, they are able to absorb and understand it. Look at the members of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra dance even when they are not playing!
3. Student ownership and participation: Part of what makes the El Sistema orchestras' performances of Tchaikovsky and Bernstein so moving is that they play as if they had composed these pieces themselves. Excellent music pedagogy is predicated on giving the students the power to be artists immediately. See the New York Philharmonic's excellent effort in this respect.
4. Begin early. In Venezuela, children start coming to the núcleos at 2 years old and dive into musicianship classes and choirs that prepare them to eventually pick up an instrument. Similarly, Dalcrozian movement, Orff vocal improvisation and Kodály solfège provide excellent support to young musicians. In training the ear and developing skills such as concentration, memory and coordination, these pedagogies train students to be wonderful instrumentalists.
5. Suzuki believed that all children have talent; in Venezuela, anyone can participate in El Sistema. Linda Fiore also presented us with a list of non-musical benefits that Suzuki learning brings. I never knew that Suzuki was so socially-minded! One has to imagine that Abreu drew some of his inspiration from him.

Delving deeper into the world of Suzuki, I saw its emphasis on parent participation as problematic. What about the children who come from abusive home environments? What about parents whose substance abuse precludes them taking an active role in their child's musical learning? We posited: the núcleo becomes the family. After all, our Venezuelan friends have been describing their fellow El Sistema grads as brothers and sisters.

As I continued to ponder the implications for teaching children with backgrounds of abuse, I appreciated that all four pedagogies, but especially Suzuki, place great emphasis on routine. One of the most important lessons I learned in Peru was that all children need boundaries in order to feel safe. In an abusive or unhealthy home environment, we often see that parents have not placed appropriate limits and act inconsistently, thus creating confusion for the child. One of the kids at Mosoq Runa, who came to us at 5 years old, started walking the 3 kilometers into town by himself from the age of 3. He used to accompany his mother both to work and to the bars. In this limitless world, anything was possible, and that meant that the worst was probable. As a result, he had terrible nightmares. One of our main tasks was to create order in his confusing life. When we were at the table, play time was over; when he was playing, we let him be. Bath time was at 7pm and bed time at 8pm. In this way, he began to feel safe, and the nightmares faded. Similarly, picking up the violin in the same, precise way every day can create order and a feeling of security for a child from a chaotic home.

As all of these pedagogies are developed for the child's sake (rather than the music's), it was wonderful to meet with a few musicians whose day jobs are in the fields of neurology, psychology and child development.
Eli Newberger and Lyle Davidson provided us with a roadmap to the brain, emphasizing the neurological differences between men and women. As a pediatrician, Eli's knowledge of child development is vast, so he presented us with a short but very useful list:
The 5 Most Important Things that Children Need to Develop Sound Characters and Make Admirable Decisions in the Face of Moral Conflict
1. At least one adult in their life who is crazy about them, will always be there for them, assure them of their worth and advocate for them.
2. Emotional literacy. Boys in particular need words with which to characterize and express emotions.
3. Protection from exposure to violence. Did you know that between the ages of 5 and 13, the average American child will have seen over 13,000 people die on television? Venezuela's núcleos are safe havens, and ours must be too.
4. Inductive discipline, which means agreeing upon the standards of behavior (rather than deductive discipline, which is predicated on punishment).
5. To give back. Catholic activist Dorothy Day, when describing the spiritual transformation that occurs in missionary work, said, "The helpless help the helpers more than the helpers help the helpless."

A wonderful example of this final statement is teaching music to children with special needs. My friend, Markku Kaikkonen, runs the Resonaari Music Center in Helsinki, where he educates cognitively disabled children and adults in the art of making music. My visit to the center this September was awe-inspiring. I was amazed by the atmosphere of fun and learning in the ensembles and by the never-ending patience of the teachers.
Because of this incredibly positive experience, I was thrilled to spend Thursday afternoon with Kathleen Howland, music therapist and speech pathologist. When I mentioned how difficult it is to communicate directly with those with special needs, she reminded us all that behaviors are a communication. These actions can be difficult to understand, however, so music bridges these communicative gaps. Kathleen also pointed out that every human wants to make their own choices and be self-directed. Again, music can give them that sense of empowerment. She listed many strategies for strong teaching, including:
* Preview and review every new topic.
* Use peer learning.
* Consider the child as a whole (research their backgrounds, their family life, their special needs)
* Do not just rely on spoken cues; rather, fold in visual and musical ones, too.
* Explore a single topic deeply, rather than passing quickly on to new elements. When working with children with special needs, this is particularly important, because they will not be able to progress rapidly. But, as Kathleen says, if the ceiling is low, go lateral and repeat things creatively.

This made us think... In Kodály, they use the same song over and over again to show different musical principles. In Venezuela, they look at the whole child and love peer-to-peer mentoring. These strategies that work for children with special needs work for everybody. The principles are universal. Differently-abled children force you to look at them before the subject matter, because their needs can be so challenging. But, really, you should always see the child before the music.

The Adult: Triangles, Spirals and Spiderwebs
Conversations with Yo-Yo Ma, Larry Scripp and Sebastian Ruth
Larry Scripp, in charting the progression of music in education, has described the newest incarnation of the music educator as the

Teacher Scholar
The artist's desires are to learn and to join a community. The teacher's, to share and to communicate. The scholar's, to research and to analyze. These roles flow into each other in a constantly evolving relationship that results in a greater ability to interact effectively with music, students and society at large.
Yo-Yo Ma also works within a triangular framework, one that he describes as a circuit that must be complete for the lightbulb to turn on.

Communication           Reception
We are often strong in two poles and weak in the third. Perhaps we explain something very interesting very well, but we have not asked our listeners what they thought. Perhaps we have not looked them in the eyes to read their reaction. But when we do, and the lightbulb becomes illuminated, we can 1. provide a memorable experience 2. cause our listeners, students and children to become curious and passionate, and 3. allow them to develop a disciplined imagination and embark upon the path to empathy.

These triangles have clear similarities; indeed, the elements seem interchangeable. What a wonderful idea, that such simple geometry can provide so many opportunities for self-evaluation. But the danger in a triangle is its inertia. Where can it possibly go?
In Yo-Yo Ma's mind, it can spiral up a vector, towards progress, towards empathy. Our ultimate goal is to become better citizens of the world.

Sebastian Ruth, who, like Yo-Yo, has preserved his identity as a performing artist within his educational project, sees himself as part of a vast spiderweb. His institutional links and musical relationships are reciprocal and interwoven. There is something so beautiful about the spiderweb and its potential for growth. In a web, the vectors are multiple, making the possibility of progress greater than in a single spiral. Our El Sistema may look something like an intricate spiderweb, with reciprocal relationships stretching across the nation, whose strength will inspire the world to act with more empathy.

Thank you for reading.

"Los Puntitos del Amor" Paper Orchestra
Mosoq Runa, Urubamba, Peru, November 2008