Sunday, December 20, 2009

Looking Ahead

What is a vision?

“One day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

“Hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.” –Barack Obama, Iowa Caucus, January 3, 2008

    Perhaps José Antonio Abreu did not see 350,000 Venezuelan children making music together, when he started what would become El Sistema 33 years ago. Perhaps he made it up as he went along. This does not change the fact that, in Venezuela, there exists an overarching vision, shared and owned by every individual who contributes to El Sistema. This is a program of social rescue and cultural enrichment that will eventually reach every Venezuelan child and thus affect every Venezuelan person.

    Abreu has found a productive tension between framework and flexibility, so that everyone knows what the “essence” of El Sistema is, but can express it in their own unique way.

How do you make your vision concrete?

    Hubie Jones, founder and president of the Boston Children’s Chorus, is committed to the social integration of his diverse group. He believes: “At the end of the day, it's all about strategy. With anything new, we must prove how it will help bring us to our vision.” Where is the strategy in Venezuela? Does Abreu share that, too?

How do you get people on board? How do you “teach” your vision?

    Let’s say our vision is musical literacy, in other words, the ability to speak, read, write and understand music.

    For many classically trained musicians, speaking and writing music (improvisation and composition) present the biggest problems. How can we encourage our students to develop confidently in those areas?

    Larry Bell, composition professor at NEC, quotes Stravinsky:

“My freedom will be so much greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles…The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” (Poetics of Music)

With this in mind, he gives his composition students assignments such as to write a piece using only one interval. This restriction frees the students to experiment with rhythm and gives them the opportunity to experience success: they will have written a piece of music.

    Gabriela Montero, world-renowned pianist and classical improviser, sees it quite differently. She believes that a music teacher must be an inspiration to his or her students and create an open environment in which the students will be free to express themselves without any constraints at all. In her experience, improvisation is a direct expression of the soul and thus cannot be limited. Though not everyone has such a visceral relationship with the piano (or such natural talent), her comment strikes a chord. I feel that a teacher should model behaviors and skills, thus encouraging learning in his or her very being. The more we love music, enjoy sharing it with others and care about our communities, the more frequently our students will become creative, passionate, empathetic citizens.

    Hubie Jones certainly agrees with this. He believes in living your vision, in practicing what you preach. In Hubie’s case, this means making your organization—from the facilities staff to the board—as diverse as you want your student body to be.

    But back to the apparent disagreement between Larry and Gabriela—First, it seems to me that they are embodying the very tension between framework and flexibility that exists in El Sistema. (That tension also exists in Flow Theory, in which one strives to keep the students both challenged and successful.) Second, there are many wonderful ways to approach musical literacy that lie between these two poles. To name just two:

1.    Giving Students Tools. Simply conquering the very vocabulary of composition makes it much less scary. Like with any language, it is not enough to simply experience it; you need to understand what you are experiencing. Matti Kovler, who teaches improvisation at NEC’s Preparatory School, introduced us to a wonderful student of his, Rachel, who is nine years old. For the past three years, Matti has guided Rachel through an understanding of intervals, chords and modes and has played improvisatory and compositional games with her. As a result, Rachel is extremely adept at identifying what she hears and is developing as a composer, in the midst of writing an opera.

2.   Multiple representations. Larry Scripp has done extensive work with children and has shown that, if you allow the children not only to hear the music, but also to see, feel and experience it, they develop a greater understanding of the material. For example, Larry uses cups as visual aids for rhythm patterns and asks the students to draw pictures of the music they hear. NB: Larry’s a smart cookie, because these pictures serve a double purpose—over time, to document the progress of the child and thus of the music program.

    Musical literacy is only a piece of our ideal future, but perhaps we should approach vision as a topic we want to teach. Thus, we must not only present it, but allow others to witness it, experience it, respond to it and feel ownership over it.

    Thank you for reading.

A vision of fellow love!