Sunday, November 21, 2010

Back from Baltimore

I am back from Baltimore where I spent the week with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program. The program director, Daniel Trahey, gave us the opportunity to put together a performance with all the students enrolled in the OrchKids program. We arrived on Monday and by Friday we had a concert ready. It was a wonderful experience and one I am anxious to blog about but I need some time to fully digest the experience. I will be back soon to share with you my notes on my week with OrchKids. What I can tell you now is that OrchKids IS El Sistema! I was excited to see that the movement for social change through music is alive and strong in West Baltimore, a place in desperate need. Thank you to Dan, Nick, Molly, Rafaela, Jill, Ms. Jeffreys, and to all the wonderful children for allowing us to come and work with you. It was truly an unforgettable experience. I can't wait to go back!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

At the CORE....

"At the core is the belief that every child can excel"

We are building a new world based on this idea. In the discussions that take place around our conference table, the use of negatives is rare. We talk about the future, we talk about possibilities, we talk about strategies and how to implement them.  The work we are about to dive into calls for a great deal of self-assessment and planning. We are talking about impacting the world, specifically the world of children. At the core is the belief that every child can excel, and this is why we are determined and dedicated to see El Sistema USA succeed.

This week we have been hearing about case-for-need documents, delphi survey techniques, contracts, funders, capacity building, and social entrepreneurialship. We have been talking about cost-per-child, return-on-investment, and program benefits. The through-line that makes sense of all of this is always clear to us: we want our programs to have successful impact on the community. El Sistema USA is building that successful track record, from garnering funds at both the local and national levels to getting communities involved with students and parents signing up. Our partnership possibilities are endless. We can partner with  public and charter schools, local youth orchestras, institutions of higher education, and even symphony orchestras.

Our goals are clear and our vision accessible.  TUNE UP Philly is an El Sistema inspired program in partnership with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and their mission is this:

"We believe that music education is a powerful vehicle for children to master skills that will enable them to acquire valuable tools for cooperative learning, teamwork, academic success and self-esteem." the core is the belief that every child can excel

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Build with vision

We got to spend the afternoon with Sebastian Ruth today. He came to talk to us about "how to build an organization based on what you believe". Sebastian Ruth is founder and artistic director of Community Music Works in Rhode Island and a 2010 MacArthur Fellow.

Sebastian talked to us about what it means to try and engage in social change. We discussed the idea of musicians being social advocates and the role music educators have in influencing their student's participation in a wider civic and cultural world. Sebastian talked about listening to students and really trying to engage their ideas. He made reference to Paulo Freire's book Pedagogy of the Oppressed calling on us to craft our own pedagogy of music.

Sebastian Ruth built Community Music Works based on a servant-leader model. He went into Providence and said "I am here to respect and fundamentally become part of the community" and that's just what he did. He built his organization on a vision that has three important pillars:

1) Reciprocal interaction
2) New Idea or re-imagination of service
3) Teaching and performance are mutually supportive

Community Music Works was founded in 1997. In 2010, thirteen years later, it is a vibrant part of the cultural community in Providence. This year the students of CMW got to meet the first lady Michelle Obama and Sebastian has won the MacArthur Genius grant which is a $500,000 'no strings attached' grant dispersed over a period of 5 years. They serve 110 kids in a three phase program which not only teaches music but also civic values. CMW is a great example of an organization built on vision, and if we learn anything from Sebastian's example it is this:

"It can take a long time to see your vision become reality, but you can have an operational program long before achieving your vision".

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Excellence guided learning / Performance as a tool for teaching

Excellence guided learning is what El Sistema is all about. This is one of the things that we have to establish in our future nucleos. The standard of excellence has to be established and maintained at all possible levels, from the director, all the way down to the individual student.

In a nucleo setting, standard of excellence is established by having high expectations early-on. The most important part of making sure that excellence is achieved may very well be in how these high expectations are handed to students. The word 'scaffolding' has come up a lot in our seminars and we have been talking about the idea of high expectations through manageable goals. This has everything to do with scaffolding. We have to remember that the smaller more attainable goals that we give to students still display a standard of excellence at every level.

Soon we will be heading to Baltimore to visit ORCHkids which is a nucleo attached to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I am curious to see how the Symphony Orchestra Model works, especially since I will be deciding this year what model I would like to work with or build. What I am most interested to see in Baltimore is how standard of excellence is being upheld.

Our week in Baltimore is going to be spent preparing a performance with the students of ORCHkids. This is important because another key in the success of El Sistema is the use of performance as a tool for teaching.  This week a great question was asked in our Friday afternoon debrief and I would like to pose it to all of you:

How can music education happen on a stage?

In Venezuela, students perform a lot. In a standard nucleo, performance is used as a tool to teach. When we head to Baltimore to work with ORCHkids, we will be doing just that. I would love to hear your comments on this and look forward to reporting back to you on how our week in Baltimore turns out, so let's share 'Notes'

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The power of change

Do you believe in the power of change? This is such an important question and yet a lot of us don't really understand what it means. Answering it inevitably carries implications that we may not yet be ready to handle. Some of these implications can take shape as assumptions, some may be inferred, but we cannot deny the connection that links them to the ultimate answer which is deeply rooted in personal truth, trust, and ultimate conviction. After all, what is belief if not something we regard to be true. When we talk about things that are true we talk about validity, accuracy and facts. But how do we make the connection from fact, to truth, to change. How can we validate something that has not yet happened? To believe in the power of change is to accept that we are talking in the abstract based on a knowledge of experience of change that may or may not apply to the current change we are after.

Here is a simpler and more practical way of looking at this. How do I put into writing in a grant document that the change that I so passionately believe in has not yet occurred in measurable verifiable action?

Let us center this argument even more by defining exactly the change on which we base our belief. For us, social change translates to community empowerment. Community empowerment is achieved by enriching the lives of people through commitment and contribution. What are we contributing? Access to a valuable resource: Music!

To allow is to empower. We need to allow kids the chance not only to experience music, but also to learn and participate in music making. I do not mean in run-out concerts and educational outreach programs. Going to a community and performing once or twice and then expecting for people from that community to come to your performances is not realistic. 

The power of change only works if you we stick to our convictions and never jump ship. The data we need to prove the long term life changing impact music education has on young people can only be compiled if we commit to granting access to it to the communities that need it most.