Children from The Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston

Children from The Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fascinating Stage

Erik says I am way behind on blogging! Hmmm, I must now confess to you, mysterious reader, that I am uncomfortable blogging! There is so much type in our digital lives! How could my silly thoughts be of worth to you? Yet this journey is extraordinary and just as I was curious about the fellowship last year, you may be that next fellow thinking about applying! Or a teacher wondering about El Sistema. For you I keep blogging!

I pasted below a painting, a favorite of mine, "Clairvoyance" by Rene Magritte, which describes exactly what I feel this year is: for many years, I have been looking at an ideal (an egg) that lived inside me, namely teaching musical literacy to children in a way that is unencumbered and joyful. (I wondered how I could feel all year long the way I always felt at summer camp)

The egg has been shown to have a real model (=has been placed on the table) by

Abreu and El Sistema.

This fellowship is the very difficult task of designing the bird inside the egg without ever having seen it. We have the Venezuelan model, but for the US we are feeling our way with very different conditions.

1936: Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels

A very happy day was going to the Community Lab Charter school, my place to get my feet wet and work weekly, in the astonishing program directed by 2 wonderful Fellows from last year: David Malek and Rebecca Levi. It is only in week # 8 with 120 children, that just learned to play their instruments. They study 3 hours per day, after school, 5 days a week!! Today, I will work with violin teachers and explore how to refine violin set-up issues using Mimi Zweig's brilliant ideas in the next couple of weeks. Head tall, and round fingers, those are our goals! In group teaching you must be such a different teacher! Kids need clear commands: one two ready go, bend your pinky on your bow. Tap pinky tap pinky, now I'm feeling really slinky! I just made that up!
This is completely new to me, but those teachers who lovingly and rhythmically, (the fabulous drumming teacher taught me), throw out one easy command after another have happy children succeeding, and not squirmy children unsure what to do, which is a lot less happy.
I heard a most touching rendition of Beethoven #9 by 11 4th graders getting ready for their first concert. They were so excited to perform in a mansion!
Now, many children have given up part of their daily lunch break to practise and hopefully be the next ones chosen to play in a mansion! Amazing! To read, watch films, listen to seminars is great, but to see a child glowing in anticipation, inspired by a mansion, to try her very hardest to reach a new level !! Stunning! Peer mentoring is a huge part of the work: David tells us of a 10 minute session where they simply told the older ones to help the younger ones, after which time all the kids could play Hot Cross buns. Before this session, many little ones could not. 10 minutes! This is certainly not rocket science, but it is not the way I was taught. It takes me some courage and much feeling of trust to ask a peer for help with anything. To just make this so natural is already a huge part of where I think El Sistema taps into previously unknown energy fields. People love to help!!

Most often people critical of El Sistema say:

1) It will never work w/o Gov'ment support

2) this has already been done, for years, with success, in public schools, why the hype?

1) think of the things in we have without Government support! Think of partnerships in the past: Andrew Carnegie's libraries, privately initiated, then publicly funded. Think of our museums, orchestras, theater, ballet, Universities....funded without much or any government support. I believe, El Sistema (or let's call it "public orchestra programs= POP USA) will start small. POP will grow and prove child by child, family by family, community by community what it can do and make itself relevant. In Venezuela it took 35 years to reach the Heights of today. Our big challenge will be to start small and create, in not too long a period, outstanding results. That term can be defined in many ways, and not every child must become a Heifetz. But somewhere in POP USA's future there will have to be an orchestra of Excellence to show what the work can do for those youths ignited by it. This may lie years and several generations of teachers away, but we must keep this as a goal, I believe. This will justify the broader work of teaching kids to be good people through orchestra playing, at any level.

2) Yes, this country boasts incredible youth orchestras! Most large cities have one or several that do the work described above, beautifully. Let's strengthen these by teaching many more and much younger kids to play (K and 1 in most El Sistema inspired programs starting now). POP USA (my new name, do you like it?) is REALLY not trying to put anyone out. It is seeking to bring excitement to the children, esp. to those children the least served by our existing youth orchestra programs. (in Boston alone, I have heard 3 youth orchestras, each so good, right at NEC! )Many of our highest level youth orchestras are, let's be honest, serving kids with parents who care to provide private lessons to their children and who make it a priority to take them to other places on Saturdays.
In some public schools we have great orchestra programs, but they do not teach the amount of hours POP USA is striving for and therefore cannot become the community to the children that we are hoping to create.

So, the number one difference is the idea of teaching large groups of very young beginners for many hours per day in groups. It makes us dizzy to see so much work that would take months of private instruction to "fix" in one room. But here's the beauty: the kids are focussed on each other, and, unless you get in their way, they will EAGERLY learn from each other, and are happy to be a little bit better than the kid to their side and feel GREAT about helping them!! Adults, don't mess it up! The kids will take us there. They will support each other and every year the younger ones will learn a little bit quicker, if we just guide them a little bit! They'll have peers to look up to and watch. We will need a few years to become these outstanding flexible teachers that will do this work. We must shed much of what we thought about teaching and learn to trust the process of child learning from child. With loving and flexible role models like David and Rebecca, we should be ok!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A new Fellow (barely) getting her bearings in Boston

Dear Friends!

Where to even's the end of week 2 in Boston. I can tell that someday I will love looking back to this time: "Remember being lost in Boston all the time those first weeks? At midnight not finding my host-family's house? Calling Frank and asking him to navigate me home from his desk in Cleveland.....?" Eijeijei. For now, I am completely overwhelmed and overloaded and really looking forward to looking back, but in a very happy way!

The program is FANTASTIC. Every day from 9:30 to 4 pm, all 10 fellows are seated at our huge table in our home room at NEC, listening to seminars from leaders that bring their entire life force and experiences to us. I wish I could just have a big slot in my head to stuff in all this valuable information.

We had full and energetic days with Eric Booth and Anne Fitzgibbon (Harmony Project, NYC), and Greg Kandel, who is an expert at Non-Profit Start-ups. All 3 are on the El Sistema USA advisory board. Eric focused on the high energy we see in the Venezuelan El Sistema programs and encouraged us to look deeply at what we see once we are there. Anne humbly shared how she created her huge and thriving project in greater NYC. She now manages 3 sites! Greg quickly showed us how to make a strategic plan. Easy!
Today, a very impressive Beth Babcock, founder of a center in Boston called "Liveworkthrive" (which succeeds in helping women raise themselves out of poverty), spoke to us with incredible passion, giving us many incredible resources to use when researching a possible site. Data is abundant, but you have to know where to look! She knows we will need much help and, along with everyone else, generously told us how to reach her anytime!

I am speechless also at the amount of time NEC President Tony Woodcock has spent with us. He has given us two fantastic seminars on public speaking, complete with watching ourselves on video, (yikes), and treated us to one evening of intense wine-drinking and fabulous eating with his warm and interesting family at his wonderful home. I have been humbled by how much I need to learn when speaking publicly about topics I know nothing about(!!). Let's just say, my career in speaking publicly about Pakistani literature or tourist attractions I have not seen, would not be lucrative.

I sadly had to miss dinner at Ben Zanders house, but will attend his class tomorrow.

Back to a more serious note: the group of fellows is outstanding. They are all experienced in areas in which I am not, which is so interesting, and we all laugh a lot, at least so far.
There is:
Graciela, who lived and taught violin in Kenya
Steve who worked at the El Sistema inspired YOLA program and has a collapsible string bass!
Andrea who grew up in Panama and has energy for 10
Marie from Haiti who has lived and taught successfully in an El Sistema nucleo in Venezuela
David who can read anything on piano, is from Spain and has worked with kids in NYC.
Patrick is only 22 but you can't tell, plays percussion and has worked a lot in Chicago music programs for underserved kids
Adrienne, is so poetic, loves coffee and worked at the Storefront Quartet Project in Rhode Island
Laura loves Brahms and is from Boston, thinks clearly and quickly and gives great directions!
Liz the bassoonist who is so funny that she seriously needs her own TV show, worked in Manhattan public schools and plays a fierce bassoon!
She has taught me that you cannot rush soaking a reed. This may well become my metaphor for this year......

Eric, our wonderful program director, is very calm and thinks of us as a very interesting and somewhat chatty bunch. I think he may be right!
Next door are Stephanie Scherpf and Mark Churchill, generous and open, both of them. One big difference to orchestra life is the lack of feeling a distinct "us" vs. "them". This is a great joy for me.

We realize with each day more, that great hopes and expectations rest on our collective shoulders. (10 or 20? Whatever! We will need more!)

By late November, the outline to a Strategic Plan for a hypothetical (and hopefully someday real) program is due. We are stretching our brains to imagine ourselves as Leaders in a movement that is rolling at a furious pace. When I think of a room full of kids exploring their instruments, I feel unbelievably excited. Public and charter school education is being re-evaluated nation-wide, new approaches beyond only testing are being considered....I feel that the timing for this could not be better.
I see now, that I will not leave here with all the answers, but with fabulous resources and with contacts to many outstanding experts that feel very passionately about helping us design successful programs.

A highlight for me was the brief visit by Tavis Smiley from NPR. A quote from Tavis is:
"If you want to lead, you have to love, if you want to save, you have to serve."

He truly cares deeply about children, and I really liked his shoes!

There are many stories in the media about last years' Fellows, most of which have now started El Sistema inspired programs in their US cities. I will attach a front page article from the Philadelphia Enquirer about 09-10 Fellow Stanford Thompson's new program. It interests me especially, because it is in partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

I believe with all my heart that teaching kids to play instruments will make a HUGE difference for them AND for us in the Classical music profession. If they learn to play in a cheerful group of friends, they will enjoy it, and chances are much increased that they will be hooked to the power of the music. From this, there is so much gain.

A statistic for you: 75% of all medical students in VZ are graduates of El Sistema!!

It is absolutely time to go to bed, class begins in 7.5 hours---I truly wish I did not have to waste time sleeping this year!