Saturday, October 20, 2012

Residency Series: Chicago

From October 14 - November 10, I will be spending time in Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, and DC.  The purpose of this residency is multifaceted, but the primary focus is a complete immersion in el sistema- inspired programs in the United States.  Today's blog is a reflection on my time at the YOURS Project in Chicago.

Sometimes, Multiple Personality Disorder is a Good Thing

It can be difficult to describe sistema work.  We love to use phrases like "using music as a vehicle for social change," or "social change through music education."  These all sound great, but was does that really mean?  Are we social service organizations?  Are we conservatories?  Are we childcare centers?  And, what are our goals?  Are we producing the next generation of concertmasters and soloists?  Are we just trying to keep kids off the street?  Are we helping kids graduate from high school and have productive futures?

Here's the simple answer: Yes.

We have multiple personality disorder.

And, you know what?  That's awesome.  Let me tell you why.

Let's start our journey down the dissociative identity trail at the People's Music School in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.  This organization has provided free music instruction for Chicago's youth since 1975.  People's Music School has multiple personality disorder.  It has two branches: onsite programming, conducted at PMS' building in Uptown; and offsite programming, under the auspices of the YOURS Project.  Onsite programming focuses on private/small group lessons, music theory and composition.  YOURS teaches nearly exclusively through group instruction.  Onsite programming occurs 3 days a week; YOURS project, 5 days a week.  

Both programs offer free music education to Chicago's children.  They have slightly different ways of doing it.  Is that a bad thing?  No!  Are you kidding me?  People's Music School is offering two different options in order to best suit the needs of the greatest number of children and families!  That's brilliance!

Let's focus now on YOURS, where I spent the majority of my time.  I had the opportunity to meet with the entire teaching staff, including nucleo directors and teaching artists.  I led discussion over two different sessions on the question, "What is el sistema?"  Here is a random sampling of responses:

-making classical music accessible to everyone
-time intensive and teacher intensive
-fostering self-esteem
-giving kids tools for their lives; home, school, relationships, etc
-teaching kids to respect each other, realizing everyone has something to learn and to give
-group learning
-teaching the kids to work hard to achieve goals
-allowing music to be the medicine for the soul
-saving lives and learning to be better human beings through music
-goal of musical excellence
-provides a way to channel expression
-foster interest in classical music

Are there distinct social goals there?  Of course.  How about distinct musical goals?  You bet.

During the Logan Square staff meeting, nucleo director Tom Madeja asked his teaching artists what they wanted to focus on with the children for the remainder of 2012.  Responses included:

-greater literacy and reading music
-create Logan Square method for teaching how to read music
-increase sense of belonging; making it fun
-creating a sense of accountability as a group within the students
-performance opportunities

Musical goals? Check.  Social goals? Check.  

The staff has multiple personality disorder.

I also interviewed two YOURS students, asking them why they liked coming to the YOURS project:
Answer 1 (Jonathan, 9 years old): "Mostly, it's a great opportunity to learn.  It's a free education.  Most schools don't get this."
Answer 2 (Xochitl, 10 years old): "That you can learn to play new instruments that you didn't know before.  They teach us new songs that we can play and show....orchestra rocks!"

Management, teaching artists and students realize that this program is multifaceted.  It's about teaching children of their own worth through musical excellence.  It's about love, joy and song.  I would argue that what makes People's and YOURS stand out is that they are giving the pursuit of musical excellence a greater purpose, making the goal more meaningful and desirable.  This multiple personality disorder is a critical element of the program's success.  To focus on only one of the two primary goals would be doing a disservice to the children.  Is it a bad thing to have multiple personalities if both work in tandem to create a better world?  

Monday, October 8, 2012

With Our Powers Combined...

I am extremely fortunate to be constantly surrounded by a multitude of remarkable people.  I could speak so much about the magnificence of all of my friends, and how the world is made better by all of their unique gifts.  Today, however, I want to focus on one of the most important relationships in my life.  This blog is about my friend Gary, a high school band director in Virginia.

Gary and I met on the first day of band camp freshman year at James Madison University (JMU).  We were both entering the horn studio at JMU, and became friends instantly.  We have been major players in each other's lives ever since.
Back in 2007, when I had red hair and Gary...looked exactly the same as he does now.

I admire Gary for so many reasons.  On a personal note, he is one of the most caring, loyal, and loving friends on the planet.  I could go on and on about how phenomenal of a companion he is, but that wouldn't really fit into the scope of this blog, so I'll get to the point: Gary is one of the most exceptional band directors I've ever seen.  He truly cares about the well-being of his students.  He takes the time to learn about each student inside and out- their strengths, weaknesses, home life, hobbies, goals and dreams.  He receives a loving respect from them, most likely a product of his caring nature.  His rehearsals are the definition of intensity, and he holds his students to an extremely high standard.  The kids wouldn't have it any other way, due to the level of motivation and empowerment he fosters within them.  Oh yeah, and he's a pretty killer musician too.

Gary definitely goes above and beyond the call of duty of a teacher.  Since I entered the sistema world, I've often thought about how great of an el sistema- inspired program director Gary would be.  Lately though, I've realized that this is not only an incorrect thought, but in fact a mindset that may hurt rather than help our favorite cause of "social change through music" (expect a later blog post on what the heck that phrase even means...).

Sometimes, we in the sistema world can unintentionally appear overly righteous.  It's understandable how this could happen, as we are all so passionate about the work we do.  I can also understand how it's possible to come across in this light to other music educators, as aside from using public schools as program sites, most sistema programs end up functioning separately from in-school music programs.  This is incredibly unfortunate and counterproductive, as mutually beneficial partnerships could be created to further enhance the students' experiences, therefore producing a greater impact on their lives.  If these two entities continue to remain separate, we are depriving our kids and ourselves of the greatest possible positive impact.  My point is, instead of thinking that Gary would be better suited for the sistema world since he embodies so many sistema qualities, I should be grateful that a teacher like Gary is in the public school realm, reaching students in the school system the way that I hope to reach them in the civic sector.  We are doing the same work; we are merely traveling down different paths to get the work done.  The qualities that shape great sistema leaders are the same qualities that shape great teachers.  

Gary is a phenomenal teacher.  His kids are beyond lucky to have him.  Those students are just as deserving of a great teacher as kids in sistema programs.  Imagine if Gary's kids had the good fortune to be in his band and in a sistema-inspired program.  Imagine if kids in a sistema-inspired program were also blessed to have the opportunity to learn from Gary.  Imagine if all kids were lucky enough to receive in-school and after-school music education from teachers who love music and believe in the capability of every child to live a life of dignity and integrity.


Sistema educators hope to instill within their students the ability to create and embrace community, to work together towards a common goal, to mentor, to inspire, to achieve greatness.  As leaders, we must exemplify these qualities by working with the existing music education culture, not separate from it.  I'm still figuring out my role in the grand scheme of positively affecting the lives of our nation's youth through love and music, but I can tell you for certain that if I end up creating my own sistema-inspired program near Gary's school, I want us to be on the same team.  It would be a disservice to the kids in my program to be so near an extraordinary educator and mentor and not to have access to him.  I know that he and I could find a way to create a sustainable and empowering partnership.  In a field that would not exist without optimism and idealism, why not believe that both entities can work together to create a better world?


p.s.: When I let Gary approve this entry before posting it, he said, "I've never thought about what I do like that. I just do what I think will benefit the students most long-term; using every bit of information I have to make what I hope is the best decision."
Thanks, Gary, for proving my point :)