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?  

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