Sunday, October 31, 2010

(Un)teaching Passion

In observing El Sistema, one can't help but notice the relentless passion with which the musicians play. Many have asked, "How can we get students in the U.S. to play with a similar level of passion?" Having been surrounded by incredibly passionate musicians, from all over the U.S. and the world, for a good portion of my life, I don't believe that there is a simple "cultural" explanation for Venezuelan musicians playing and teaching with passion. At the same time, I'm well aware that passion is not an outward manifestation for all people--some of the most passionate people I know are quiet and reserved. There are number of answer to the passion question but I want to just focus on one of them in this blog. I would highly recommend reading Eric Booth's essay, paying special attention to the "law of 80%," if you want to learn more about passion in El Sistema.

I have heard a number of versions of an answer to the passion question. My favorite goes something like this: 'In El Sistema, we don't teach passion, we just don't unteach it'. Children are not taught to sacrifice physical movement and other outward manifestations of passion for technique. Yes, technique is important but it should not be a tool that inhibits expressivity. It should instead be a tool that allows one to be even more expressive.

We had a FANTASTIC class on eurhythmics last Thursday taught by Lisa Parker. I was in love with music for the entire duration of the class. Lisa guided us through a variety of musical games and improvisation exercises that taught sophisticated musical concepts, allowed us to listen and think critically, and most important, helped us to move and to feel the music. The whole session was fun and engaging as well. We shouldn't make our jobs harder than they have to be; instead we should embrace the natural movement that occurs when we listen to and perform music.

Speaking specifically about the development of boys, Eli Newberger told us that boys need words with which to characterize emotions. From a very early age boys are urged to "stop crying," to "walk it off," and to "keep it inside." Eli insists that music, and the movement associated with it, is one of the most important therapeutic modalities available to us.

When I taught with the YOURS Project in Chicago we were committed to the idea that the first priority of a teacher is to allow the child to experience success and fall in love with music. If these two goals are accomplished early on, the child will excel at a much quicker rate and teaching will become a joy.

We can synthesize the lessons from El Sistema, eurhythmics, Eli Newberger, and the YOURS Project as follows:

1. Embrace the natural movement that occurs when a child plays music; be very considerate with how you teach technique and which technical mistakes you decide to correct early on.
2. Guide listening sessions to help young musicians develop an active vocabulary of words they can use when talking about music and when expressing emotions.
3. Create frequent performance opportunities during which the students will feel successful. These could occur as early as the first or second week the child touches an instrument.
4. As teachers and performers, we must always maintain a high level of passion and expressivity that students can learn from and imitate.

I'd like to offer a fantastic short story by Eduardo Galeano to conclude this blog post. This story has been a reliable antidote for me anytime I am feeling at all burnt out or passion-less. Hope you enjoy it!

I write for those who cannot read me: the downtrodden, the ones who have been waiting on line for centuries to get into history, who cannot read a book or afford to buy one.

When I begin to lose heart, it does me good to recall a lesson in the dignity of art which I learned years ago at a theater in Assisi, in Italy. Helena and I had gone to see an evening of pantomime and no one else showed up. The two of us made the entire audience. When the lights dimmed, we were joined by the usher and the ticket seller. Yet despite the fact that there were more people on stage than in the audience, the actors worked as hard as if they were basking in the glory of a full house on opening night. They put their hearts and souls into the performance and it was marvelous.

Our applause shook the empty hall. We clapped until our hands were sore.

- "The Dignity of Art" from the
Book of Embraces

Friday, October 22, 2010

Memorable Quotes Week 3

5. On ADHD: “When the behavior is excessive and problematic, the search for environmental explanations and resolutions should always precede the use of medications to dampen the symptoms.” (177) - Eli Newberger via The men they will become

4. “Drop everything for the art.” - Dan Trahey

3. On Louis Armstrong: “Jazz is a nice metaphor for the combination of self-control and creative action that constitute character.” (169) - Eli Newberger via The men they will become

2. “Open your heart before you open your mouth.” - Kathleen Howland

1. On working for social justice: “So often the helpless help the helpers more than the helpers help the helpless.” - Eli Newberger (lecture)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why so serious?

I've created an account with Scribd, where I will post more formal papers and essays. My first addition to Scribd is a working paper that will be finalized by early December after I receive comments from my two advisers at Northwestern University. It's not directly on El Sistema but has implications for arts organizations of all sizes, especially small and medium-sized organizations.

The (slightly) pretentious title is...

Arts Organizations and the Democratization of Space: Understanding the influence of physical space and urban design on the success of performing arts organizations

The organizations I studied include:

Street Level Youth Media (Chicago, IL)
Zumix (Boston, MA)
Community Music Works (Providence, RI)
Old Town School of Folk Music (Chicago, IL)
New World Symphony (Miami, FL)

The People's Music School (Chicago, IL)
Evanston Arts Depot and Piccolo Theatre (Evanston, IL)
Albany Park Theatre Project (Chicago, IL)

Feel free to read/scrim some of it!

Friday, October 15, 2010

El Sistema for Dummies?

Wouldn't it be great to have a book, El Sistema for Dummies: a practical, step-by-step approach to development in the United States? If this book were to be published, wouldn't it create a more accessible way to further the El Sistema movement in the U.S.? Though this seems like a promising idea, the answer is emphatically No. To be sure, senior leaders in El Sistema USA, past and current Abreu Fellows, and others who have independently studied El Sistema, are working to create resources and literature that can help inform all who are interested. Furthermore, a forthcoming book by Tricia Tunstall and documentary by Jamie Bernstein will become invaluable resources for El Sistema USA.

However, to publish a Dummies book, or a handy step-by-step manual would belittle an incredible system that has been growing and evolving for over 30 years. I can think of three big problems with such a publication:

1. Every El Sistema inspired program in the U.S. will look, feel, and sound different based on myriad factors including community characteristics and demographics, leadership and partnering organizations, funding sources, and so on.

2. By the time the book would be written, it would be immediately outdated. El Sistema in Venezuela and in the U.S. is constantly adapting and evolving to better serve its mission of social justice through musical excellence.

3. A rigid, top-down approach will never translate into a successful U.S. nucleo. Instead, there must be a careful combination of organizational fluidity with a top-to-bottom commitment to mission, core values, goals, and pedagogy.

Along these lines, I want to briefly address a question that Eric Booth posed in one of his sessions this past Tuesday. What is the VERB for the El Sistema-related work we are doing in the U.S.? To put it a more Mad Libian kind of way, one of our primary goals is to (verb) El Sistema in the USA. There seems to be a sense that we have yet to come up with just the right verb to properly describe the goal of so many practitioners. Here are a handful that have been suggested, have been used in various publications, and that I have just come up with off the top of my head:

create, reflect, distill, imitate, translate, adapt, build, transcribe, develop, emulate...

I don't know that it is necessary to decide on one, and only one, verb to use, but it certainly exemplifies the difficulty inherent in any attempt to write El Sistema for Dummies. Every day we learn something new, something more, as long as we are willing to learn and be open to new and different ideas. While print and online resources are immensely useful and important to our work, I don't believe there is a direct path to El Sistema in the U.S. This reality is not a hindrance but, to borrow from Ben Zander, an opportunity to revel in the art of possibility.

Memorable Quotes Weeks 1 and 2

As I sit here going through my notes, with a bit of time to finally process the abundant amount of information, stories, and events from the first two weeks, I'm reminded of my fascination (obsession?) with great quotes. This post will act as the first in a series of weekly posts in which I will list the top five quotes of the week in ascending order. Feel free to publicly or privately disagree with my ordering!

Here goes:

5. "Children who grow up in El Sistema are marinated in beauty from a very young age."
- Eric Booth

4. "El Sistema ties the soul with the mind in a very zen way."
- Andrea Profili

3. "If you align passion with something you are really good at, there is no chance for failure."
- David Gracia

2. "People get tired of beautiful playing...When someone speaks music we must respond"
- Ben Zander

1. "As soon as you know four notes, you are able to teach someone who knows three."
- The Collective Mind

Until next week...