Vivian Gornick makes a wonderful distinction between the situation and story in a narrative journey. She writes: “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

This week begins a new phase in an important adventure. I am eager to report on the details of said adventure–the situation, if you will–in images, media clips, and narratives in this blog. And while I will not disclose every element of my own experience, as no one is here to read my memoir, I cannot narrate a journey without at least trying to unearth its story in some way, particularly because the story that I begin with now will inevitably change over the course of the upcoming year, and extending beyond that as well. I also have the privilege of embarking on this adventure with nine other colleagues who have their own rich and evolving stories as well, which makes this journey all the more important to explore, document, and connect.

I.  The Situation:  The third class of Abreu Fellows at the New England Conservatory is about to formally begin intensive adventures in learning, unlearning, dialogue, and dynamic action–all in solidarity with the mission of social action through music. I am thrilled to be spending the next year learning from and alongside nine other Fellows, all passionate advocates of the Venezuelan El Sistema phenomenon.

What is an Abreu Fellow? What is El Sistema? And how did this Abreu Fellows program begin, you ask? Well, seek no further, just sit tight and click below:

Though born in Venezuela, El Sistema is fast becoming an international phenomenon, as more and more music programs work to emulate its approach and its results. What is its approach? And what are its results, precisely? Questions for exploration abound. Abreu Fellow Jennifer Kessler has written a wonderful post with her commentary on our beginnings, with an incisive summary of some of the questions that have come up for us as a group already.

II.  Story (in extended metaphor, if that’s your language):  There are piles of unrelated images dominating my mind. Not all are related, or relevant, but one image in particular dynamizes into a scene that I’d like to explore as a metaphor. (Feel free to skip below to the following section if metaphors aren’t your cup of tea.)

A week before blowing into Boston on the winds of Hurricane Irene, I found myself crawling around on some rocks in the sweltering Arizonan heat, sandwiched between several small waterfalls. My sister and I had taken the recommendation of a friend, and had wandered off the beaten path to seek out a series of falls affectionately known as the Water Wheel. (Google Maps laughed in our faces as it gave us directions for unmarked roads: “At big rocks, turn right. At bigger rocks, turn left. After 5.2 miles, and more rocks, turn left again.”) After a significant amount of wandering and wondering, we found ourselves in the midst of unfettered gloriousness:

Payson, AZ
We splashed around. We followed waterfall after waterfall. We felt the thrill of the sun. Time stopped. Beauty abounded.

And we got lost. Dreadfully, dramatically lost.

How we found our way back out again isn’t really the point. (We did, and so here I sit, typing away at my laptop.) My points here are related more to the learnings of our journey.

The first point is that we immersed ourselves so deeply in our learning of the place that the world around us changed as we hit a spiritual-musical state of flow. This resulted in something akin to finding yourself submerged within the third movement of an intense concerto, right in the heart of one of the most electifying sections, only to find that you have no idea how you got there, no idea how it overtook your body, no idea exactly where you are headed next…so you trust your fingers, trust your body, let it lead you, and luxuriate in the lack of control that comes from a musical high.

The second point is this. Flow made us lost. Being lost pushed us to engage in a process of risk-taking, barely-informed decision-making, and constant re-evaluation of what we were doing, why we were doing it, and how we were EVER going to find our way out before the sun set for the night. (Two girls. One Clif bar. A setting Arizonan sun…) Melodrama aside, we started to pay a different kind of attention, and learn the environment in a new way through the experience of being lost. I dare say it made us wiser, freer, more directionally-savvy, ready for another improvised journey down unmarked roads.

III.  Story, with an attempt at greater directness:  This feeling of being totally immersed, lost, overtaken, transformed–in great ways–this is what informs my understanding of the power of El Sistema. Music, as one of the most powerful tools known to human, has the capacity as a social and organizational vehicle to transform lives, communities, societies. I am privileged to align myself with a movement that has is propelled by an unrelenting faith in the power of music, a force perhaps as large as Mother Nature herself, both with the capacity to catalyze radical transformation.

Being lost isn’t always an accident. Nor is being lost the only experience that pushes a person or a group to examine the critical questions of who, what, how, where, when, and above all, why. But I have found that being lost has produced incredibly powerful affects, if the mission and goals are clear.

The more I immerse myself in the critical work of education–which involves just as much learning as it does teaching (if not more!), the more I must keep finding ways to get lost, as realities keep changing and new questions keep evolving. This does not mean that I don’t know where I’m going. It does mean, though, that I don’t have to know exactly how I–and we–are going to get there.

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