Next stops: Chicago and Cincinnati. I miss you, Juneau, JAMM, and Lorrie Heagy, but I do graciously accept the 60-degree-weather welcome gift that I was offered in Chi-Town upon landing. And, I stepped foot into two fabulous núcleos in different stages of their lives, armed with more teaching tools than I ever thought possible, thanks to Lorrie’s brilliant coaching!

YOURS in Chicago, IL:

The YOURS Project is a program of the People’s Music School, which is one of the nation’s only tuition-free community music schools. (Brilliant, I know.) One of the longer-running Sistema programs in the U.S., YOURS was founded in October of 2008 by Deborah Wanderly dos Santos and a team of passionate teachers. Milan Miskovic, a fierce violinist and ardent conductor, is currently leading the charge at the YOURS Project’s central núcleo (at William H. Hibbard Elementary School in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood), with the support of Bob Fielder, the Executive Director of the People’s Music School. When I arrived, YOURS had just launched its second site at Monroe Elementary School, with Sylvia Carlson (trumpet teacher extraordinaire at both the YOURS Project and the People’s Music School) at the helm. As a program that aspires to create and sustain a city-wide network of núcleos, the launching of a second site is a huge occasion to celebrate!

At its first site, the YOURS Project has 3 full orchestras across levels and 180 students to fill those orchestras. I don’t have information yet on the newest site, but if I learned any basic math ever, that would bring the number of orchestras and students UP. Now, my perspective is that scaling up isn’t a positive thing in and of itself, but when what you’re doing is working on a number of strong levels, that’s when scaling up is more likely to enhance the impact of your programmatic outcomes.

Not only was it was absolutely glorious to hear the sounds of a full orchestra (playing Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus, no less: a Sistema staple!), but it was even more glorious to be met with continuous sounds of music and practicing, well after rehearsals had ended. Videos forthcoming, but here are some photographs as placeholders:

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When love and support infuses outward from the time and space in which it is formally contained, the beauty and magic that is created–and the skills and lifestyle that it can foster–promises a different level of transfer and impact. This is the kind of thing that really jazzes me, so I found myself really seeking out signals of this type of learning, where formal and informal start to bleed together because it all matters so much. The work and support of the YOURS Project’s Parent Council (headed by Milan and a core group of parents) is also a strong indicator of this type of thing. Parent volunteers choose to assist with essential elements of making the program run: form fundraising and logistics-management at performances to T-shirt orders and concert tour management. (Yes, the oldest YOURS Orchestra tours: LEGITIMATE BIG DEAL!) Parents in action:

Parent Council at YOURS Project

There were over 40 parents present for the Parent Council meeting at Hibbard Elementary when I was there, engaged in the planning processes for the upcoming concert. For those who follow the research that closely correlates parental involvement with academic and social success for young people, this is all music to the ears / beauty to the eyes / deliciousness to the mouth / fragrant aromas to the ears! And, for a Title I school with 97% of its students living below the poverty line (I could insert here the myriad studies that correlate low income levels to academic attainment and social mobility) that also serves a high recent immigrant population with specific academic needs related to language and cultural mediation…I can’t even finish my sentence. This is just exploding with possibility!

MYCincinnati in Price Hill, OH:

MYCincinnati, founded and run by Laura Jekel (Abreu Fellow ’10-’11), was in its 5th week of operation (EVER) when I arrived. As is the case in Venezuela, the arrival of any new guests warrants a performance! So, check out the MYCincinnati orchestra, performing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” after only having played their instruments–individually and collectively–for five weeks:

Some of the many interesting facets of MYCincinnati:

  • “Never place limits on what a child can do.” Lorrie Heagy shared this as one of her biggest take-aways from her time in Venezuela, and after spending intensive time with three incredible Sistema-inspired programs over the course of 4 weeks, I am blown away by just how many definitions this simple notion can take on. Does “not placing limits on what a child” mean starting children on their instruments as early as possible? Does it mean pushing children quickly, so that they are playing pieces slightly more difficult than their level, thus positioning them to constantly strive for more? What is the role of patience as juxtaposed against limitation–and how does tough love factor into it all? There is obviously no right answer, but the more I think about this idea, the more different interpretations rub up against each other.
  • Economic revitalization as implicit in its mission. MYCincinnati is a program of Price Hill Will, a community development corporation (CDC) that aims to “create systemic change in Price Hill through economic development, community engagement and physical revitalization.” If Sistema programs are both social programs and music programs (using music as the vehicle for social transformation in a variety of arenas), then the economic development piece is a massive piece of the puzzle that makes or breaks the success of our work. (Sidebar: For all you numbers geeks out there, check out the InterAmerican Development Bank’s 2007 report on the social impact of El Sistema in Venezuela, using a cost-benefit analysis to estimate monetized benefits of funding El Sistema nationally.) This is an interesting partnership possibility that has also been on my mind before–and now especially after–my MYCincinnati visit.

YOURS + MYne = OURS?:

Possessive pronoun overusage aside, this is actually a pretty neat coincidence. (To be fair, YOURS is an acronym for Youth Orchestras United Rita Simó, named after the founder of the People’s Music School. And MYCincinnati stands for Music for Youth in Cincinnati.) But that is precisely why this is interesting. There is a huge amount of ownership (“MYne!”) needed to make any program successful. This begins from the very basic level of a young musician’s ownership over their playing and their growth, expands upward to more seasoned students’ ownership over the success of the ensemble (in a way that facilitates natural peer teaching), expanding outward still to a teachers’ and administrators’ ownership of the success of their students and of their program, and outward even more still to the ownership of parents and other community stakeholders in the success of their children and their orchestras. Despite the fact that “ownership” is implicitly colonial and linked to conquest (check out the best ecard ever, poking fun at the colonizing impulse), this matters HUGELY for its relationship to fostering responsibility (individual and collective) and deep–almost familial–care. If this instrument is mine, and this orchestra is mine, than I will put myself on the line–and throw every ounce of passion in the process–to contribute to its ability to thrive.

But this can also pave the way for over-possessiveness and self-centeredness, neither of which is necessarily helpful for a healthy youth orchestra and a thriving núcleo. This is where YOU[rs] come in. My mind jumps to Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and his notion of the I-Thou relationship, explicitly contrasted against the I-It relationship. The emphasis here is on the nature of the living relationship. I-It relationships objectify one–of not both–parties involved, often resulting in a more transactional quality of relationship. Wikipedia explains I-It as “referring to the world of experience and sensation”–relating back to the idea of MYne and the dangers of over-self-centeredness. (And yes, I just quoted Wikipedia–what of it?!). To call something YOURS has the possibility of negating ownership, and also has the possibility of separating an I from a YOU. But, the balance of the two together moves us more toward I-Thou, which “describes the world of relations,” and also blurs the material separations between two beings. I could feel an intense I-Thou connection with a complete stranger: an intense connection where our souls might suddenly feel intertwined after only 5 minutes together, perhaps even more intensely felt than a connection with someone I have known my entire life. This, is the reason for bringing the YOU/THOU back toward the I/MY, toward the relations between and the collective responsibility demanded by the simple word:

OURS.

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