JAMMin’ out in Juneau

Welcome, my friends, to Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM), an El-Sistema-inspired music program that offers Juneau’s youth early access to instrumental instruction through in-school musical programming. Three Abreu Fellows are currently working here–myself, Alysia Lee, and Julie Davis. A greeting for you from a group of eager JAMM violinists who’ve begun their studies on paper violins that they created with their families:

Check out these lungs! Not so shabby for 5 years of age, eh?

JAMM is designed and run by the brilliant Lorrie Heagy (Abreu Fellow ’09-’10; Alaska State Teacher of the Year; JAMM Director; Teacher Extraordinaire; and Teacher-of-Teachers Extraordinaire; the list goes on!). JAMM’s musical programming takes place 5 days a week–before, during, and after school–at Glacier Valley Elementary School:

Glacier Valley Elementary, Juneau AK

Glacier Valley is a K-5 public elementary school with a demonstrated commitment to artistic programming for its students during the school day. It is also a Title I school, which means that the school receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education that is specifically allocated to schools that serve a high percentage of students from low-income families.

JAMM programming was integrated into the school last year, extending the number of hours and types of programs that the school offers to its students. Now, in addition to the current array of Glacier Valley musical offerings (Beginner Band, Advanced Band, Rock Band, Guitar Club, Tlinget Drumming, and General Music Classes), JAMM adds:

  • 30 minutes of Violin Class during school, 3 days a week for Kindergartners;
  • 45 minutes of Violin Class during school, 4 days a week for First Graders; and
  • 120 minutes of Musicianship and Bucket Drumming Class, 2 days a week after school for First Graders.

Lorrie’s goal is to build JAMM up, grade-by-grade, so that all of Glacier Valley’s students will have access to intensive music classes as a social and academic intervention. It is absolutely critical to note that these music classes are specifically aimed to enhance community development and parental involvement in their children’s educations and to promote young children’s cognitive skill development to strengthen their short-term academic performance and long-term academic futures. And all of this happens in a most palatable way, that keeps kids coming back for more, and more, and more. Beth Babcock, our non-profit strategy teacher and the CEO of the Crittenton Women’s Union, likens El Sistema music programs to “the sweetest kind of medicine” to use in addressing social ills and community problems.

Being a musical and/or artistic student here is really like being a kid in a candy store. At recess, students come to Lorrie’s room to practice, hang out, and share their joy. This is one of the beauties of an in-school model, as it allows for the creation and maintenance of a sacred spaces for a specific kind of energy throughout spare moments in the day:

It isn’t just Lorrie’s room that exudes a love of music, and the creation of harmonious sounds and luxurious rhythms. When you enter Glacier Valley Elementary in the morning, you will likely be greeted by a clarinet or trumpet player practicing “Hot Cross Buns.” When the school has pretty much emptied out by 3:30pm, Alicia can be found practicing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on her flute on the bench by the front doors of the school. And even during lunch and recess, you’ll hear students like Vaipuna and Iveena (whom you met in the video above), jammin’ out on drums and bass guitar to “Brown Eyed Girl” in a classroom, as they practice for Rock Band. After one rehearsal, they sound pretty fantastic, especially with Alysia singing lead vocals:

My journey here is tightly intertwined with the journeys of Lorrie, Alysia, and Julie. It is a real blessing to learn in a setting that fosters collaborative learning, by very nature of the fact that we are observing each others’ teaching and planning throughout each day. We have essentially turned Lorrie’s classroom into an educational laboratory, where we are trying out new technique, strategies, and lessons (including those of John Feierabend, a renowned early childhood music curricula specialist, whose lessons Alysia has been teaching with aplomb), designing new lessons, giving each other feedback regularly, team-teaching, and observing other teachers at the school. Formal and informal learning are tightly connected in the dynamic and routine we have fostered here, and I am learning tremendously from everyone I encounter–from my fellow Fellows, to the students at Glacier Valley, to fellow teaching artists I have been working with through the Teaching Artists Academy at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.

I’ll leave you with another few snapshots of our teaching and learning adventures here so far:

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…with a promise of more to come–in image, video, and reflection.


meet my muses

Seminars are in full swing. Site visits to incredible young people’s music programs have been plentiful, inspiring, question-inducing.

And I have encountered many muses. Their inspiration must be shared. The following are photographs from:

  • El Sistema at the Conservatory Lab Charter School, (run by Rebecca Levi and David Malek, Abreu Fellows ’09-’10), where we spent a one-week residency developing as strong El Sistema educators from Rebecca, David, and Lorrie Heagy (Abreu Fellow ’09-10 and founder of Juneau Alaska Music Matters);
  • Corona Youth Music Project, (run by Alvaro F. Rodas, Abreu Fellow ’09-’10), which we visited and taught at during our New York City residency, and which I taught at briefly earlier this year while I was teaching and administrating at Chinatown Youth Initiatives and CITYterm, both in New York;
  • Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s first and only public high school for the visual and performing arts, run by Linda Nathan, the school’s founding headmaster and a renowned author, educator, and administrator. Two fun facts: Linda Nathan visited El Sistema in Venezuela with a team of NEC administrators and was involved in the formation process of the Abreu Fellows Program. And, she sends BAA students to CITYterm (where I used to teach) is a CITYterm parent! The Abreu Fellows have been coaching BAA seniors in their Senior Grant Projects, in which they design and propose projects that apply their artistic media toward impacting social change in their communities.

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The Abreu Fellows have been exploring central themes that have emerged in our studying of El Sistema so far in the U.S.: fun, intensity, excellence, performance, and community-building. You may see these principles emerge through images, so I offer you a small sampling to start.

After one more full week of programming (including presenting on El Sistema at a workshop at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership through the Kennedy School), the 10 Fellows will be headed toward separate locales for self-designed intensive learning expeditions. Some might call this an internship. Others might call it an Abreu Fellows MEGA-TOUR.

Abreu Fellows '11 - '12 @ New England Conservatory

Call it what you will, but do know that we’ll be taking the following places by storm: Juneau, AK; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; New Orleans, LA; Boston, MA; Baltimore, MD; Camden, NJ; New York, NY; Cincinnati, OH; Philadelphia, PA; Providence, RI; Cincinnati, OH; Austin, TX; Dallas, TX; and, last but not least, Costa Rica and Scotland!

We’ll return with new insights, new questions, new projects, and new ideas. Bon voyage, Fellows!

painting the bigger picture

On a recent adventure to Boston’s North End, I stumbled upon this:

Puzzled in the North End

Puzzled in the North End

The beauty of this image lies in its simplicity for me, and in its symbolic resonance at the beginning of an intentional journey.

SIDEBAR #1: I told myself I’d try to stay away from metaphors for this post, but I just can’t control myself! Indulge me one more time, and next time, I will seriously go for something new.

The last two weeks of the Abreu Fellowship have been spent flipping over various metaphorical puzzle pieces, examining them closely, and piecing them together in various configurations to figure out (a) what they look like, (b) how they fit together, and (c) where the heck they go in the bigger picture. Underlying all of this is my urgent sense of wrapping my head and body around the big picture: what is it, anyway?! We’ve been regularly exploring the umbrella question: “What is El Sistema?” We have an urgent need to also explore: What does El Sistema do? And what can it do that it isn’t doing already? We are already burrowing our way through all of these questions in our various seminar discussions, readings, site visits, independent projects, and all of our informal learning opportunities (of which there are so many!).

Specificity: For those who are interested in the nitty gritty details, here is a sampling of the juicy puzzle pieces the Abreu Fellows have been examining. We have had seminars on:

  • non-profit strategy with Beth Babcock, President and CEO of the Crittenton Women’s Union;
  • sociological perspectives on poverty and social mobility with Dr. Tom Shapiro, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Brandeis University, and Director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy
  • public benefit systems analysis with Dr. Randy Albelda, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts;
  • an ongoing public speaking seminar with Tony Woodcock, President of New England Conservatory. (The public speaking seminar is more like a puzzle piece that you pick up and realize is a mirror, for better or for worse, but it clearly fits together with the other pieces.); and
  • a set of seminars on the fundamentals of El Sistema education and organization with teaching artist and author Eric Booth; our fearless program director Erik Holmgren; Executive Director of Play On, Philly (and former Abreu Fellow) Stan ford Thompson; and most recently, Dan Trahey, Director of Artistic Program Development at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids.

PHEW! An interdisciplinary whirlwind, yet it all so beautifully fits together–in many different configurations, too. My brain is on overdrive–just the way I like it. We also just took our first expedition together out to visit Community MusicWorks in Providence, RI. (Post on this expedition forthcoming.) I’m really itching to get into some real music-making and music-teaching soon though, which is on my docket for this week!

Zooming Out: This bigger picture on the face of our metaphorical puzzle box is the ‘El Sistema movement’ in the U.S. There is indeed a movement that is emerging and rapidly developing across the country. What this movement means and looks like specifically is still yet to be clarified. One of the exciting projects that the Abreu Fellows are undertaking is a needs-assessment research project, aimed precisely at clarifying the work being done in ‘núcleos,’ or music centers that run El-Sistema-inspired programming in the U.S. We will be doing this in conjunction with the LA Philharmonic and the Longy School of Music. We will present our research findings at a Symposium in LA in January.

SIDEBAR #2: Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra will be performing at this Symposium as well. If your stomach and heart just flipped and fluttered with envy at that announcement, you should book it to LA for the symposium and to experience them in action. You will never be the same. If your stomach and heart experienced zero movement and sensation, you should watch this, and then you should spend the next half hour obsessively watching other clips of their performances on YouTube. Really.

Common Denominators: There are tons of ideas to unpack here related to an El Sistema philosophy and movement. All involve a continuous act of toggling back and forth between theory and practice, specificity and big-picture-context. With all of this toggling though, common denominators are helpful to consider as lenses or frames, while also remaining open to exploding old categories and creating new ones.

I highly, highly, highly recommend Eric Booth’s essay “El Sistema’s Open Secrets” for an analysis on philosophical elements that drive the success of El Sistema’s programming in Venezuela, across sites. Eric describes “four under-the-surface aspects of El Sistema that give it such power”:

  • Sustaining the dynamic tension between polarities.
  • The inquiry of continual improvement.
  • Embodying the mission—80% of what you teach is who you are.
  • The power of beauty, craft and community.

In what ways do these ideas apply–and not apply–to the work that you do? As a student, educator, activist, organizer, family member, or any other role that you play in your life? I’m always a firm believer that these ideas can have real resonance if you try them on for size, transfer them in different contexts, and test their limitations in new situations. In fact, many of the organizations that I’ve worked with in the last several years (e.g., Chester Children’s Chorus, Chinatown Youth Initiatives, CITYterm) are continually striving toward these ideals as well. These overlaps are telling, I think, and critical to keep in mind.

In terms of common denominators, I can also offer you a working definition that Dan Trahey of OrchKids and the Abreu Fellows generated today: El Sistema is a reaction to the decay of equal access to music education. It is accessible to ALL. It is ensemble-based. It is inherently and undoubtedly collaborative, with the ultimate goal being the well-being and success of the group. It embodies and promotes joy. It seeks to build an orchestral society that is a model society, propelled by love, struggle, intensity, and passion.

And yet, flexibility and spontaneity seem also to be critical components of El Sistema’s success, making common denominators helpful, but never definitive Gospel. Ultimately, no discussion of common denominators can be had without a focused emphasis on outcomes. This brings me back to our framing questions, that I’d like to think of as truly being in competition–NOT as rivals, but in the etymological sense of questions that “strive together.” (Thank you to Eric Booth for bringing this etymological definition to our attention at his fantastic seminar last week. A beautiful portrait of questions and ideas in Jennifer Kessler’s blog post on that particular seminar.) These live questions, again:

  • What is El Sistema?
  • What does El Sistema do? What can and will El Sistema do that it isn’t already doing?
  • And where do these principles already exist in ways that are live, dynamic, and transformative for all kinds of people?

And really, all of this discussing and thinking is helpful only to a certain extent, as a way to begin to paint one version of a bigger picture, in very broad strokes. Our outcomes need to be lived, achieved, done, experienced. If I could jump into a massive pool of puzzle pieces and swim around in them to get a better feel, that might be a neat way to take those small puzzle pieces and experience them newly, in turn creating a new bigger picture with new sensory components.

Itching for our next steps. More to come!

on the thrills of getting lost.

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.