March 26 and 27 marked an important moment for Boston’s El Sistema community.
On March 26, six El Sistema-inspired programs
convened at NEC for an afternoon of music making: Conservatory Lab Charter
School (Rebecca Levi, director); El Sistema Somerville (Diane Cline, director);
Bridge Boston Charter School (Julie Davis, director); Josiah Quincy Elementary
School (Graciela Briceno, director); Margarita Muñiz Academy (Rebecca Frost,
director); and Open Access to Music Education for Children (Marie Montilla, director).
Facilitated by the Sistema Fellows, this fun and lively event served as the
first time that all of these local programs came together to share music with
As NEC’s Williams Hall filled with young instrumentalists and vocalists from ages 6–16 (and at varying stages of musical growth), the Sistema Fellows introduced several icebreakers and welcoming songs. The session was then handed over to two of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation faculty members, Eden MacAdam-Somer and Nedelka Prescod, who led the students in the rest of the afternoon’s music making.
There was no prepared piece to rehearse and perform; instead, the focus was on aural learning and improvisation. MacAdam-Somer and Prescod led the children in a call and response chant, followed by participants transferring the vocalized chant to their instruments. The beginners plucked a rhythmic ostinato on open strings, while the more advanced string students played the melody and the high school-aged vocalists learned a harmony to place on top of the string tune. After a snack and socializing, the event culminated in more music making with the addition of dance steps corresponding to the call and response chant.
In addition to the ten Sistema Fellows, directors, teachers, and between ten and twelve students from each of the six nucleos, NEC staff and students, and invited guests participated during the course of the afternoon. All of the student participants were provided with red, white, blue or yellow shirts—the combined colors of the Venezuelan and American flags.
On March 27, the morning began with local nucleo directors and teachers meeting with the Sistema Fellows to discuss the events from the previous afternoon: what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what can be better next time. It is the hope of all parties concerned that this effort towards relationship building between programs will be a catalyst for the sustained collaboration of the growing El Sistema network in Greater Boston.
The next portion of the morning was devoted to discussing collaboration and relationship building between local nucleos and other like-minded organizations in Boston. An opening “provocation” (via Skype) by San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and activist Arlene Goldbard sparked conversation. Arlene provided a number of factors to consider when thinking of collaborating. She challenged us to be sure that one question always is asked: to whom are you accountable? Her answer: the people for whom we do this work. She also inspired us to examine our personal relationship to the cultural context that classical music exists within, and how our feelings about this context influence the work that we do. Memorably, she reminded us that we are the creators of culture, not the receivers of culture.
Arlene’s provocation led into a fishbowl-style conversation featuring Elizabeth Hollander (former board president, Community MusicWorks), Tanya Maggi (director, Community Performances and Partnerships at NEC), Karen Zorn (president, Longy School of Bard College), and Ronald Zecher, a veteran music teacher in the Santa Barbara (CA) public schools. They discussed elements of successful collaborations, providing participants with valuable insights. For instance, the idea was presented that organizations themselves don’t accomplish anything; it is the people within those organizations who make things happen. Mission alignment must be present to build a solid foundation; however, mission alignment doesn’t necessarily lead to successful collaboration. Collaboration is dependent on the people involved in the process, and this means that intentional relationship building activities are an essential element of the work.
The third and final element of the morning was an opportunity for the 40+ participants to engage with each other, dividing up into three self-selected groups. On one side of the room, a number of people were interested in discussing the issue of “diversifying the diversifiers,” meaning bringing more—and different—voices to the conversation, thereby better informing the work of those who are already grappling with the challenge of expanding access to free high-quality music education. One intriguing suggestion was that a longer-term solution for gaining diverse perspectives at the table could be to groom youth participants to eventually take on leading roles, trusting them by giving them significant responsibilities. What would El Sistema-inspired programming that intentionally prepares youth for leadership roles look like?
This two-day event was the first of its kind in Boston. The goal of the convening was to serve as a springboard for building stronger relationships between local nucleos, as well as between nucleos and other practitioners in the fields of arts and youth development. It is the hope of the current class of Sistema Fellows that this event will be repeated and improved upon by next year’s class!