"A few of my colleagues in the sector have voiced their growing concern over what might charitably be referred to as “Sistema Theatre.” You’ve probably seen the videos: giant massed orchestras, bright coloured shirts, exaggerated stage motion culminating in a strangely anti-social camera focus on hyperkinetic podium flailing. Spectacle has always played an important role in advocacy, and to some extent it has become essential to communicate both the spirit and the achievements of the sector, but in some cases the theatre has replaced real social impact. It was important to Theodora and me that what we planned in Montréal had integrity of purpose and outcome. Jamming kids together for a concert wasn’t enough.
"As the culmination of our week of collaborations, site visits, rehearsing and teaching, the combined forces of FACE and UNC Charlotte performed two concerts of Latin-infused music, but in venues important to the communities in which the Sistema programs were embedded. No coloured shirts, and my hair isn’t long enough for me to get away with hyperkinetics. There was spectacle, but even the spectacle was in service of two marginalized communities, one of which had never been visited by a symphony orchestra before…"
As a classically-trained pianist, I admit I’ve hesitated to teach the creative process to my students because of my lack of training and experience. I love to sight-read. Put any piece of music in front of me and I welcome the challenge. Yet when prodded to improvise, I feel like a beginner at the piano using one finger to bang out a few simple notes. Anxiety kicks in and I hear my piano teacher prompting me to “play what’s on the page.” I don’t want my students to have that same experience. Also, I am a teacher and director of Juneau Alaska Music Matters, an El Sistema-inspired program focused on empowerment and social change. Creativity and music-making should be an integral part of our program.
So when NEC’s Sistema Fellowship Resource Center offered a Collaboration & Creativity Laboratory led by Liza Barley, a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Creative Leadership master’s program, I seized the opportunity. This three-day workshop was held at Bridge Boston Charter School, where Julie Davis (Sistema Fellow ’12) has created an inspiring in-school Sistema model. The fact that this workshop was held during the final three days of school is testimony to Bridge Boston’s supportive school community, Julie’s leadership, and the enthusiasm her students have for music.
The three-day laboratory was just that–a lab focused on process, experimentation, and multiple approaches to creative music-making. Writings and drawings from student journals and explorations with art materials and found objects provided the substance and inspiration for group compositions. I couldn’t see how a student’s art sculpture could evolve into a musical thought–but the children did!
Guided by Liza and thirteen adult participants (including four other Sistema Fellows) with varying degrees of backgrounds in improvisation, I had the opportunity to observe multiple ways in which to draw out a child’s natural creativity. The entire experience inspired me to trust the collaborative process, give space for children’s ideas, and remember that music is not bound by what’s written on a page.
In particular, this quote from Vlad Petre Glăveanu reminded me how important community-building is for developing creativity in and outside of the classroom: it is “our responsibility as community members to build spaces for dialogue and creativity for both self and others, of the fact that, living interconnected with other people, our creative expression could and should be able to fertilize the common soil of creativity around us.”
Thank you New England Conservatory, Julie Davis, Bridge Boston Charter School, Liza Barley, and all of the participants for providing such a supportive space for creative music-making. As a musician and teacher, I look forward to heading back to Juneau to continue experimenting and playing with the creative process.
The July edition of Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth's publication chronicling the emerging field of El Sistema-inspired activity in the US and beyond, including an essay by Christine Witkowski (Sistema Fellow '10), is found here.
I’m uncomfortable with the label “The Creative.” When I hear that word, my brain projects a video in my mind: a brightly lit stage—empty—followed by the smooth voice of an announcer pronouncing “…and now, The Creative behind this innovative and disruptive project, Mr./Ms. So and So” followed by thunderous applause. Ah, the glory.
And what else? The sharp feeling of distance between The Creative and those sitting in the audience, between The Creative and me, and ultimately a sinking assumption that creativity is a hallowed reservoir that only some people have access to.
When I participated in a Creative Connections composition project in Baltimore last year, this assumption was proven wrong. Through composing a collective piece with kids who were as young as seven and adults whose musical careers had followed diverse, somewhat nontraditional trajectories, I saw that the creative impulse was in everyone, and it was a matter of effort, taste, and feedback that would allow one to really hone that creativity into something.
I was so enthralled and liberated that, in my eagerness to learn more, I flew to London in the summer to do a creative training workshop with Detta Danford and Natasha Zielazinski, two musicians I’d befriended in Baltimore. It fanned the flame, and before I knew it, I’d invited them to come over to New York City to work with some of my students, after which I promptly asked my then boss Jennifer Kessler (Sistema Fellow '12) for approval of a composition project with the Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
For other Sistema Fellows who are interested in this work, it is amazing what kind of a trickle down effect this project has had on our students. They find a different joy in composition than in learning good posture, fingerings, and new pieces (which is equally important). Since the completion of Little Composers of St. Luke’s, they have started to spontaneously compose together in small groups during down time. Just the other day, we listened to Smetana’s Die Moldau and divided into three groups to each create a small piece that reflected some aspect of the work. Without hesitation, the students began to discuss what they thought of the Smetana and started composing, layering, editing and conducting.
If we as Sistema Fellows are in the business of developing musicians and conscious citizens, then I think we can use group composition to meet both goals. First, composition can instill practical habits of seeing art and music as something they can mold in response to their lives and what they experience. Second, collective composition requires of our students real intention of creating, listening, and responding--attributes which we want to see in positive citizens of our communities.
With regard to the Sistema-inspired field as a whole, incorporating creative composition into the fabric of El Sistema would be only beneficial for students. Dr. Abreu is often quoted as saying that the orchestra is a symbol of the ideal community. While I believe that young students in orchestras do develop positive interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, I also think that young students in creative composition teams develop what I sense is a truer spirit of collaboration, not only with their peers but also their teachers, who are starting from the very beginning of the process with them. Moreover, instead of responding to the decisions already made by the conductor in front and a composer on their sheet music, they get to create, edit, get real feedback, listen, and respond to those immediately around them.
Aside from developing collaborative skills, students also develop extended technique. During project week, our students learned glissandos, harmonics, and new notes simply because they wanted to add it to their composition. Finally, in tying this work to the idea of social change through music, composition can be a great vehicle to create student-centered pieces on relevant social issues.
On a personal level, I’m thrilled to share our Little Composers of St. Luke’s mini-documentary (see above) as well as collaborate with others who are interested in creative composition work. Starting at Harvard Medical School in the fall, I plan to involve patients, their families, and health professionals in composition projects and assess their impact. This sort of creative composition has also spurred my interest in how to relate composition to non-musical concepts, such as public health and data representation. I’m excited to continue sharing all of my new learnings in the future.
According to a recent press release, the "Atlanta Music Project and The Kindezi Schools have formed a partnership to launch a flagship site for AMPlify, the choral music program of the Atlanta Music Project (AMP). Classes will begin in the fall of 2015 at The Kindezi School's West Lake campus. Founded in 2010, AMP provides intensive, tuition-free music education for underserved youth right in their neighborhood. AMP's innovative program design has developed three, neighborhood-based, after-school youth orchestras and choirs. The launch of the AMPlify Flagship Site at The Kindezi School at West Lake will be AMP's fourth site, bringing the total number of children served by AMP to 200."
AMP was co-founded by Dantes Rameau, Sistema Fellow '10. Aisha Bowden, Sistema Fellow '12, co-founded AMPlify in 2012. Continue reading here.