The curtain almost fell for YAMA in 2015 when the grant that provided much of its funding ran out. The Yakima Symphony Orchestra stepped in and saved it temporarily. [Founder Stephanie Hsu, Sistema Fellow '12] said she wants to keep YAMA going as a freestanding nonprofit — not because she wants to create professional musicians, but because she believes YAMA can improve lives, one note at a time.
“My goal is to show our kids that they can do whatever they want to do in their future,” Hsu said. “There are no limits placed on them based on where they are from.”
Throughout these experiences I largely took a backseat – quite literally at times, in the rear of the ensembles plunking away on piano or trying desperately to regain my long-abandoned horn playing technique in a section of musicians half my height but twice my competence on the instrument. But from my vantage point I was able to identify an experiential continuum between poles of contribution and personal growth. In Oxford, the Charlotte team was not confronted with the behavioural and social issues, or lack of prior instrumental training, that are major challenges within the In Harmony programs. Children were largely focused and compliant (largely… the days for them were quite long) and generally had a firm technical foundation on their instruments. The UNCC team could lead and teach in the manner they were taught on their instruments. I could tell they enjoyed the experience substantially in no small part because they were comfortable in that milieu. But their growth in this context, although present, was minimal…
Continue reading Jonathan Govias' (Sistema Fellow '10) essay on his personal website.
While much of the rest of the East Coast was busy shoveling out from the major snowstorm, twenty Sistema Fellows reunited for a weekend in Boston last month. This was an opportunity for us, all alumni of New England Conservatory’s Sistema Fellows Program, to share our individual experiences since the last reunion with each other, to discuss our professional challenges, and to brainstorm about ideas which the El Sistema-inspired field may wish to further develop in the future.
I noticed that there was more depth and breadth to the discussions since our last reunion in 2014. This was evident in the targeted and nuanced conversations about specific issues, paired with diverse views brought to the table from Fellows whose work has taken them into related or peripheral spheres such as creative place-making, medicine, policy making, and academics.
The following recommendations emerged from a discussion about what may be necessary for programs throughout the El Sistema-inspired field to advance and increase their effectiveness:
Generally speaking, programs need to continue developing a deeper understanding of the community. Some examples include identifying specific issues the community is facing, and understanding the mindsets of the community to ensure the practical details of the program are aligned (e.g. what does the community think about a program made available for free?). Many Fellows agreed that there should be some culturally relevant content in the program, but there was disagreement about the proportion of this content and if classical music should still decidedly be the essence of programming. For me, this was reminiscent of the heated discussions we had during my Fellowship year about the fundamental question of what an El Sistema-inspired program looks like. But perhaps showing the maturity of the field, or that we had already come to terms with what it meant to us individually, the conversation again turned towards how best to further “the work.” This was in line with the tone of the second day of the reunion – an opportunity to be forward looking.
Other Fellows shared their programs’ challenges in finding and retaining manpower. Some programs had to train volunteers who would only be able to commit to the program for a short period of time, which was not an efficient use of staff time. More pressing was the issue of teacher retention. As they were the ones directly creating impactful relationship with the participants, the question raised was how to move teachers away from a gig mindset and to create a long-term arrangement that aligned with their personal goals. This could take the form of understanding an individual teacher’s aspirations, and for the program to have a combination of full and part time positions. Involving more experienced music educators was also suggested. This would present an opportunity for mentorship of the less experienced teachers.
No conversation about the future is complete without addressing the opportunity that technology presents. Fellows talked about technology as a quick and cost-effective way to build connections with programs across the city (or the world!) and for youth to sense that they are part of a larger, even international community. This could be as easy as having ensembles play for each other over Skype. Program administrators would also be able to network and collaborate with peers to minimize the feeling of isolation.
Another opportunity that was raised as being important for the field at this stage is building partners and advocates. Specifically, how can we deepen existing partnerships? What are some pertinent partners that we can develop outside the existing sphere that could become advocates for the field (e.g. health and higher education institutions)? And how can we stretch ourselves to consider unconventional partners (e.g. publishers) that could provide mutually beneficial relationships?
Discussing the El Sistema-inspired field within the context of the larger community-based music education ecosystem of the future challenged the Fellows to think about the impact of the work within a much broader scope. For a young field, the conversations were appropriately centered on how to do better work, and growing the opportunities surrounding the work. However, to ensure sustainability beyond the fledgling stage, programs need to continue looking into executing sound research and evaluation to assess the impacts on participants. Understandably, in the non-profit sector, the perennial challenge is finding sufficient resources even for the execution of the program. From our brief discussion, there seemed to be a deep understanding about the need for research and evaluation to secure funding for programs going forward, but it remains to be seen if sufficient resources are being allocated to ensure that this crucial need is addressed. From our brief time together, this seemed to me to be a pressing issue that must continue to be at the forefront of program leaders’ minds to ensure the sustained growth of the field in the longer term.
The qualities central to the El Sistema way—including working in underserved communities, intense focus, high expectations, and joyful learning—are also key aspects of many children and youth choral programs that do not identify as "El Sistema-inspired"… But Grogan and other founders say that El Sistema-inspired choral programs are different in a subtle but important way—a distinction that starts with the intention behind the program. "The biggest difference is the purpose of existence," says Sara Zanussi [Sistema Fellow '13], the founder of ComMUSICation in the Twin Cities area. "It’s music for social change at the front of our mission, rather than as a secondary priority."
"Programs are built to remove access barriers for children,” says Alysia Lee [Sistema Fellow '12]. “That affects every element, from program design to repertoire, performance opportunities, and marketing.”
“El Sistema’s true north is youth development and how you get there is through musical excellence,” says Eric Booth [Sistema Fellows Program advisor]. “So there is this little bit of difference in intentionality. But over time it becomes and creates a different culture.”
Continue reading the article, which also features Aisha Bowden, Sistema Fellow '12, at ChorusAmerica.org.
"This collection of essays, edited by Christine Witkowski [Sistema Fellow '10], offers practical information for those seeking knowledge, inspiration or guidance for adapting El Sistema to widely diverse settings, particularly within the USA. This book explores the voices and experiences of teachers, leaders, parents, and experts from related fields with the hope of inspiring actions, both large and small, to advance social change through music. The essays in El Sistema: Music For Social Change are fascinating, touching, shocking and aweinspiring, describing a project that is truly revolutionary…"
"Since 2009, enrollment has grown dramatically from 60 to 330 children who participate, and next year we are poised to take Kidznotes [founded by Katie Wyatt, Sistema Fellow '10] to the next level. In the 2016-17 school year our goal is to serve 500 kids, expanding our enrollment by 200 additional K-8 grade students who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to be successful through music. Kidznotes’ ultimate vision is to serve 1,000 students in Durham and Raleigh by 2020…"