Monday, October 29, 2012

Vivaldi Concerto for 4 violins with 2 “A-HA!” moments @ YOURS Project, Chicago!

Xóchitl Ysabela Tafoya, violinist/violist and member of the 4th class of Sistema Fellows, is immersing herself in YOURS this week and is guest blogging, sharing her experiences below: 

This past week I conducted my fieldwork/residency at The YOURS (Youth Orchestras United Rita Sima) Project in Chicago, a Sistema inspired program supported by the People’s Music School. Former Sistema fellow and Program Director, Albert Oppenheimer, has been absolutely wonderful at showing me around The YOURS Project and the great El Sistema-inspired values that they actively apply with their students, community and parents.

While at The YOURS Project, I was able to observe the YOURS String Orchestra sectional with intern teaching artist Annarita, from Loyola, preparing Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins. I remember being the same age as these YOURS musicians playing this piece and loving it! Good music is good music! 

A HA moment # 1: 
During my observations, Annarita asked the ensemble if they wanted to rehearse the piece regardless of some soloists being absent. With soloists missing, several string players were eager and excited to play this piece, and energetically volunteered to play the solo part. Instantly, seating order was rearranged,  friends shared music and the piece began!  YOURS students filled in where necessary, sight-reading solo parts and playing through this brilliant piece! These students loved this piece and more importantly loved playing together because they stepped in where necessary for the sake of the whole group. For them, it was about the music, creating something beautiful that they could all enjoy and be a part of something together! The YOURS project is not only developing great musical excellence, but also supporting and nurturing flexible and well rounded musicians who are actively challenged as both orchestra members and soloists.  

Reflecting on my own musical experience as a junior high school student, I was never in a group where the orchestra members were valued as soloists.  The flexibility of everyone being both a soloist and orchestra member was not fostered at the early stages of my musical education. But to witness the depth and significance of these YOURS string players being so versatile was inspirational. These “fill-in” musicians were supported and encouraged to take a shot at being a soloist. It did not matter if the playing was perfect. These musicians were united playing Vivaldi because it’s beautiful and good music, but more importantly, they were having fun! 

A HA Moment #2 
The second A HA moment came about during the same rehearsal of a fugue like entrance where each string section enters at different times. It is a tricky entrance for students to count in. I even remember it was tricky for me when I learned this piece. Annarita did a great job rehearsing this difficult entrance and having students understand what a fugue was. The ensemble rehearsed and rehearsed with intensity, effectiveness and focus. Finally, in one magical moment, each section nailed their entrance and the fugue was created.  Magic!!! 

Not only did the string players beam, but Annarita could not contain herself and  jumped up and down with joy and bliss that everyone started laughing and beaming from ear to ear. It was clear that the students heightened engagement combined with Annarita’s musical bliss deepened the meaning and value for these young musicians.

After rehearsal, I congratulated Annarita on the success of that tricky entrance. It was great to see the students laughing while playing and sometimes unfortunately shocking to see this during a Vivaldi piece. I asked Annarita how she felt during that magical moment of the ensemble mastery during that tricky Vivaldi entrance. She replied to me, “it was really better than flirting with a boy. I cant wait to do it again!” I knew exactly what she was talking about. 

-Xóxhitl Ysabela Tafoya

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sometimes, Multiple Personality Disorder is a Good Thing

Last week, Rachel Hockenberry, horn player and member of the 4th class of the Sistema Fellows, was in residence with the YOURS Project, and sums up her experiences below. This blog is also posted at Rachel's blog at: 

Sometimes, Multiple Personality Disorder is a Good Thing

It can be difficult to describe sistema work.  We love to use phrases like "using music as a vehicle for social change," or "social change through music education."  These all sound great, but was does that really mean?  Are we social service organizations?  Are we conservatories?  Are we childcare centers?  And, what are our goals?  Are we producing the next generation of concertmasters and soloists?  Are we just trying to keep kids off the street?  Are we helping kids graduate from high school and have productive futures?

Here's the simple answer: Yes.

We have multiple personality disorder.

And, you know what?  That's awesome.  Let me tell you why.

Let's start our journey down the dissociative identity trail at the People's Music School in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.  This organization has provided free music instruction for Chicago's youth since 1975.  People's Music School has multiple personality disorder.  It has two branches: onsite programming, conducted at PMS' building in Uptown; and offsite programming, under the auspices of the YOURS Project.  Onsite programming focuses on private/small group lessons, music theory and composition.  YOURS teaches nearly exclusively through group instruction.  Onsite programming occurs 3 days a week; YOURS project, 5 days a week.  

Both programs offer free music education to Chicago's children.  They have slightly different ways of doing it.  Is that a bad thing?  No!  Are you kidding me?  People's Music School is offering two different options in order to best suit the needs of the greatest number of children and families!  That's brilliance!

Let's focus now on YOURS, where I spent the majority of my time.  I had the opportunity to meet with the entire teaching staff, including nucleo directors and teaching artists.  I led discussion over two different sessions on the question, "What is el sistema?"  Here is a random sampling of responses:

-making classical music accessible to everyone
-time intensive and teacher intensive
-fostering self-esteem
-giving kids tools for their lives; home, school, relationships, etc
-teaching kids to respect each other, realizing everyone has something to learn and to give
-group learning
-teaching the kids to work hard to achieve goals
-allowing music to be the medicine for the soul
-saving lives and learning to be better human beings through music
-goal of musical excellence
-provides a way to channel expression
-foster interest in classical music

Are there distinct social goals there?  Of course.  How about distinct musical goals?  You bet.

During the Logan Square staff meeting, nucleo director Tom Madeja asked his teaching artists what they wanted to focus on with the children for the remainder of 2012.  Responses included:

-greater literacy and reading music
-create Logan Square method for teaching how to read music
-increase sense of belonging; making it fun
-creating a sense of accountability as a group within the students
-performance opportunities

Musical goals? Check.  Social goals? Check.  

The staff has multiple personality disorder.

I also interviewed two YOURS students, asking them why they liked coming to the YOURS project:
Answer 1 (Jonathan, 9 years old): "Mostly, it's a great opportunity to learn.  It's a free education.  Most schools don't get this."
Answer 2 (Xochitl, 10 years old): "That you can learn to play new instruments that you didn't know before.  They teach us new songs that we can play and show....orchestra rocks!"

Management, teaching artists and students realize that this program is multifaceted.  It's about teaching children of their own worth through musical excellence.  It's about love, joy and song.  I would argue that what makes People's and YOURS stand out is that they are giving the pursuit of musical excellence a greater purpose, making the goal more meaningful and desirable.  This multiple personality disorder is a critical element of the program's success.  To focus on only one of the two primary goals would be doing a disservice to the children.  Is it a bad thing to have multiple personalities if both work in tandem to create a better world?  

-Rachel Hockenberry

Friday, October 19, 2012

Learning, Philosophizing, and Teaching

Rachel Hockenberry, horn player and member of the 4th class of the Sistema Fellows, is immersing herself in YOURS this week and is guest blogging, sharing her experiences below:

Today was filled with significant learning and inspiration.  The morning began with Sensei Oppenheimer schooling me on logic models.  For those unfamiliar, logic models contain the following information: what are the needs of the community your program will address; how will these needs be addressed; how are you going to measure if they have been addressed; and, what are the desired outcomes.  Though I’m not exactly sure where I’m headed after May 19th, 2013, so far all of my options will require logic models, and I am so grateful that now I at least kind of know what I’m doing with them.

Next, I attended a staff meeting with Tom and the rest of the Logan Square team.  This meeting was awesome; the whole team is pumped to move forward with the upcoming changes.  We also talked about the meaning of el sistema and social change.  While the Hibbard team had more to say about el sistema, the Logan Square team dug in to the meaning of social change.  Here are a few of the elements they associated with the concept:

-does not just affect the student, but also the student’s family
-achieving social goals with even one student can have a pervasive effect on the community
-increased sense of belonging
-individual and group accountability
-instilling the ability to strive for excellence

The Logan Square staff gets it.  This was no surprise to me.

After this extremely productive meeting, I rode along with Tom and teaching artists Aryole and AJ to Hibbard.  These three lovely people also granted me a short interview during the commute, concerning why they work for the YOURS Project.  While at Hibbard, I got to bounce around all day.  I took some interviews of the students (which I will post when I am able to edit them) before they enthusiastically enjoyed a performance by violinist Tessa Lark.  After filming a few rehearsals, I had the privilege of temporarily filling Katie’s shoes and teaching the REACH winds, which was so much fun.  Have I mentioned that teaching is my favorite thing to do?  Because it is.

And just like that, my YOURS experience comes to a close.  I’m composing this post on a Southwest flight to Dulles for a quick trip to Pennsylvania, then hopping back on a plane to Chicago tomorrow night, only to fly to LA several hours later.  Phew!  Expect a final blog post from me within the next few days of my wrap-ups and reflections.  Albert says I have become a YOURS evangelist, and I think he may be right.

-Rachel Hockenberry

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Insanity and Resilience

Rachel Hockenberry, horn player and member of the 4th class of the Sistema Fellows, is immersing herself in YOURS this week and is guest blogging, sharing her experiences below:

Today was a full day of business here in the Oppenheimer mobile office (an apartment, other people's offices, a restaurant and a car).  I began and ended the day with research on crime and violence in Chicago, focusing on district 17, where Hibbard is located.  I came across some interesting information via the Chicago Police Department website including juvenile arrest trends and the 2011 murder report. These stats are pretty daunting, making it clear that Chicago can be a dangerous place to live.

This leads to one of my favorite things about sistema work and sistema people.  Most sane individuals would look at the neighborhoods with the highest violence rates and say, "I need to stay away from there".  This makes perfect sense as it seems silly to knowingly place oneself in danger.  However, el sistema enthusiasts work on a different plane of sanity.  When Albert and I were looking over these stats, we were saying "that's where YOURS needs to be".  We're going to reduce violence through music education.  It's going to work.  The YOURS and People's Music School team are going to make it happen.   

Maybe doing this work requires a little bit of insanity.  I'm okay with that.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned today is the necessity for resilience.  Most of the meetings today centered around YOURS' second location in Logan Square.  Due to many different circumstances, this program is now in a state of flux and changing locations.  Because of this, there hasn't been any programming all week while YOURS has been relocating (thought it's important to note that there will be a three-hour session for the kids on Saturday).  Logan Square program director Tom Madeja, Albert, and I met with the administrators at two potential new homes for this program.  Both meetings were incredibly promising.  For me, the best part of this was seeing the affect these meetings had on Tom.  This whole week, Tom has been chomping at the bit to get his program started again.  This has been an incredibly frustrating time for him.  Seeing him communicate with these potential partners made his dedication to the program and to the kids palpable.  He was willing to take on whatever responsibilities necessary to get the program back to its desired intensity level, therefore creating the greatest impact on the kids' lives.  Sure enough, a temporary (if not permanent) solution was found, and the program will be back to its old self very, very soon.  Witnessing Tom's commitment to the kids of Logan Square shows what an amazing program director he is.  The Logan Square program will continue to thrive because Tom is awesome.  It’s really as simple as that.

I can’t believe tomorrow is my last day here!  My trip has unexpectedly been cut a little short, so I will miss out on Friday’s adventures, but I have learned so much in my short time here and am so grateful for this opportunity!

Until tomorrow...

-Rachel Hockenberry

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

El Día Dos

Rachel Hockenberry, horn player and member of the 4th class of the Sistema Fellows, is immersing herself in YOURS this week and is guest blogging, sharing her experiences below:

Today was another excellent day shadowing Sir Oppenheimer.  I started the morning by doing some research on the community needs of Albany Park (expect more info on this later).  This was followed by the most amazing part of my day.  I was privileged to sit down for a long lunch with Albert, Aubree Weiley and Bob Fiedler.  Aubree and Bob are the program director and executive director, respectively, of the People's Music School (PMS), which is the umbrella organization for the YOURS project.  These lovely folks took over two hours out of their day to talk with me. After meeting with these wonderful people, I decided that Albert has the best job ever.  The chemistry amongst this trio is tangible.  They share the same mission and the same vision.  They consider on-site programming at PMS and off-site YOURS Project programming not as separate entities, but as two programs working together to achieve the nearly the same goal. They all agree that no matter what, the most important thing to consider is whether or not the children and families are being served in the most effective way. 

Add this to the fact that the YOURS teachers and staff get it, and it's no surprise why this phenomenal sistema-inspired organization has persevered through good times and bad.

This inspiring lunch was followed by a positive meeting with the Parks Department concerning potential partnerships (more on that later as well).  After this, I got to do my favorite thing in the whole world: teach brass!  I absolutely loved working with the trumpeters, hornists and trombonists from the YOURS orchestra.  A highlight was being able to hand over some of the teaching duties to Louis, a 9th grade trombonist who graduated from YOURS and is now a high school intern.  Louis did a fantastic job, producing immediate results.

After programming, Albert and I went out to dinner with YOURS horn teacher Katie Swaydis.  Katie and I have an uncanny amount of common traits: we are both vegan horn players with nose piercings who love sistema.  We helped Albert enjoy his second vegan meal in as many days, while having great conversation about YOURS and life.  This dinner may not seem like it was a crucial part of the business day, but in a way that is what made it stand out to me; the YOURS staff like each other.  They like to hang out beyond program hours.  This is a major factor in program stability and sustainability.

YOURS is on fire, ladies and gentleman.  Expect many great things from this organization, and from People's Music School, for years to come.

-Rachel Hockenberry

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

This Is What El Sistema Is

Dear Everyone,

Over the next many weeks the YOURS Project will be visited by three members of the fourth class of Sistema Fellows from the New England Conservatory. This is the program that I was part of last year when I bravely began this blog. Our first Fellow-in-Residence, Rachel Hockenberry, will be a guest blogger while she is in town, sharing her experiences, thoughts, and insights as she shadows me in my day to day life as the Director of the YOURS Project. Enjoy!

Greetings, YOURS Project lovers!  My name is Rachel, and I'm a horn player who happens to be one of the lucky members of the 2012-2013 class of Sistema Fellows.  I have the great privilege of spending the week immersed in YOURS goodness, and I couldn't be happier.  I arrived in town on Sunday, and after a long nap was welcomed to the city in my favorite way: eating dinner at a fabulous restaurant.  I want to use one sentence of this post to tell you all to go and eat at the Chicago Diner and experience pure bliss while gorging yourself on things like sweet potato fries and chocolate peanut butter milkshakes.

Today was my first day at the program.  After a lovely lunch with program directors Sylvia Carlson and Tom Madeja, we all headed over to Hibbard.  I spent the afternoon just soaking everything in.  I wandered around to all of the rehearsals, while naturally paying close attention to the horns.

After the program, Sylvia held a staff meeting, where Albert asked me to facilitate a discussion on the question, "what is el sistema?"  Knowing that this is a loaded question, I decided to begin the conversation by asking each staff member to share one or two elements they felt was necessary to create a thriving sistema-inspired program.  Here were a few of the responses:

-making classical music accessible to everyone
-time intensive and teacher intensive
-fostering self-esteem
-giving kids tools for their lives; home, school, relationships, etc
-teaching kids to respect each other, realizing everyone has something to learn and to give
-group learning
-process over product mindset: teaching the kids to work hard to achieve goals
-allowing music to be the medicine for the soul
-saving lives and learning to be better human beings through music

Through these answers, I realized why the program has been so successful over the past four years: the teachers get it. The teachers and nucleo directors have a solid understanding of el sistema's goals and, I believe more importantly, they believe in the ability of the program to positively alter the lives of its students.  Beyond that, as percussion teaching artist Javier so eloquently stated, they understand that helping children become a better person directly affects the children's families, leading to an affect on the entire community.  

The teachers get it, and they believe it.  This leaves me with no doubt that YOURS will continue to grow and thrive over the years, helping to create communities passionate about peace, collaboration, and music.

-Rachel Hockenberry

Giulia's Final Day - Sylvia Interview

Dear All,

I found this blog post languishing in the depths of my email, buried under numerous correspondences and hidden amongst the spam. This is Giulia's final blog post- an interview with Sylvia Carlson, our Nucleo Director of our program in Albany Park. I am so glad that Giulia chose to join our family, even briefly- she help us launch the year, working with both of our sites and providing a look into what it is to discover the YOURS Project. She gave the kids the opportunity to work with someone from Italy. For me, foreign countries always seemed imaginary when I was younger, but now, I'm sure that Italy is very real to the students who Giulia impacted.

Thank you Giulia! You will always have a home in Chicago!
Albert Oppenheimer
YOURS Project Director
People's Music school

Our guest blogger and volunteer from Italy, Giulia Molteni, reflects on her time with the YOURS Project:


Last but not least, I'd like to introduce you Sylvia Carlson, the YOURS Project Nucleo Director at Hibbard Elementary School.

Giulia: Sylvia, my time here with the YOURS Project is ending. We shared three weeks together that were completely different from each other! We started this journey at Hibbard with the amazing YOURS Project High School Intern Workshop and it was inspiring to deal with these helpful young students. Then, the YOURS Project finally started, although in a state of uncertainty, due to the Chicago Teachers Union Strike. Now the classes are run regularly in the afternoon, but as you told me, I've been here at the most difficult time for the program, because lot of things have just changed and there are many desicions to make. How do you feel at the beginning of this challenging school year?

Sylvia: Well, honestly, I feel a lot like I did at the start of the last school year when the new program at Monroe began. There are so many similarities. I'm coming into an exisiting music program (at Monroe they had instrumental classes there already during the school day), and I'm dealing with the set ways and personalities of the people who are already there. I feel that some changes need to be made in order to make the most out of our resources and I am working with quite varied skill levels all in one class because of budget constraints. At Monroe we were able to make this work, although it took awhile, and developed some talented student leaders who really stepped up and helped out all the time without even being asked. At Hibbard the different skill levels used to be almost completely separated into three orchestras all the time except for rare peer teaching episodes. I want to make peer teaching a core component of the program. So to make the most use of our resources and to encourage peer teaching, we have combined the two smaller, beginning orchestras at Hibbard and plan to have three levels of peer teaching happening; the more advanced beginners will mentor the less advanced beginners in one unified orchestra, the advanced orchestra students will be enlisted to help out the sectional teachers with the beginning orchestra, and our newly trained high school interns will be helping out with teaching everyone else in the program.

G: In agreeing to become the new Nucleo Director of this project you, have taken on a big responsibility. There are lot of things to take in account: administration, policy, schedule, but, above all, education, students, and teachers. At the faculty meeting we spoke a lot about these issues. What are your thoughts and plans?

S: I would like to create an educational structure and a teaching and learning culture at Hibbard that is recognizable, well-defined, and securely ingrained. The first few years of a program, especially one that has funding challenges, are bound to be somewhat chaotic and inconsistent.
I'm going to work ceaslessly to define a curriculum (a flexible one, but still one that has structure), a standard repertoire and organized library, a code of conduct that emphasizes respect for everyone, compassionate disciplinary measures that ensure that all students have the chance to learn.
The time consuming part of this is that it will not work if I try to create a battery of rules on my own and force them on everyone. I need to start by creating a truly collaborative environment, one where teachers and students know that they are a part of the process.
This will take awhile, and it might seem like no progress is being made at first, but then, perhaps seemingly overnight, the way a child becomes an adolescent, there will materialize a structure and a culture that is all our own.

G: Would you like to share with us some of your previous experiences within the YOURS Project?

S: There are so many! I'll try to choose a few that illustrate a broad range of experiences.
A couple of years ago, about mid-way through my time at Hibbard, I experienced severe behavior problems from a child in one of my large, mixed- instrument classes. The class was full of beginners, and I was dealing with oboes, clarinet, flutes, brass, and percussion all at the same time. It was quite challenging already, but this one child's behavior made class almost impossible. I had talked to the director of the project about it, but things did not improve. Eventually I wondered if I would even be abe to continue teaching for the project under the circumstances, and so I mentioned this fear to the director. So she called the student's father and explained to him the situation and asked him to come to class with his child. Fortunately, he was able to do this and it made all the difference in the world! The father helped with everything, setting up chairs and stands, sending messages, monitoring breaks, and, of course, keeping his son's behavior in check. Finally I was able to have class and I had a collaborator in the room with me. It was this experience, and the knowledge that many teachers at Hibbard are struglling with similar circumstances, that led me to bring a parent room-monitor sign-up sheet to the parent meeting at Hibbard last night, and me and this same father, were able to explain to the other parents how useful this is, and to encourage them to sign up to attend classes.

Last year at Monroe, after we had only been having classes for about three months, we were able to put on a full concert that included several original full orchestra arrangements that were written specifically for our mixed ability level ensemble, and student and teacher chamber groups. We really had an evening of music put together in a very short amount of time with about 35 kid, thanks to the hard work of all the teachers, students, and parents at Monroe. That was certainly a highlight of my time with the YOURS Project.

And, of course, being back at Hibbard and seeing all of my old students so grown up and so much improved on their instruments, and so helpful with all of the younger kids. This is truly a pleasure.

And finally, I would just like to say thank you to you, Giulia, for taking this time to spend with us. You have brought invaluable insight from a point of view that is in no way personally invested in the program. You have shown infinite kindess and patience with us and have been a true joy to have around. We will miss you!

-Giulia Molteni