Sunday, October 30, 2011

Harry Potter and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra

Today, I had the great pleasure of attending a concert given by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the lively and charismatic Carlos Miguel Prieto. This concert took place mid-afternoon in a high school auditorium. It was a family focused, Harry Potter themed halloween concert, and the audience was full of children and parents in all sorts of magical garb. The repertoire for the afternoon consisted mainly of familiar themes from the many Harry Potter films, composed by John Williams and Patrick Doyle, with one exception: Mussorgsky's 'A Night on Bald Mountain'. The music was played well, with great energy from the performers, and the applause was abundant and well deserved at the end of the performance. 

However, the reasons I enjoyed the concert to such a high degree had a lot more to do with what was happening around the music, than the music itself. There were elements of El Sistema principles embodied throughout the concert. These are a few key commonalities which I've found present so far in El Sistema programs- 
  • Joy
    • This concert was joyous! Costumes were encouraged, and every other person in the audience was some variety of witch, wizard, or creature- parents and children alike. The orchestra participated too, and wore outstanding costumes- there was a Little Red Riding Hood in the violin section and a ski-masked Jason amongst the basses. The fourth wall, which normally separates the orchestra from the audience, was already down before the first note was played- we were all having fun together. Joy is an essential element in El Sistema philosophy- the goal is to create an intrinsic motivation to be involved. It should not be a force from outside saying "you should be doing this'" but a force from within saying "I want to do this". El Sistema ensembles are created through a pull, not a push. 

  • Excellence 
    • Prieto turned to the audience frequently throughout the performance, each time  claiming ignorance of all things Harry Potter and inviting members of the audience up to give background and context for each of the musical numbers on the program. He always expected excellence from his volunteer, setting the bar clearly, asking for a confident and knowledgable contributor. If you set the bar high, your expectations clearly, and you support the pursuit of those expectations, they will be reached. In Sistema, striving for musical excellence nurtures individual growth which in turn enables higher pursuits of musical excellence which encourages individual growth etc. etc. 

  • A Culture of Contribution 
    • As the concert continued, Prieto invited audience members to speak often, and soon a culture of contribution had been established. The audience knew they would be expected to give background on each piece, and hands would shoot into the air as Prieto turned to face them. He would invite a child or two up from the audience, always being sure to ask their names, and then he would ask a question about the work about to be performed. An individual orchestral musician works hard to master their instrument and develop themselves in order to contribute to their community, the orchestra. This is a model for life. 

  • Opportunities to Succeed, often 
    • Prieto frequently asked his volunteers to explain the title of a work and how it related to the film, creating opportunities to succeed,  and they almost always answered excitedly and accurately. Recognition can be a rare thing in many children's lives. How often does someone applaud for a child in underserved circumstances? How often are they told they've succeeded? This is a reason why frequent performances are so important in Sistema- applause is like water to musical talent, and sunlight to self-worth. 

  • Peer Teaching
    • The volunteers were presenting their knowledge to an audience made up of individuals close to their age- they were teaching their peers. In an El Sistema program, you'll begin with one teacher, but as some students learn more quickly than others, you will soon find yourself surrounded by teachers as the students begin to teach each other. All you need is to know one note more than your friend, and you can become a teacher.  

  • Family Involvement
    • This was a concert geared towards families, particularly those with younger children, so it was no surprise there were families there. But these parents were not only present, they were participating. They were costumed, answering Prieto's questions, and raising their hands along with their children. These parents actively encouraged their children to participate, answer questions, and run to the stage when they were asked to speak. Sistema is about transforming the whole of a child's life- not merely transporting them during a rehearsal. The entirety of a Sistema community is called upon to participate and help embody that transformation- the foundation of which is the parents of the children in the orchestra. 

  • Performance: immediately and often
    • Towards the end of the concert, a few children were chosen randomly and invited up a to conduct a piece. I don't believe they had received any prior instruction in conducting, and clearly they had had no rehearsal time with the baton or the orchestra. Nonetheless, they were expected to give a performance, immediately, and they didn't shy away from it at all. Bravo! This is seen throughout Sistema- performances happen as often as possible, no matter the level of preparation of a particular work. The emphasis is on the process, not the final product, and everyone performs together, no matter their skill level. 

  • Community
    • The community in the room was evident. Everyone was there in costumes- the orchestra and the audience. Almost everyone knew the repertoire being performed, including the youngest children. Normally when I refer to the sense of community, I'm referring to being a member of the ensemble. But the sense of community today was not just for orchestral members within the community of the orchestra. It was a feeling of the orchestra as a contributing member of the community of New Orleans. In Venezuela, the nucleo orchestras are central to their communities, each supporting the other. Usually a nucleo's community is a neighborhood, and though the LPO's community is much larger, they are still striving and pushing the bounds of community engagement, moving towards a rich and sustainable 'community entanglement' - where the orchestra supports the community supports the orchestra supports the community ad infinitum. This is the goal. This is El Sistema. 
You can see why I came away from the concert energized and enthusiastic about the work the LPO is doing, humming Harry Potter tunes as I walked back to my car. As I explore the community of New Orleans, I feel more and more resonance each day with the questions I'm asking. I'm excited about what already exists, and even more excited about what could be. 

Questions of the Day: 
What does 'community engagement' mean? 
Why should a community support an orchestra?
How can an orchestra support a community? 

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