Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today found me in Chicago with my sister, who attends the University of Chicago, and my father, who drove from Mississippi to join us. During the brief time that I spent in Boston, after I returned from New Orleans, an Abreu Fellowship reunion took place. Many stories were shared of the amazing journeys that my fellow fellows have had. They had adventures in far away lands such as Scotland and Costa Rica, while others braved the temperate rain forests of Alaska. Some visited programs in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cincinati, Chicago, and Atlanta. One fellow, Avi Mehta, traveled around Texas, visiting programs in Austin and San Antonio and discussed the potential for a program in the Dallas – Fort Worth area. For our reunion, we spent two glorious days with Gretchen Nielsan, Director of Educational Initiatives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, learning about the LA Phil's Sistema inspired programs under the umbrella of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. Check out the YOLA resource library- it's full of useful documents and information regarding El Sistema and the structure of YOLA'S programs. During our reunion, we spent some time exploring the massive amounts of data gathered by our ongoing national needs assessment of all self identifying 'El Sistema inspired' programs in the USA- very interesting, very exciting. Also, Gretchen helped us create a foundational understanding of nucleo program design. The first step of which is context. That concept of context brings me to my phrase of the day:

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Before you can truly begin designing a Sistema program to serve a community, you have to explore and get to know the ecosystem that already exists in that community. This is a large part of the work I was doing in New Orleans. In both program design and community mapping, understanding what a community already has to be thankful for is an essential initial step in the process. The goal should be to strive to discover and understand what programs already exist doing great work in the community- to look at which programs are role models and potential partners/collaborators- to ascertain which programs' outcomes could be enhanced through support, collaboration, and connection. In order to achieve the most positive possible impact, you need to truly grasp the assets of a community as you attempt to address the need.

There is some amazing work going on in the world. The work is going on in your country. In your city. Perhaps, even right next door. Look up, look around, and get in touch! I am filled with thankfulness for all the individuals and programs who work so hard to make the world a more joyful, a more peaceful, and a more musical place to be. Thank you. 

Questions of the day:
What can be gained through the knowledge of the assets in a community? 
What musical/educational/social programs are you thankful for in your community? 
Have you said 'thank you' recently? 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Last day... for now

Today was an amazing day. This week was an amazing week. This month was an amazing month.

Today was my final day in New Orleans as part of this internship. I probably won't be updating my blog daily anymore, but will aim for at least 1-2 times a week. I hope you all will continue reading- I value the feeling that someone is joining me for this journey that I'm on. Thank you.

I started today with Jean Montès, the Musical Director of the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestras, an inspiring conductor from Haiti with an inspiring story and a contagious passion. We met initially in his offices at Loyola University, where he is Director of Orchestral Studies and Coordinator of Strings. We then took our conversation to the offices of GNOYO, where I received enough GNOYO marketing material to fill a GNOYO shoulder bag (which I needed). I felt significant resonance from Jean and the other individuals associated with the youth orchestra that we met with. The mission of El Sistema is very close to Jean's heart, and I have no doubt that we will work together in the future.

I then had the pleasure of sitting down to lunch with the coordinators of LUCAP- the Loyola University Community Action Program. I learned a lot about the culture of student volunteerism at Loyola, as well as the deep culture of service learning not only at Loyola, but also at other schools throughout New Orleans. For any El Sistema program to truly succeed, there needs to be a dedicated corps of volunteers, whether that be parents or students from a local university. There is great potential in this.

Later that afternoon, I visited the music program at Crocker Elementary. The funding for the teacher behind this program and its phenomenal success thus far was initially through Artist Corps New Orleans. Artist Corps partners with schools lacking in music education in order to place highly trained Teaching Artists in a position to create a music education curriculum and sustain it. Rebecca Crenshaw is the amazing teaching artist in question- she has grown the program from meager beginnings 3 years ago to securing the funding to teach strings to about 130 students. The school has a total of about 254 students, so there are many students who currently don't take advantage of the voluntary offering- I'd be very interested to see how their attendance and test scores compare to those that do study music with Rebecca. These kids were great, and I got to play some fun energy, movement,  and performance games with the various age groups throughout the afternoon. It was so much fun!

I then visited the New Orleans Strings Project- a program which provides group lessons and theory instruction to students from all over the city. The board for this program is currently chaired by the woman who started the strings program at Lusher Elementary 11 years ago for her daughters who were attending at the time. She is a powerful and passionate advocate for music and music education- not only for the sake of music itself, but because of the work music does in building the whole person. I also sat down with another board member for NOSP and she shared her thoughts on the needs in New Orleans, specifically in relationship to the impoverished, violent youth who feel like they have nothing to lose. She said they feel disconnected, and have stopped behaving within the 'system' of normal behaviors and expectations. There is no connection to our societal definitions of 'success', nor, more significantly, concern regarding typical societal punishments. If they are currently playing the game completely by their own rules, what could give them a sense of context and community? What could help them understand that there are not only important rules in this game, but that they're playing on a team?

The night finished with a delicious meal prepared by clarinetist Evan Christopher, his lovely wife Nina, and my collaborator on the ground, Sonya Robinson. Good food + good company = a fantastic last night in New Orleans... for now.

I have asked a lot of questions thus far, and the conversation is far from over. When it comes to questions, after all, it's not about the answers, but the conversation.

Questions of the Day:
Who was on your 'team' when you were a child? 
How did you know they were on your 'team'? 
Who is on your 'team' now?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The "J-Factor"

I had so many amazing conversations and experiences today - it is hard to know where to start! This morning began with an invigorating conversation with Melanie Talia, CEO of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation. Our conversation covered a lot of ground, and I was buzzing with energy when I left. I seemed to end many of my conversations today that way- with more energy leaving than I came in with. That is how you know it was a good day. Melanie shared her story of having grown up with music, and the sense of discipline and healthy therapeutic outlet it gave her. She also shared some of her experiences and perspective garnered from spending 17 years as an Assistant District Attorney in Orleans Parish, prosecuting capital cases and other violent crimes. I learned a lot about the 'need' in New Orleans in regards to the world of crime and law enforcement. We discussed the necessity of a balance of reactive/restorative and proactive/preventative methods to address crime and violence in the city. Her work on the foundation's summer program, COPS for Kids, shows her understanding of the need for structured, nurturing, positive time when children are not in school. I felt like I left the meeting with an ally in regards to the potential impact Sistema inspired programs could have on the youth in New Orleans- she truly seemed to get it.

After sitting down for coffee with a member of the LPO, I met in the afternoon with New Orleans Outreach. New Orleans Outreach is an organization which listens closely to the unique needs of individual schools in regards to extracurricular programing. After need has been communicated, NO Outreach works hard to connect the school to volunteers and community resources in order to address that need. Besides their fantastic programming, I discovered one of the primary reasons schools have sought out NO Outreach is because they can provide what is known as the "J-Factor," more commonly known as joy. Does that emphasis on joy sound familiar? They also assess the affect these extracurricular programs are having on the participants life at school. One principal credited New Orleans Outreach's work for the 90% retention rate of his freshman class- a big deal for a city where the high school market is highly competitive. There was also a school that noted half as many absences after the programs started. amazing. The potential there is significant- I hope I get a chance to work with this organization in the future. 

I then sat down with the largest provider of arts for children in the state of Louisiana- Young Audiences. Their offerings and programs are diverse and intensive, spanning visual arts to sustainable gardening. There is a lot of resonance with their work and the world of Sistema- the belief that the arts delivers positive impact well beyond purely the practice of art, equity and access as priorities, the idea of whole-family involvement as exemplified by their 'Parents Learning, Too!' program, and their foundation in the essential nature of continuity. This idea of continuity is so significant in New Orleans because, even 6 years after Katrina, much has yet to find a firm footing. For instance, in one of the schools that YA works with, there were 4 principals in 3 years- but the YA programs were constant. YA has been doing work in arts education programming within and around schools for over 50 years- they know the specific vocabulary that is needed when speaking to educational institutions. There is a lot to learn from the legacy that they've created, and a lot of potential for future possibility. Young Audiences nationally is a network of programs across the U.S. in over 7,000 schools and and community centers. Imagine if El Sistema became a part of YA's repertoire of amazing programatic offerings, potentially bringing the option of intensive musical ensemble experiences to the more than 5,000,000 children YA works with each year. Very exciting. 

In the evening I visited The Roots of Music and am so moved by the work happening there, that the program will get its own post at a later date. If Venezuela had a marching band, this is what it would look like- a Sistema marching band! And it's great.

I finished my long day sitting down with a bass student from Loyola who works with the Sistema inspired Youth Orchestra of the Lower 9th Ward. When it was time to say goodnight, I challenged him to identify at least 10 ways which an El Sistema experience could affect how an individual develops, communicates, and interacts with and within the world around them. I am excited to hear his thoughts. I'm also excited to hear yours- feel free to comment below. 

Questions of the Day: 
What after-school/extracurricular programs had an impact on your childhood?  
Can you name a specific way music affected your life? a specific moment that illustrates that?

Monday, November 14, 2011

A praline for your thoughts...

This evening, I touched down at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International airport. I am glad to be back — I am currently eating a praline and am contemplating the exciting next two days ahead of me. I will be sitting down with representatives from after school initiatives, arts education advocates, youth symphony leaders, local educators, and local musicians (jazz and classical), as well as representatives from the law enforcement and social service community. It will be a whirlwind of community mapping, a microcosm of my time here in New Orleans: exploring the intricate, living, breathing musical/educational/social ecosystem through site observations and many conversations and learning about the needs within New Orleans from individuals and community leaders throughout the city.  This weekend I wore a name tag with a rather large ribbon attached to it proclaiming the words "Be Happy." And I am. 

“What is an orchestra? An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore, the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement. And what does the experience of agreement mean? Team practice – the practice of the group that recognizes itself as interdependent, where everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty. What is it, then, that the orchestra has planted in the souls of its members? A sense of harmony, a sense of order, implicit in the rhythm, a sense of the aesthetic, the beautiful, the universal, and the language of the invisible. That language of the invisible transmitted unseen through music”

José Antonio Abreu

Questions of the Day:
How have you impacted your community?
How has your community impacted you? 
What would the effect be, on both the community and you, if you were to leave? 

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Im tirtzu ayn zo agadah...
If you will it, it is no dream...

Theodore Herzl

The keynote speech launching the conference today was given by Larry Moses, senior philanthropic advisor and president emeritus to the Wexner Foundation. One concept he shared during his talk really struck me. He talked about the 'impostor syndrome'. It's the feeling you get when you are acting as a leader or an expert and suddenly your internal monologue begins to doubt your legitimacy. Who am I to be saying these things? To be leading these people?

When you start hearing that little whisper of doubt, it is a valuable opportunity for honest self-reflection. It can be a chance to take a step back and think critically about your words and actions in the context of the world and other leaders in your realm. A reminder to be humble while you work. Though, know that every leader has this companion, this doubt and uncertainty. Even if the voice of the 'impostor syndrome' is loud in your ear, you must persevere. Wear the costume until it becomes your clothing.

The High Priest’s Garments

The High Priest’s garments, a robe of purest blue, Golden bells along the hem,
Graven lapis with the symbols of the tribes,
How pure the priest
How fine.
A fringed tunic of purest linen, The finest yarns of many colors, Twisted gold chains,
A frontlet to say “Holy the LORD” How righteous the priest
How good.
But cannot a garment hide the truth?
Cannot a fine covering hide a rotten core?
Are there not masks that people wear that conceal what is real?
Is this not the preparation for hypocrisy?
This cannot be the lesson we are to learn, To look good
To look splendid
To appear righteous and magnificent Merely as a seeming,
An image
An idol of an unattainable ideal,
Or worse,
A mask to hide behind while one fulfills whatever one’s desire may be.
Rather say that the garments of the High priest are a sign. A sign to the High Priest of who and what he is.
At each step, the bells ring.
He feels the weight of his heavy robes
His headdress
And feels
The heavy weight of his responsibility
His charge.
He will strive to live up to his appearance.
He will seek to be truly Holy to the LORD
He will struggle to be what he looks to be.
And so let it be with me. Let me wear my costume,
Fix on me my mask.
Drape me in the cloth of kindness
Place a robe of righteousness over my shoulders
Let jewels of charity hang around my neck and dangle from my ears.

Oh! May I dazzle the world with the brightness of my charade of goodness!
But only if the seeming becomes reality.
Only if the part I play is played even when I leave the stage.
Creator of Light,
Help me perfect my act of goodness, Make my mask of kindness seamless So that,
In the end,
That is all there is.

Seth F. Oppenheimer
February 17, 2005

Questions of the day:
What costumes do you wear?
Who gives leaders the power to lead?

Saturday, November 12, 2011


I am very briefly in Massachusetts attending a fundraising and development conference- it got cold while I've been down south! I will be returning to New Orleans on Monday for the homestretch of what has been an amazing and storied visit, full of connection, celebration, and conversation. Dreams to build upon, a foundation of thought and friendship. A quest of questions...

On the plane, I took the time to partake in a rare leisure activity nowadays: reading. I chose to read, of all things, a book on business strategy. Though, not just any book- Strategy Bites Back by Henry Mintzberg, Bruce W. Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel. This book provides an accessible history of strategic thought, with an assortment of stories, anecdotes, examples, and fun to encourage innovative and novel insights regarding strategy. I've enjoyed the book very much thus far, finding a lot to chew upon thoughtfully while traveling very quickly through the air, though belted to my seat.  Below is one of my favorite pieces in the book so far- it's a poem by a man named Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911) who was an american librarian and poet, a wondrous wordsmith indeed. This poem was penned somewhere around 1895-1896. Do you think we can learn from it today?

The Calf-Path

One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.

Since then three hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bellwether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bellwethers always do.

And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made,
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ’twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed — do not laugh —
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane,
That bent, and turned, and turned again.
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet.
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare,
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed that zigzag calf about,
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They follow still his crooked way,
And lose one hundred years a day,
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move;
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah, many things this tale might teach —
But I am not ordained to preach.

Questions of the day:
What are the calf-paths in the field of music education? 
What are the calf-paths in the field of social services- particularly for underserved youth? 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Are you ready?

I shared the cool New Orleans air this morning over coffee with the coordinator of youth programming for Silence is Violence. Then I had a lovely conversation with Monika Vischer, the board chair for El Sistema Colorado - check it out, they're set to launch January 9th, 2012! Very exciting.

I called the Music Director for the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestras (GNOYO), Jean Montès, today to try to set up a time to sit down and learn more about the great work he's doing with and within the communities of New Orleans. After picking up the phone, the first words he uttered were a question, a challenge:

"Are you ready to change the world?" 

Well, are you?

Questions of the day:
What does it take to transform the life of a child? 
What does it take to transform a community? 
How can that transform you?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Proud Prepper

Growing up in Starkville, I played in marching band starting in 6th grade and continuing, off and on, through my senior year of high school. I loved playing in band. More than that, I loved being in band - being a part of band. I played French Horn, though I spent some time as a drum major, conducting and twirling a mace. Depending on how much I was practicing, I spent time as first chair and time as last chair. But I was a member of the band, and that mattered more to me than my individual role. El Sistema's traditional focus is on orchestra, but New Orleans is so marching band centric that I thought it was important to visit at least a few marching band programs in the city. I'm hoping to visit The Roots of Music at some point next week, a great Sistema-like after school program for band. Today, however, I had the immense pleasure to visit Xavier University Preparatory School - an all female, all black, catholic middle and high school. I arrived mid-afternoon to find their band preparing for an open-house presentation that evening. The band was small, about 30 pieces when fully assembled, and I felt at home the moment I stepped into the band room. Their director, Xavier University graduate Tiffiny Reckley, was excited about the concept of music as a vehicle for individual and social growth. She hadn't heard of El Sistema, but the way she ran her band resonated strongly with many of what I've come to think of as Sistema guiding principles. Here are some elements I noticed throughout my time at XUP that really struck me:

  • Peer Teaching 
    • One of the first things I noticed when I walked in the room was that there was a student on the podium running the rehearsal. And doing a fine job of it too. Throughout the afternoon, there was an enormous emphasis on the students instructing each other. Small groups would break off to practice their parts- duos would form to work on memorization and technical specifics. It was beautiful. There were 30 students in the room. But there were also 30 teachers.
  • Discipline 
    • There was a culture of discipline you could feel throughout the school. Students were uniformed and knew the rules. In the band room, students were trusted to practice on their own, and did so dutifully. High expectations were set musically and the girls worked steadily to achieve them. It should be noted that marching in a marching band is strenuous work- hard physical labor even. A 5 mile marching route can sometimes take as long as 3 1/2 hours to complete. So the girls have physical conditioning as part of band- running laps around the school and doing suicide drills. This lines up with the need to prep pre-k and kindergarten students physically before they start playing a real violin- playing strengthening games so that they build up stamina when they begin to play and practice. 
  • More Time, More Often
    • On average, the girls get at least 2.5 hours a day, 5 days a week with an instrument in their hands. That's an astounding 450 hours per standard school year. That kind of intensive time, not only with the instrument, but in a unified community is what builds the cycle of musical excellence, individual growth, musical excellence, social growth ad infinitum. 
  • Performance
    • These young ladies perform a lot- they have 5 performances/parades this month! That also means they'll be adding a 6th day onto their weekly schedule and coming in to school on Saturdays to rehearse. 
  • Joy
    • Not just for the thrill of the music, but the joy of being together. After running through a piece, the drum line continued to play grooves and rhythms and the whole band began to dance- soon there was a spirited dance-off. Everyone began the next piece with renewed enthusiasm and vigor. The students not only voluntarily participate in this ensemble, but they spend all their spare time in the band room. They are motivated by the 'pull' of joy, belonging, and accomplishment. They are there because they want to be.  
  • Contribution
    • There was a fantastic example of a culture of contribution that I got to witness while visiting. There was an alumna who had returned from Tulane to play with the trumpet section. Apparently, alumni often return to play with the band when they can, teaching and leading their section. This also plays into the generation to generation foundation built by XUP's slogan: "And the tradition continues..."
  • Transformative Family Involvement 
    • This was one of my favorite things about visiting this program. XUP is sure to include not just the students in the culture and community of the school, but also their families. In order to nurture transformation in a child's life, it is not enough for a program to transport them to rehearsal for a few hours. Inviting whole families to participate in a child's growth and discovery is an amazingly powerful thing. At XUP there is a group of parents supporting the band- 'Band Boosters'. There is also a Dad's Club, a Mom's Club, and soon there will be a Grandparent's Club. I had a conversation with a small group of parents outside the band hall after their open house performance, and they raved about the positive effects, outside of music, playing in band was having on their daughters. It was invigorating. I love it. It should be noted that the girls affectionately referred to their band director as "Momma"- these young ladies had become sisters through music. 
  • Community
    • Being in band at Xavier prep requires of each of its participants a deep understanding of community. Through playing, they will begin to understand themselves as a member of a whole, contributing to the community of the band. Playing in the band fosters a sense of understand the part the band plays within the community of the entire school. Playing in the band means you represent your school to the entire community of New Orleans. You are your school, for all intents and purposes- the school is a small part of a much larger community of schools, and the band is the primary delegate to the city of New Orleans. And these girls do a great job at fulfilling all of these roles. 
My time at Xavier Prep was great, and helped give me some insight into the marching band culture omnipresent here in New Orleans. I really enjoyed getting to know the director, the ensemble, and the school as a whole. I'm excited to see them march in a parade one day- I'll cheer loud as they march by.  

I am a Proud Prepper wannabe. 

Questions of the day:
What are the values/challenges inherent when playing with an ensemble within a pre-established community (a school, a church, a camp)? 
What do you gain from beginning to play in an ensemble when you're 6 that is different from what you gain beginning to play at 11? at 14?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

City Council

I just returned from a 'Prelude' event thrown by the Louisiana Philharmonic OrchestraPrelude is an introduction to the LPO. Through discounted ticket prices and social events, Prelude allows new audiences to experience classical music. Members have access to the Orchestra and are able to interact with their peers at six special events during the course of the concert season. Tonight was an event at Rita's Tequila House on Bourbon Street, and the food, company, and conversation was wonderful. I met a horn player in the symphony who had been a member of the New England Conservatory Preparatory School and had played with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (YPO) under Benjamin Zander. During her time with YPO she went on tour to Venezuela, witnessing El Sistema first hand- she was so excited I was having the conversation here in New Orleans. In fact, many of the musicians I talked to were very interested in the possibilities. It was a good evening. 

Earlier in the day, I had the opportunity to visit City Hall and observe the budget hearing for the Arts Council of New Orleans. After receiving funds from the city, The Arts Council acts as a granting organization, offering a rigorous grant application process to any interested arts organization. It's important to note that many of the organizations who had received grants from the Arts Council were in the room to support the need for funding, and many spoke to the great work that the grants from the Arts Council had made possible. In response to this plea not to decrease funding for the arts, there was practically warmth emanating from the City Council. There was so much resonance and recognition that the City Council expressed regarding the positive power the arts have within the life of an individual child and a community as a whole. It was noted that among cities with similar demographics, the New Orleans arts community is one of the least well funded. It was remarked that for a city that has an economy built on arts and tourism, to be one of the lowest public funders of the arts in comparison to similar cities is unexpected and unacceptable. A City Council member noted that New Orleans was once a national model for arts education. Specifically the arts and arts education curriculum at McDonogh 15, was one of the best in the country. One of my favorite quotes of the day came from the City Council Chair in regards to arts education: "We wrote the book! Now we need to go back and read it."

A common thread for all presenters was the Return On Investment (ROI) for the city. The areas that seemed to be brought up most were economic impact on tourism and job creation. There was also a lot of language used about the ability of the arts to address violence from the roots. Almost no one mentioned art for art's sake- there was always an extra layer of impact, whether it be economic, cultural, or social. That extra layer makes all the difference. What can music do for you? 

Questions of the day: 
Why does a government, local or otherwise, fund the arts? 
What assessments and outcomes are government interested in?

A Rebirth!

Today I met with a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, an individual with a passion for the arts in public education, and a veritable walking encyclopedia of the history of music and music education in New Orleans. We talked for almost three hours, taking an expedition through history, perspective, and experience that connected the current social/musical/educational landscape to the past. We discussed New Orleans being an excellent community for El Sistema to take root, due to Sistema's focus on need and the rich heritage of classical music in New Orleans. 

Wait a moment. I thought we had established that this city is built on jazz and marching bands... 
This was the first I had heard someone talking about New Orleans as a city of classical music, and I was excited. 

Usually when it comes to education, I'm against the idea of being 'filled' with knowledge- I much prefer to nurture an environment and a culture where the teacher and students discover knowledge together. This builds a sense of ownership and empowers future exploration/discovery outside of the classroom, hopefully imparting the understanding that they can learn within any community, from everyone they encounter. However, this morning I became a student-like sponge, listening and scribbling notes, absorbing everything I could. I learned that New Orleans was once a capital of classical music in the United States, starting with it being "America's first city of opera". NOLA was also home to a great classical string tradition, most notably in the black community. The Negro Philharmonic Society was founded in New Orleans well before the Civil War – The orchestra at one point had more than 100 performers. Racial hostility put an end to the Society prior to the Civil War, however the classical string tradition in the black community continued until the early 1990s. The classical tradition on a whole has been passed down for generations within New Orleans families. Parents had every child learn an instrument, not so that they would go into music, but because of the extra-muscial benefits studying music imparted. Not only was music access to a culture of discipline and accomplishment, but music was the opportunity for social connection and growth. Alvin Batiste, Kidd Jordan, and their contemporaries grew up sharing ideas, debating, and discussing around rehearsal times. Music was the forum for intellectual and social growth. And though known primarily as jazz musicians, the afore mentioned players and many of their contemporaries wrote for the orchestra. 

There is a glowing classical music connection through history in New Orleans, but it has dimmed recently. How can we rekindle that light? If Sistema were to grow in New Orleans, the classical music that we would hear from the youth in underserved communities would not be a new sound, but a rebirth! 

A New Orleans Renaissance. 

Questions of the day: 
Can music provide connection to the past? 
How does music reflect the present? 
Can music be used to shape the future?  

Monday, November 7, 2011

Picture Day

I started this morning with mocha and a meeting with a musician born and bred here in New Orleans. He shared his perspective on growing up in this community and the role music has played for him throughout his life, particularly in light of post-Katrina regrowth- more on that in a later post. I then spent time with two orchestras. The first orchestra was the LPO- I had a meeting with some of their leadership regarding potential models of El Sistema programs in New Orleans and their view on how it could fit into/contribute to the already rich and complex cultural/social landscape of the city. The second orchestra was Youth Orchestra of the Lower 9th Ward, a budding El Sistema inspired program already making strides to transform the lives of youth in their community. It was a very good day. 

I've been taking pictures and videos of my adventures in the city, and I haven't really been sharing. I really do want to though, so I'm posting a few below- but first...

Questions of the day:
How does a child learn to listen? to learn the value of listening? 

At Silence is Violence 

The Katrina watermark on a local Starbucks

At Jackson Sq. in the French Quarter 

A crawfish boil - have you ever had one?

The clubs, bars, and streets are FILLED with jazz performers. Notice the drummer. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Extraordinary Moments

There is a phenomenal sense of community in New Orleans. Though the city's communal identity is a fluid one, there are definitely some very recognizable cultural anchors. We've talked about the cultural mores of architecture, food, and music – Last night, though, I had the opportunity to witness the social ripple from another cultural anchor: Sports. 

The jazz club I was at last evening, Irving Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse, had a great atmosphere - chill, relaxed, and the focus was on the music. Jazz is not background here. The group that was performing was the Shannon Powell Trio with Shannon Powell on drums, Evan Christopher on clarinet and sax, and Matt Lemmler on piano. The playing was tight, the solos innovative and invigorating, and the engagement between the players and the audience was electric. The second set was just starting to take off when a young lady walks through the door to the club and announces "The Tigers won!" - immediately, Evan Christopher goes into an impromptu riff on the LSU fight song. The band joins in, and they each take solos, with Shannon Powell chanting 'hold that tiger' throughout. There is so much I loved about that moment- two different anchors of New Orleans culture, jazz and sports, combining at the highest levels for an experience of community, spontaneity, joy, and sheer musical brilliance. It was breathtaking. 

The essential repertoire list for any El Sistema program in New Orleans continues to both grow and sharpen in my mind. I've discovered this music at street parades and jazz clubs, in atmospheres of celebration and joy. The music that the children will play will not only connect them to each other, but it will serve as a bridge to the greater community of New Orleans, to both past and present, as they, themselves create their future. 

Questions of the day:
How can an orchestra access cultural anchors outside of music?
How would an orchestra become a cultural anchor for a community? 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Geaux Tigers!

I just came back from a phenomenal evening. Starting with dinner at Upperline, a colossus in  New Orleans cuisine, and finishing the day  at Irving Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse. And the Tigers won. Geaux Tigers!

I've had many great moments throughout my journeys in New Orleans thus far, but I had a truly defining moment today. I sat down to lunch with the director of a local charter school's k-5 school string program- currently, a very rare sight in the musical/educational landscape of the city. She shared with me that she is one of only 3 full time string teachers in public schools in NOLA. Full time is an understatement: she teaches 850 children k-5 violin and other strings throughout the course of a school year, giving them each initial training in technique, and directing them in ensembles. Understandably, due to the enormous number of students that she teaches, the touch is very limited, and ultimately she gets about 4.5 weeks of 20 minutes/day/student for the whole school year. There is an after-school string orchestra for the advanced students once a week, but that is the only additional time. So, though all the students are exposed to violin, very few receive depth. This amazing woman has been buried in the constant grind of teaching new, young students with no other staff and hasn't had time to look up in years; she said she felt isolated. She was grateful that I had sought her out, that we were sitting together, that I was listening.

 I shared with her the history of El Sistema and the 37 year growth of the program from 11 kids in a garage to 350,000+ young musicians all over Venezuela. I shared the vision of building a program where she might be able to have 2-3 hours a day, 4-5 days a week with her kids. Where the emphasis would be personal growth and communal understanding, accomplishment, and contribution SIMULTANEOUSLY with rigor and musical excellence.

I looked at her and said "You are NOT alone." and she began to cry.

"Is this real? The sounds you make are so beautiful, it seems like a fairy tale."

I pointed her towards a few resources and individuals that I hoped would be helpful in giving a sense of community and possibility.

Lorrie Heagy (AF '10) is building a similar elementary school violin and strings El Sistema program from the ground up in Juneau, Alaska and has a blog about the beginning of the journey:
and now the program has its own site:
David Malek (AF '10) and Rebecca Levi (AF '10)  have built an integrated charter school k-6 El Sistema program throughout the school day at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, MA.
And I suggested that she apply to be a member of the first class of the Longy School of Music and Bard College's Masters of Arts in Teaching in Music program, focused on El Sistema pedagogy:

I'm a composer. It is my profession to take day dreams and turn them into realty, and I take great joy in my work. All amazing realities were once day dreams, just twinkles in the eye, and perhaps visions shared over lunch on a beautiful day in New Orleans.

Questions of the day:
How do you nurture a community of educators?
What are the benefits received from studying an instrument for even a handful of weeks? What could be gained from the opportunity for more intensive study?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Cultural Resonance

What are the essential aspects of New Orleans? That is up for debate, of course, but I've been told many times that the foundation of the city's culture is built on architecture, food, and music.  

I was spending time with a New Orleans tourism professional, and he remarked that when people visit New Orleans, they feel like they've been transported to a different time, and have trouble identifying what makes them feel that depth of history. My tourism friend claims it's because of the architecture (I'm hoping to sit down with one of the architects of the Lower 9th ward, but that's for a future post). Coming most recently from Boston, another great architectural city, the buildings here can be both beautiful and bizarre, with the layers of history evident in space and structure.

The food is phenomenal, and there are places to tantalize your tastebuds around every corner. New Orleans cuisine has a rich history and some very distinct (and delicious) flavors: – Incidentally, Emeril Lagasse, who has three restaurants in NOLA, is a musician! He was accepted to NEC for classical percussion, and decided to pursue a culinary career instead. This place really caters to my need for spice- they know how to make it hot!

Almost anywhere you go in the city you can hear live music. New Orleans, in my mind, is one of the last true bastions of live musical performance- it's everywhere! And it's good. Whenever I can, I bask in it like a cat in a puddle of sunshine. Day to day here, when I introduce myself as a musician, I frequently get asked what group I play with. Or where I play. The ingrained assumption is that when I say musician, I mean jazz musician. When I respond that I'm a composer, that is typically satisfactory. Jazz has composers too. If asked what I play, I say I played French Horn through high school. That sometimes brings a puzzled look- French Horns are not common in Jazz, only used rarely in some big band arrangements. I explain further that I played in a marching band, and that brings a look of recognition and excitement. "Which one??" The marching culture here is huge, matched only by the omnipresence of jazz. High schools will support and fund band programs so that their school is represented in the many parades and festivals throughout the year. Students are proud to be a part of these ensembles because of the prestige it brings them. Serious marching bands have a similar structure to an El Sistema inspired program: many hours of rehearsal everyday, high expectations of musical excellence, a sense of being a valued contributing member of a community, and a proud group identity. And, similar to an orchestra, there is no limit to the number of children who can play together.
When I say 'a music program', people hear 'jazz' or 'marching band'. Very few people assume I mean an orchestra. If an El Sistema inspired program takes root here in New Orleans, its music must be relevant to the community that it's in and its performance practice must be culturally recognizable. The program will have to resonate with the community it is intertwined with. There is always some flexibility of repertoire in Sistema programs, and local musics and folk traditions are utilized and incorporated into the core classical canon. I feel that any program in New Orleans will have to have a particularly innovative flexibility of curriculum- How can the experience of performing and listening to Beethoven feel like the Marsalis family? How can performing in an orchestra have the same prestige, visibility, and excitement as a marching band? And, most importantly, can they play at Mardi Gras?

Questions of the day:
How does the classical tradition fit into New Orleans's cultural identity?
What are the benefits of resonating with a community's existing musical traditions?
What are the benefits of introducing children to a musical tradition that is different than what they are familiar with?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Achievement Gap

Almost 80% of all public schools in New Orleans are charter schools, either independently operated or run in a cluster by a Charter Management Organization (CMO). This leads to a decentralized system of public education, and an overall sense of free market competitiveness- in my mind, increasing the expectation of education for all involved- everyone runs faster in a race. The autonomy inherent in charter school structure, and their emphasis on innovative, targeted educational initiatives, have already lead to natural and successful partnerships with Sistema programs in the U.S. ( Due to the ubiquity of Charter schools in New Orleans, it seems to me that they could be excellent participants in this conversation, and potentially formidable collaborators.  I sat down for coffee today with a leader in one of the many CMOs which now dominate the public schools in city. We talked about many things, focusing in on what she felt the most urgent needs in the city were regarding education. She shared with me that children in New Orleans are typically two years behind the nation educationally, beginning at age 6. She noted that in order to play catch up, many principals in the city focus on basic academic skills, such as reading, above all else – some schools starting with a 90 minute block everyday of reading time and instruction. This urgent need to bring these children up to speed nationally leaves many programs with blinders on to anything regarded as extracurricular, eliminating P.E., arts, etc. in favor of maximum basic skill building time. 

Dare I say it? I believe we might have identified another need. 

In reference to yesterdays thoughts, there still exists the k-6 access gap in music education, which I now see is being weighted against the achievement gap in basic academic skills. Does addressing these two needs have to be at odds with each other? Is this really an 'or' issue? Is there a perspective and a potential structure which will allow it to be an 'and' issue? Could we address both needs together, and address them in such away that the children improve more in both areas of need

Questions of the day:
Would classroom time given to intensive, rigorous music education help children bridge the achievement gap in fundamental skill areas like reading and math? 
What could intensive, rigorous music education look like incorporated throughout a school day? 

Additional resources:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Who is wise?

"Who is wise? He who learns from all people"
-Pirkei Avot, Chapter 4, Mishna 1(b)

I came to New Orleans to listen and to observe, to attempt to understand what is currently so that I might eventually work with others to envision what might be. I entered this journey with the goal of building relationships based on inquiry, asking questions to fuel possibility and connections. Sometimes when you ask questions, you get more questions in return, and that iterative exploration can be exciting and enlightening. However, sometimes when you ask questions (a lot of questions), you get answers (a lot of answers). Sifting through all of the answers brings to mind the image of a gold miner, panning for gold. Here is one gleaming response I have heard over and over again:

There is a lot of music in New Orleans, but there is a K-6 access gap in music education. 

There is music EVERYWHERE here, and I love it. There is no lack of exposure to music in this city- it's ubiquitous. However, the first time many students have the opportunity to pick up an instrument is 6th grade, and for many, that opportunity doesn't present itself until high school. The students who get into advanced musical study programs such as NOCCA received a head-start because they had the means to seek out privately what isn't offered publicly. The children in underserved communities in New Orleans get to hear the music all the time, but they don't have the opportunity to participate in it – they are relegated to the audience. Universal access to early childhood music education for the sake of the music itself, is enough, but there is much more to be gained. These children who have access to musical study early on develop a sense of self-discipline necessary to master a skill, a control of self needed to practice everyday. In mastering a skill, they learn they have the power to set a goal for themselves and accomplish it. They learn the joy of accomplishment, so that they set their sights higher, because they have already learned what it feels like to succeed. They have felt what it means to develop themselves and then give back to their community, whether that be through a recital or through an ensemble performance. And, when the performance is over, they've received recognition for their contribution and accomplishment. These skills are transferred into every aspect of a child's life- strengthening and shaping their core abilities and how they interact with their world throughout their early years. The underserved youth who don't have access to musical education early due to lack of financial resources might be losing out on more than just a sparkling 6th grade band audition.

I say this tentatively, because I don't want the emphasis here to become anything other than questions, but I think that we may have identified a need. 

Questions of the day: 
What is gained through musical study in early childhood? Is anything gained other than music itself? 
for the child? for the family? for the community? 
What other opportunities/avenues exist for children to gain the extra-musical benefits of musical study?  

For those interested in further study, in the spirit of learning from everyone possible, I'm passing along a resource collection collated by my friend, colleague, and fellow Abreu Fellow David France:

Bibliographic References
Borzacchini, C. (2004). Venezuela bursting with orchestras. Caracas: Banco del Caribe.
Carroll, R.  (2007). "Chávez pours millions more into pioneering music scheme". The Guardian (London): Retrieved 8 September 2007.
Graves, J. (2005). Cultural Democracy:  The arts, the Community, and the Public Purpose. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Hetland, L. (2000) Learning to Make Music Enhances Spatial Reasoning . Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 34, No. 3/4   
Jackson, M. R. (2008).“Art and cultural participation at the heart of community life.” In J. Cherbo, R. A. Stewart, and M. Wyszomirski (eds.). Understanding the Arts and the Creative Sector in the United States. New Brunswick: Rutgers.
Webber, J. (2011) “El Sistema: When Music Cuts Crime and Saves Lives.” The Telegraph (London) Retrieved 13 October 2011.
Electronic references
Booth, Eric.  El Sistema’s Open Secrets.  2010.  Unpublished
Inter-American Development Bank (2007). Program to support the Center for Social Action through Music (VE-L1017). Washington, D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank.
Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (FESNOJIV) (2011). Website. Retrieved from:
Mora-Brito, Daniel.(2011)Between social harmony and political dissonance: the institutional and policy-based intricacies of the Venezuelan System of Children and Youth Orchestras.  Master’s Dissertation.  University of Texas at Austin
Documentaries and audiovisual materials
Arvelo, A. (2010) (Director). Dudamel. Let the Children Play [Documentary]. Caracas
Arvelo, A. (2006) (Director). Tocar y Luchar [Documentary]. Caracas: FESNOJIV, Explorart Films, CNAC and CONAC.
TED (2009). José Antonio Abreu on kids transformed by music. Acceptance speech of José Antonio Abreu (TED Prize) [Video]. New York: TED. Retrieved on April 27, 2011 from:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Silence is Violence

As of this afternoon, I have been in New Orleans for a week. It has been a week full of connections, music, community, and discovery- and it has felt like much longer than a week!

I woke up this morning to this headline: 

Shootings mar New Orleans Halloween revelry
By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS | Tue Nov 1, 2011 6:02pm EDT
(Reuters) - Violence marred Halloween night in New Orleans, with two men killed and more than a dozen wounded in five shootings, including in popular tourist areas in or near the city's famous French Quarter.
The shootings took place during Halloween night revelry that traditionally consumes Bourbon Street, a bar-lined French Quarter street renowned for its 24-hour party atmosphere, where one man was shot and killed.
Costumed revelers also typically stroll along neighboring Canal Street, a wide, business-lined boulevard that borders the French Quarter, where another fatal shooting took place.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu told a press conference on Tuesday that the city had an ongoing problem with violent crime.
"To the criminals: We're going to catch you," he said. "We're going to arrest you and bring you to justice."
Asked whether he was concerned about the impact on tourism, Landrieu said: "While I'm concerned about the image it portrays, I'm much more concerned about the kids and what it says about the culture of violence in the city."
The New Orleans murder rate was more than 10 times the national average in 2009, according to a report commissioned by the Bureau of Justice Assistance and released this year.
I met with an administrator in the UNO music department today and we discussed many things, including the shootings. The conversation eventually honed in on Mayor Mitch Landrieu's urgent desire to address the "culture of violence" in New Orleans. The Mayor implied that it was impossible to do this from the top down – more police were not the answer, it has to happen from the root. The administrator looked at me – "You are approaching New Orleans at the perfect time- you are the root!" If what you want to build is a social program in the guise of a youth orchestra, and that orchestra will help children from the very beginning to learn the value of community and self-control, then you are the root. El Sistema could be a way to shift the culture from the root. 
Appropriately, I visited a program today named 'Silence is Violence'. The program has many different community based components to address violence in the city – including peace clubs, peace walks, the Victims Allies Project, and music clinics. Music clinics to address violence. I loved being at this program – children from about 5 years old to youth in their teens were all being taught group lessons in piano, drums, trumpet, trombone, sax, and violin. These children had not known each other before beginning to come every week to receive these free lessons in a supportive environment, built to change the root, to prevent the culture of violence from ever taking hold. 
Tomorrow is a beautiful day, and with these roots, the flowers will be beautiful too. 

Questions of the Day: 
What impacts a "culture of violence?" 
Can music affect violence in a community?