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: http://juneaumusicmatters.blogspot.com/
and now the program has its own site: http://www.jsd.k12.ak.us/~heagyl/ArtIsElementary/JAMM.html
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. http://conservatorylab.org/
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: http://www.longy.edu/mat/
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?