When Brian Kaufman and Larry Scripp invited me to deliver a keynote at the Reframing El Sistema conference, I was deeply honoured, but I’d also been to far too many symposia that resembled a dog and pony show more than a platform for serious discourse – this coming from someone who was frequently positioned as a pony. Thankfully Brian and Larry felt the same way, because they intended to organize and deliver something considerably different in Baltimore. Discourse would be built into the conference structure, ideas would be directly challenged in situ, and my personal mandate was nothing less than a live demonstration of the orchestral/ensemble social learning techniques I’d been working on and advocating for the last six years. The brief was to put my money where my mouth is, run the risk of failure in front of an audience of leading music educators and thinkers, and be willing to be critiqued on the spot.
This would require an orchestra, of course, but full credit to Brian who pulled together students from UMBC and found travel funding for students from UNC Charlotte to form an ensemble. This group met for its first and last time ever at my session onstage in UMBC’s lovely performance hall (pictured above) where the musicians collectively sightread their way through some very sophisticated, professional-level repertoire.
At heart, what I did was very simple. I didn’t teach the musicians anything, but they clearly learned. I didn’t even conduct much, just giving an upbeat here and there to start them, but then dropped out and let them play. I limited my involvement to structuring the rehearsal to focus their ears on a particular problem, trusting that they would apply their own instincts and creativity to solve it. And they did, every single time, exactly on schedule.
And that’s it. I never told them how to play anything, at any point, and yet they progressed extremely quickly through very challenging repertoire, from barely holding a piece together to making beautifully balanced, rhythmically precise music. It might have been too successful: a colleague in the audience told me that the people around her started murmuring that this had to have been pre-planned and pre-rehearsed. Sorry to disappoint the conspiracy theorists, but every single person who was on that stage will testify that this was as “seat-of-the-pants” as it gets. They did so well that I pushed them far beyond where I planned, all the way to one of the most challenging elements, that of coordinating a downbeat with eyes closed. Supremely challenging, but only in theory. The only real challenge here is accepting that such a feat is possible, and in the space of 4 minutes, their ears having been opened to the idea through some carefully planned steps at the start of the session, the musicians did it. Then came the audience pushback.
“That’s not the point of a conductor”
Two of the three chosen respondents found much of value in what I was doing – unsurprisingly, the two trained music educators. A rather dismissive and extremely defensive note was sounded by the remaining respondent, the only conductor, who after damning the orchestra’s extraordinary effort with faint praise, stated his belief that it was an essential part of his role as a conductor to insert what he described as an “extra bit of electricity” into the music. This is a very traditional, “teaching artist” perspective, and although I think it can and should be true in performance, conceptually it’s something that makes me very uncomfortable when applied to the rehearsal or educational processes, especially in programs with a social mandate. In The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, author Eric Booth cites what he acknowledges is “made up statistic” that “80% of what you teach is who you are.” I see no reason to contest his number. But when we think critically about this statement and apply Booth’s ratio to Sistema in a logic model, the result can be extremely unsettling.
Children + 20% music + 80% MEEEEEEE! = social change
This is my problem with the whole “teaching artist” thing. I’ve never been accused of being a humble person, but even I would balk at the suggestion that contact with me is the recipe for the social development of my students. If the “social” really is the point, then the collective processes of music making through the peer group should provide that, not the “extra bit of electricity” that only someone as purportedly wonderful and dynamic and brilliant as the teacher/conductor can supply. This is precisely why I taught nothing on that stage in Baltimore. I simply facilitated a process and structured the environment around the students so they could learn entirely from each other. Were we to perform I’d stand in front of them and do my best to inspire them artistically, but I would also save that 80% of me for the final 5% stretch. Maybe it’s because I’m not a humble person, but sufficiently secure and confident in my methods that I’m willing to take myself out of the equation. We have to live the mission, and to posit our own centrality in practice as much as in title is to reinforce the prevailing anti-social qualities of the music-making experience.
There was someone 10 feet behind the conductor commentator at the back of the first violin section who later offered a contrasting, and extremely appreciative perspective. That person was Dr. Airi Yoshioka, the violin faculty member for UMBC who very graciously and unexpectedly played in the session. Dr. Yoshioka previously was a member of the New York Philharmonic and the famous conductorless group, Orpheus Ensemble. With those two very different orchestral experiences behind her, she understood immediately and respected what it was I was trying to do. There can be a vast gulf between the experience of the leader and that of the “led”, and I’m happy so informed and experienced a member of the latter responded so positively.
”It worked for THOSE kids, but it would never work for MY kids”
Really? Try it. I hear this one a lot, but I’ve been using these techniques for years now with children as young as 6. Usually the 6 year olds aren’t performing Mozart Symphony No. 38 (First movement, start of the Allegro), or Villa-Lobos (Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, arr. Krance) with mixed meters. In Baltimore I picked very hard, very sophisticated repertoire precisely because we were working with university students, not beginners. Whether it’s Mozart or Hot Cross Buns the concepts are identical.
”You’re still telling them when to start and stop”
Yes. Paolo Freire in his prescience warned of conflating authority with authoritarianism. My role as facilitator is to use my specialized knowledge and experience to allow the musicians’ voices to come forth, and that requires proper stewardship of the activities on stage. What is missed by this criticism is the fact that I managed process only, not the product, leaving the latter to the musicians entirely.
”It wasn’t democratic because you didn’t ask the students anything”
It’s true, I didn’t ask the students to provide any verbal input. But we’re not there to talk, we’re there to make music. The concept of the participant voice, and how we define democratization, is one of the most complex issues in practice in education, not just social action through music, and I’ll address it more thoroughly in the next blog since it seems to have been a recurring criticism of and within this conference, fairly or unfairly. In the interim, I’d like to offer a thought. Perhaps the entire point of social action through music is to express the participant voice in other ways than through speech.