Monday, May 24, 2010

Week 28: Exploring Issues Facing Teaching-Artist Training

The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, Scotland

As part of my internship here at Big Noise, I was invited to present for the Scottish Arts Council and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) on current issues facing teaching artist training in the United States, my Abreu Fellowship and recent travels in Venezuela.

My presentation focused on the national projects and ideas that have inspired the work we do in Alaska, including the Minneapolis School District Arts for Academic Achievement program. This successful program has developed an Artful Teaching and Learning Handbook through the Perpich Center for Arts Education (downloadable for free) which provides resources to help build respectful communication and collaboration between teachers and artists. 

At Glacier Valley Elementary School in Juneau, Alaska, this handbook has bridged community artist with classroom teacher to help create more successful arts-integrated experiences for our students. Artists come away with more classroom management skills and developmentally appropriate practices, while classroom teachers learn arts techniques and creative approaches to integrating the arts into other disciplines. We've documented our work on our Art is Elementary website.

The following questions emerged from the discussions after each presentation: 
  1. What existing models are out there that support pedagogical/social skills for artists wishing to engage in community projects?
  2. What are the views of arts educators concerning training?  Do you think there is a need for this kind of training?
  3. What are the major issues that need to be addressed and how should such training be best delivered?
Also from these discussions, I learned that a challenge facing teaching artists in both the US and UK is having to combat the old adage, "Those who can, do and those who can't, teach." Are you less of an artist if you choose to share your art form with youth and the community?

In Venezuela, nothing could be further from the truth. Being a musician means being a teacher, which is encouraged from day one in the nucleo. If a student knows how to play four notes, then he or she can teach someone who only knows three notes. When asked, these teaching artists will tell you that teaching better informs their playing and performing better informs their teaching. It's a win-win situation that betters the individual and community. By the time they are teenagers, these skilled musicians are not only playing at a high level of musicianship, but also running sectionals, providing individual lessons and conducting younger orchestras. They are passionately committed to their art AND their community, which does not go unnoticed by the public.  For example, after performances at the nucleos, teachers are often called to the stage and recognized by the students and audience members who applaud like a sports team coming onto the field. It's amazing to watch.

Perhaps by taking on the Venezuelan approach, we can usher in a new adage: "Those who can, contribute to their community."

I would love to hear comments from others on the questions and thoughts posed above.  Please feel free to post a comment to continue the conversation.

Thank you, Joan Parr, Head of Education for the Scottish Arts Council, and Mary Troup, Community Music Co-ordinator of RSAMD, for organizing these presentations. The work that both of you are doing for community arts education in Scotland are forward-thinking and inspirational.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Weeks 25 & 26: Raploch, Scotland - Making Big Noise

Members of the incredible Big Noise staff in Raploch, Scotland

What an exciting time to be interning at Big Noise! This organization is gearing up for its 2nd Birthday Concert on June 6th and will be making even more noise next year when it expands its string orchestra to include brass, woodwind and percussion sections filled by older elementary students.

Since arriving here on May 10th, I have been impressed by the many ways in which Big Noise makes music accessible to all students. In partnership with FESNOJIV, Stirling Council, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Drake Music Scotland, Scottish Arts Council and three primary schools housed at the Raploch Community Center, Big Noise serves over 90 children between the ages of 6 and 10 through after-school orchestras and 100 nursery school children, 30 kindergartners and 30 children with special needs during the school day. They also began "The Noise" orchestra last summer for adults in the Raploch community. All of this occurs three days out of the week on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays where each child in the orchestra experiences full orchestra rehearsals, sectionals and individual lessons.

I have been learning so much, especially in the early childhood classes where Aimee, Helen, Jennifer and Ysla (in photo above holding a paper violin) help prepare these little ones for a successful transition into instrumental music. Jennifer has an early years certification in Colour Strings, which is a Kodaly-based method established in Finland 40 years ago that teaches musical concepts using colors and shapes. More and more schools in Scotland are adopting this system to help all students successfully transition to musical notation. Drake Music Scotland is piloting the project (called FigureNotes). I'm looking forward to learning more about this pedagogy through Jennifer's work with the strings.

Aimee plays cello to a spellbound toddler

Jennifer works with the Big Noise Orchestra, ages 6 - 10

Helen gives a private cello lesson

I would like to thank the entire Big Noise staff for being so welcoming! They have opened their classrooms and rehearsals to me, shared their practices and ideas and made me feel a part of the team. I'd also like to thank the Scottish Arts Council for funding my lodging at Auchyle Guest House, which is just a couple blocks from Big Noise and the Raploch Community Campus. Mandi and Tom, owners of this beautiful bed & breakfast, have treated me like family.

Mandi stands in front of her B&B: Auchyle Guest House

Here is a list of where the other fellows are interning:

Christine: Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA)
Dantes: Baltimore Symphony OrchKids
David: Verdugo Young Musicians Association
Jonathan: City Music Cleveland
Katie: Harmony Program
Rebecca: Renaissance Arts Academy
Stanford: YOURS Project

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Weeks 23 & 24: Composing Change - YOLA & the El Sistema Movement

Alvaro and I ready to start Composing Change in the US

I have just returned from an incredible symposium, Composing Change: YOLA and the El Sistema Movement, held in Los Angeles and hosted by the LA Phil in partnership with El Sistema USA and the League of American Orchestras. Thank you, Dan Berkowitz, Leni Boostin and Gretchen Nielsen for organizing such an inspiring program!

As part of the symposium, the Abreu Fellows shared our experiences in Venezuela, including this short movie that I made to document how a child as young as two years old might prepare for and progress through the orchestra in an El Sistema nucleo. Afterward, many people asked if they could use this film to share with their communities at home. So, here it is.  You can also access it on Youtube:  El Sistema:  Venezuela's Youth Progress through the Orchestra

Over 250 music educators, musicians and delegates from youth orchestras and organizations attended the symposium, representing 26 states (Hawaii and Alaska included) and 6 countries! It was an honor to be in attendance and be able to share the Abreu Fellows' insights from our combined visits to over 60 nucleos throughout Venezuela. My part of the presentation reiterated the impressions that I had shared with Dr. Abreu during our last week in Venezuela:

Continuity and Unified Vision:   At the nucleos where our team visited, there was always an orchestra or ensemble to meet each child at his or her musical level.  More importantly,  no gaps existed between one orchestra and the next, but rather a continuum of musical support from the baby classes all the way through adulthood, ensuring that no skills were lost in the interim.  Every teacher works toward a strong, unified vision.  For example, the early childhood teachers know how the skills they are teaching in their classes will manifest themselves in the kind of high level musicianship we see in the Simon Bolivar B Orchestra.  In the United States, we have so many different community and school musical experiences available to children.  We could benefit from the Venezuelan model by exploring ways to connect these offerings into one continuous conveyor belt of musical support, making sure our young musicians always have a place to "tocar y luchar" (play and strive).

 At La Rinconada Nucleo, a 2-year old practices steady beat

Trust in Our Youth and Culture of Sharing:  Rebecca and I had opportunities to give workshops to teachers in each Venezuelan state we visited.  Our last one was held in Caracas, on a Saturday morning for 4 hours.  We were amazed at how young the 40 participants were - many still teenagers or in their early twenties. When I asked, "Are all of these participants teachers?" the response from one teacher was, "Many of them are students becoming teachers" (see photo below). This is just one example of how El Sistema brings its youth into the fold and places trust in them as educators at an early age.  The doors to professional development are open to everyone, as well as the doors to classrooms, materials and teaching practices.  Every teacher gladly shared what they had with us wherever we went.  It was an overwhelming gesture that I hope we can foster in the states.  This culture of sharing and collaboration can only improve the musical experiences we provide for our children.

 Some of the young participants at the teacher training workshop in Caracas

Start Early and Place No Limits:  Josbel and the teachers at La Rinconada are responsible for creating the Paper Orchestra concept and are continually testing out new ideas so that children can successfully access music-making at a very young age.   They embody the words that Josbel shared with the Abreu Fellows during our first week in Caracas:  "There are no limits on our creativity as teachers."  When I think of teachers who approach their work as an art form, I think of the incredible teaching staff at La Rinconada.  An important message I will bring back with me to Juneau came from Israel who teaches violin at La Rinconada (photo below).  When I asked him what should people in the United States know about El Sistema, he said, "Never place limits on what a child can do.  He or she is a musician from the very start."  Before coming to Venezuela, I was so worried about being able to teach violin to an entire class of kindergartners,  but after seeing much younger classes with more children and a variety of instrumentation, I know it can and has been done.

Rebecca and I with some of the inspirational teachers at
Nucleo La Rinconada: Amilcar, Josbel, Veronica and Israel

My fellow colleague, Christine Witkowski, also addresses El Sistema's philosophy of starting early and placing no limits on a child in her posting entitled, 8-15 Year Olds Take on the Titans which recounts the rehearsals we saw of the National Children's Orchestra of Venezuela.  Very inspiring!  Muchas gracias El Sistema teachers, staff and students for giving me these incredible experiences to take back with me.

Tonight I leave for Scotland! That's right! Tomorrow I begin my one-month internship with Big Noise, an El Sistema-inspired program in the Raploch area of the city of Stirling supported by Sistema Scotland and the Scottish Arts Council. I am very excited to intern here because Big Noise partners with its local schools both during and after the school day, which is a model I plan to bring back to Juneau, Alaska. Thank you, Scottish Arts Council and the New England Conservatory for your financial support of this internship.