American Orchestra Forum
Chapter Two: Personal Stories
This chapter is about the personal stories that exist in the field of music. It has been proven time and again that the most valuable learning tool for a student is to feel a connection to their teacher, a connection that may have begun with circumstances but thrives because of mutual respect and similar interests. Every musician has felt this type of connection at some point in their musical lives, often with a teacher, but sometimes with the music itself.
Steven Winn describes the subject of this podcast:
“Intimate connections between a student and a teacher that, like a pebble in a pond, send waves radiating outward. Those waves, expanding and intersecting with many others, create an ocean of musical connections around the world. None of this happens without the right environment whether it’s the nurturing atmosphere of music school, the horizon-expanding realm of a youth orchestra, or a globe-spanning program like the celebrated El Sistema.”
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a product of Venezuela’s El Sistema program, describes what makes these connections meaningful in the South American countries where El Sistema fuses youth orchestras with social programs for disadvantaged youth:
“At the beginning, what you love is to play…this way really works for the children because it is an opportunity for the children to have access to beauty, and we don’t talk about that because maybe that is romantic, but to have access to beauty is something really important. This is what El Sistema does: it is bringing beauty to the children…People ask me if this works in Venezuela because it is a very special social condition, but it is not like that. Every community has their own needs of how to build a better future for children.”
El Sistema is a growing social movement in the United States as well. Though not funded by government in the way that the original El Sistema branches were, these newer programs have taken root in cities across the United States. One branch, directed by my friend and Curtis graduate Stanford Thompson, began in 2010 as a part of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, but has since expanded and taken on a life of its own as POP! – Play on Philly!
“Successful adults set goals. They have an understanding of what it takes to be patient and to take an overwhelming task and break it up into so many different pieces so they can accomplish it…You can’t teach it without putting together lots of little successes in life.”
What is hard, especially for students who have never experienced classical music or been given the opportunity to play an instrument, is setting a goal. Even more challenging is this process for a child who has never experienced beauty in their communities, their family dynamics, or their lives in general. Access to beauty should not be a romantic idea, but rather, it should be a concept developed by each community that centers around what behaviors, skills, and ideas make a person an asset and a role model in that community.
Stanford talks about the curiosity gap: “There are two points: the moment anyone becomes curious in something and then that second point when they realize what it takes to accomplish that goal.”
Ken Robinson talks about this gap in his book The Element by describing an experience he had meeting a drummer in a band. He described the conversation with the drummer saying that he told this drummer how impressed he was with his talent and that someday he, Ken, would like to be a drummer just like this performer. The musician said that, no, Ken really wouldn’t want to be a drummer, and Ken didn’t initially understand. It wasn’t until the musician explained to him that people who wanted to spend hours upon hours practicing in their rooms alone with only themselves and their instrument, choosing to do so instead of socializing with friends, enjoying leisure time, or experiencing countless other events in life would choose to do just that. However, many people just want that success without knowing the very hard work that is behind each successful musician. And what does possess a child to devote this time and both mental and physical effort toward the study of an instrument? Often, a personal connection.
Though I can’t completely remember the details, my personal connection had to do with my beloved PBS programming. I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street daily, and a particular episode featuring Itzhak Perlman playing the violin stood out to me. As a four year old, my desires and perceived needs weren’t always taken seriously by my parents, but after a year of nagging – that special type of whining that four year old girls perfect quickly in life – they found me a private teacher.
Amos Yang, assistant principal cellist San Francisco Symphony, said that he was supposed to study violin, but ran into a friend on the way to his first lesson at the San Francisco Conservatory’s youth division who asked if he wanted to play the cello. “I would not have become a musician had I not started on the cello,” he said because his personal connection to the cello was far greater, even as a young child, than that to the violin. Talk to any musician, no matter how accomplished, and they will have a story of being drawn to an instrument. I remember a pair of 6th grade students I taught during my first year as a public school educator — best friends — who played violin and viola. The violinist could not mask her disgust at the sound of the open C string of the viola, and the violist tried very hard not to show her displeasure when hearing any note played on her friend’s E string. For them, range and timbre attracted them to their instruments (which they both still play as high school students). Another friend of mine felt tortured by her weekly violin lessons, not because her older sister was also studying violin, but because she desperately wanted to sit down. As it turned out, fatigue brought her to her career as a professional cellist.
“Not all budding musicians are fortunate enough to have a teacher such as Irene Sharp or ready access to institutions like the San Francisco Conservatory or the San Francisco Youth Orchestra to nourish them…The Detroit-based Sphinx organization is trying to create currents in communities that have been traditionally underserved and underrepresented in classical music. While the numbers have increased, still only 4.2% of American orchestras are comprised of black and Latino players. Dedicated to increasing the participation of these groups in music schools, as professional musicians, and as classical music audiences, Sphinx has been active in some 200 schools nationwide, granted nearly $2 million in scholarships, and mounted hundreds of orchestra and chamber music performances heard life and on PBS. “
Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, Vice President and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization:
“The vast majority of the young people who we encounter and work with directly through our educational programming really come from a situation where music is not a commodity – it is not really a value – so in many cases…we work with communities where survival skills are perhaps more key to the development of these young people. Music is definitely considered a luxury and a foreign value…It takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking: how to speak to the family, how to convince them that staying in music is worth it. It does NOT necessarily guarantee you are going to become a concert violinist, but it does make you exposed to a discipline that is really essential to your personal development.”
Dworkin says that the common sentiment they find is that children came in and recognized that there are people like them that look like them that are their age and have common values, and what they have in common – regardless of background – is really music.
“I think developing that peer network and sense of community is probably one of the most essential, long-lasting values and factors for these young people getting involved.”
“While the idea of music and social justice working together is a relatively new one, more and more ensembles are embracing the idea… You saw a shift in the role that the orchestra was playing from that as primarily a deliverer of symphony concerts to a catalyst to bring the community together around a shared set of community goals.”
Dudamel described arriving at YOLA and seeing the children full of hope:
“They had these types of questions: ‘What is this about?’ ‘Why do I have this instrument here?’ ‘What will I do with this?’ ‘Can I build a life through this?’ ‘Can this give me something important for my future?’”
“None of this is magic, of course. It requires the long-term commitment and hard work of orchestras, community organizations, schools, parents, and children at a time when the arts remain under steady pressure.”
Mark Clague is an associate professor of Musicology at the University of Michigan School of Music where he serves as director of research and co-director of the American Music Institute. His current research project is to recover the expansive history of the United States’ national anthem:
“One of the fears I have is that now, with NCLB, so much of the effort about education is ‘are our schools getting the test scores that justify our funding?’ and with the arts it is really hard to test…Because it is difficult to measure this impact it is also easy that we can lose track of it, and that is the real danger.”