Tuesday, May 6, 2014

El Sistema USA East Coast Seminario

I have mentioned in a couple of settings lately that I was pleased to be part of the El Sistema USA East Coast Seminario on the weekend of May 3.  I thought it would be appropriate just to say a few words here about the event and the impact that these programs are having in the lives of so many children.

The East Coast Seminario is a gathering of students and teachers from El Sistema USA programs up and down the East Coast of the United States.  The event was hosted by KidZNotes in Durham and included programs based in Miami, North Palm Beach, Atlanta, Newport News, Durham, Raleigh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Lehigh Valley PA, and Connecticut.  There were around 200 students involved. They spent the weekend rehearsing and getting to know each other as musical colleagues and friends.  El Sistema USA is, at its core, a social change program.  Classical orchestral music is the vehicle for that social change and opportunity.

The event was simply awesome.  Many times throughout the weekend I found myself profoundly moved by various little things.  I know that in many ways, I am a musician as a result of the amazing social experiences that I had as a kid with classical music as the driver for the experience.  I loved going to District, Regional, and All State Orchestra.  I loved summer music camp at Edinboro University of PA and Westminster Highlands.  I couldn't wait for the Indiana HS/Holidaysburg HS Orchestra exchanges.  I loved the Indiana Youth  Orchestra, lessons with Mrs. Johnson, and IUP symphony rehearsals.  All of these great musical and social experiences shaped me.  At the East Coast Seminario, I could see this happening for all the kids that were there.  There were smiles, laughter, games, running, jumping, wonderful meals spent together, practicing, rehearsing, jamming, and beautiful music that was being made by all the students.  There was, in a nutshell, a flurry of interaction, learning, and expressing.  It was awesome.

I was also stuck by the instructors.  First, I am reminded almost daily that I am not getting any younger.  These programs are all being run by an impressive set of young adults.  (I am proud to say that two of the organizations are being led by former students of mine, Calida Jones for Bravo Waterbury, CT and Katie Wyatt for Kidznotes in Durham.)  I was certainly struck throughout the weekend that these folks who are leading all of the organizations that were in attendance have so much going for them.  They are passionate young musicians, educators, and humanitarians.  They work unbelievable hours and have a true sense of mission in their work.  They live the program.  I have always said that music education is a mission.  The El Sistema USA programs take that concept to a new and different level.  These programs give kids love, hope, and a sense of the greater good.  How fortunate are the kids that are in their charge and their families.

These programs are really mostly in their infancy.  They are a few years old and still working to gain and keep their financial footing.  Through El Sistema USA, lives are being changed.  In encourage you to consider donating either your time or money to one of these programs.  They are headed in the right direction and you will be blessed by supporting this fine cause.



Last weekend, I was privileged to conduct for the El Sistema USA East Coast Seminario.  This was a gathering of students and teachers from El Sistema USA programs up and down the East Coast of the United States and featured students from Miami, North Palm Beach, Atlanta, Newport News, Durham, Raleigh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Lehigh Valley PA, and Connecticut.  Kidznotes in Durham served as the host and I did a bit of conducting and rehearsing with the large group as part of the weekend.

At one point, I was speaking with a couple of the instructors and was asked about my priorities in rehearsal when working with a group of students that are just coming together for the first time in a festival setting like this.  I thought it was a great question and it provided me the challenge of distilling my thoughts  into a brief conversation.  I  thought I would share my thoughts here as well.

My first priority, in any short term festival setting, it to establish the necessity for young musicians to visually communicate with me.  What I am saying, in a nutshell, is that I want them to watch the conductor!   This in turn, provides me the opportunity to visually communicate with them throughout the festival and, hopefully, for them to go home with a new found appreciation for the skill of visual communication in the ensemble.  It might sound surprising, but most young musicians need to more fully develop this skill.  Our human nature is to look at the written page.  In orchestral music, that is just the first step.  Players must know the music well enough to lift their eyes and attention to the conductor in order to receive valuable, imperative information.  They also need to know when  to look to the conductor.  It is not always during difficult passages or changes in tempo.  I ask students to establish visual contact during static moments in the music as well;  to look to the conductor for pulse during repeated rhythmic sections, for style and phrasing during sustained passages, for information during rests.  And, when a conductor knows that his musicians are looking for information, he/she will usually give more information in turn.

I must also add that for me, it goes a bit deeper than this.  If students are looking to me for information, I can also establish a visual relationship with them.  I can smile at them.  I can acknowledge their active participation.  I can "make friends" without ever saying a word.  This, to me, is so important as a vital part of music-making.  It is so relational in every way and in a festival setting I can't always speak with every student before or between rehearsals.  So, those smiles, affirmations, and acknowledgements go a long way.

My other priority that must be established is the need for a complete understanding and commitment to the various roles of each voice of the ensemble throughout every moment of music to be performed.  In other words, students much have a strong understanding of who has melodic material, rhythmic material, harmonic material, obbligato lines.  I often refer to this as the  teacher/student relationship.  In other words, in any passage, some voice has to play the role of teacher.  That voice is the one that is giving information that the others need in order to play accurately, musically, or expressively.  That may include rhythmic material or melodic material.  Regardless, the others are learning something vital from that voice.  The others, then, are the students.  They are learning from the teacher voice.  And, they are, in turn, responding to that information appropriately.  It is essentially a chamber music concept in large ensemble performance.  Too many conductors simply instruct young musicians  to "watch the stick."  That directive, in my opinion, falls way short.  Do they need to watch the stick? For that answer, refer to the previous paragraph.  But, in addition, real music-making involves listening to all of the voices and reacting to not only the visual information that the conductor is giving, but also the sonic information that the musicians are continually receiving from each other.

For me, both of these values must be established early in the rehearsal process in order to develop a musical and expressive ensemble.  I believe that students of all ages and playing levels can be instructed in these concepts.

In the end, it boils down to communication.  Music making is communication at many levels: conductor to player, player to conductor, player to player, voice to voice,  ensemble to audience, audience to ensemble.  If we establish and affirm clear tools of communication for our ensembles early in the rehearsals process, everything works at a much higher level.

I hope that these thoughts are helpful.  It has been interesting for me to consider and articulate my thoughts on this topic.

As we move into the spring concert season and summer, I wish you all the best.