Thursday, December 2, 2010

Baltimore Deconstructed

A couple of weeks ago the Abreu Fellows went on a trip to Baltimore. We stayed at a lovely hostel at Peabody Conservatory and were hosted by the Baltimore Symphony's OrchKids program. We were invited guests brought in to teach and observe and this blog entry is about that experience. What is the  OrchKids program? It is an El Sistema inspired program running in West Baltimore. On their website it says they are "planting seeds for a bright future". They operate in an elementary school and offer after-school music instruction 5 days a week. They work in partnership with the school district, the symphony, and collaborate with the in-school music and band teachers.

I went to Baltimore not with a critical eye, but rather with a magnifying glass. Looking to observe and learn as much as I could, I found myself trying to identify the elements of El Sistema that were being applied successfully. After all, one of the recurring questions I hear from organizations interested in using the El Sistema model is "how can it be applied to our kids, our communities, we are not Venezuela". I was looking back at my notes from our session with Eric Booth from October and was reminded of two of the most important factors that define an El Sistema program:

#1. Fun
#2. Every Child is an Asset

I saw this in Baltimore. The kids are clearly having fun, they show up! All day in their classes they look forward to after-school when they get to play their instruments. And the system of equity that OrchKids uses is a simple structure that helps every child feel like an asset: equal inclusion! The performance we put together used the choir, the brass, the woodwinds, the strings, the bucket band, and even the pre-K and kindergarten students had their part. In our final performance we even gave the audience a part to play!

Another important element of El Sistema is the use of performances as a tool for teaching, which is why we didn't go to Baltimore for 5 days to observe, or just teach. We went to put together a performance. Yes, a performance! 10 Fellows, over 100 OrchKids, 5 days (dress rehearsal was on day 4!). This was the perfect example of music education happening on a stage.

The next point I would like to talk about is one that was highly debated amongst the Fellows: scaffolding. How do we build the steps towards accomplishments for the students to feel successful at every step? We had them play music we were sure they would be successful performing. This is education based on the pleasure system. Because we gave the kids music and parts they could master and do well in 4 days, their feelings of joy and satisfaction during and after the performance were very high.

In the end, our experience in Baltimore was one of great collaboration and unforgettable moments. We met great kids with "bright futures" and came back with a renewed sense of confidence.

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