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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dancing the Tango

As PMP enters its third year and opens a new site, it’s humbling to look back at our growth and transformation since the pilot program in January 2013. Our little program at the Community Charter School of Paterson (CCSP) has grown and grown quickly.  We are now embarking upon a new adventure, forging a relationship with the Public Schools of Paterson and opening a second site at School 1.  Our two sites are very different.  One is brand new and still forming an identity and routine.  The other is more established, full of character and energy.

The new site at School 1 opened two weeks ago.  35 expectant third to fifth graders entered the music classroom after school intrigued by what the program would offer.  They quickly chose instruments (violin, viola, or cello) and were measured for their size.  The students were quiet and cooperative the first week.  On Thursday, when we had our first day of Pre-Orchestra, 40 first and second graders energetically piled into the cafeteria, enthusiastically awaiting their new music program.  These students are in a preparatory program that only meets once a week.  All students quickly learned the signal for quiet (P-M-P!), the rules of the program, and the names of the teachers.  As the novelty of the program wears off, they will begin the hard process of learning their instruments and musical skills.  They are at square one, building their skills and community from the bottom up. They will experience what some people call the “grind” or the “burn” which will last quite a while before they can finally experience “the beauty”.

The new site mirrors the old site, in that the students are all part of this something bigger- this large vision of what we call PMP.  At the Charter School (the old site), “the beauty” has certainly unfolded.  At CCSP, we are like family with a clear sense of identity and pride, humming and buzzing with energy and music every day.  This is demonstrated when our students have snack together and sit “family style”, passing the napkins and juice around the table, breaking into the song “We are Family”. It can also be seen while they are playing charades on the bus home from a long performance, shouting and giggling and laughing uncontrollably.  The students most strongly radiate their passion and community while performing Twinkle Tango, which is our go-to PMP anthem.  In the last variation of Twinkle Tango, students never tire of dancing, playing, and drumming to the rhythm "Dance-the Tango" before shouting a final "Ole!"  Twinkle Tango seems to get more and more raucous and fun every time we play it.

As PMP grows into a city-wide initiative and reaches more students, I hope that we can continue to produce that special and sincere atmosphere of passion, energy, and community.  As we grow, we reflect, evaluate, and refine, keeping our core values close at hand to help navigate our path.  It will take time and hard work to make the new site look like CCSP, but it will surely develop its own rhythm and beauty as it progresses. There is lots of hard work to be done and challenges to face as we strive for such high musical and social goals across both sites, but whenever we get a little lost or need some motivation, we just “Dance-the-Tango” and remember why we are here.

PMP Students shouting "Ole" at the end of Twinkle Tango at their performance with the NJ El Sistema Alliance in Philadelphia on Martin Luther King Day.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Last Day

Today was the last day of the conference.  It went by all too fast, but I think we are all going home not only energized but also with practical ideas and solutions for our respective programs.

The final event of the conference was a performance by a few of the delegates for the students of Raploch as a thank you for sharing their time. This was the most fun-filled, interactive concert I have ever seen put together in an hour. A strange mix of violins, a clarinet, 2 tubas, some trumpets, cellos, various percussion and piano played all kinds of music from rock to Scottish folk tunes to tarantellas. Students were clapping and moving along – all the while staying seated in their rows. Between ensemble pieces, several delegates from different countries lead all of the students in singing different folk tunes or songs that represented their nations. The most amazing thing to me was how responsive the students were – and they were mostly under 8 years old! They performed dynamics on command with a single “shh” and were singing in different languages after hearing them for the first time. This was a perfect send-off for an El Sistema conference, musicians from all over the world, young students, and other members of the community coming together for a great session of music making.

The bittersweet goodbyes started even before the conference ended. During the final guest speakers’ presentations, the Swedish team had to catch their flight. Throughout the week the Swedish delegates had been incredible (there were about 30 of them!) – filling our down time with music, constantly leading sing-alongs and dances. They were kind enough to share their anthem with us, a song written by their very own Malin Aghed. Many of us have spent the entire conference with this song stuck in our heads, humming it at breakfast or walking down the streets of Raploch doing the hand motions. As the Swedes walked out the conference door, we couldn’t help but sing their anthem back to them and the overwhelming feeling in the room was one of saying goodbye to a dear friend. The impromptu singing send-off of the Sistema Sweden team was a sign of respect and admiration for the strength and innovation of their program.  We all have come away with a greater appreciation and respect for each other’s work.  We may have even  come away with a little more tolerance for the work we each have ahead of us and pride in what we’ve already accomplished. As Jesús Marín cited in his closing remarks, Scotland is leading the way globally in what a Sistema program should look like and we can all take notes from their hard work and progress.  He says that Venezuela will adopt Scotland’s tradition of “Take a Musician Home for Tea”, except it’s sure to be coffee and not tea in Venezuela!

A map with pushpins showing where all of the delegates came from.

The final concert presented by delegates for the students.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Conference Themes

We’ve all been purely saturated with information these past few days, however, a few themes keep popping up across sessions and conversations, much of which, I find relevant to Paterson Music Project and I imagine would be pertinent to any program.

Identity, Vision, and Values
The first is having a well-thought out, clear, and defined vision for your program.   In a session called, “Building an Inclusive Program”, Big Noise Director of Music, Francis Cummings, discussed the importance of having clear identity, vision and values.  Big Noise in Scotland spent six months planning, talking, and soul searching before teaching a single student.  They use their clear vision (creating social change, community transformation, and creating an orchestra) as the foundation for all the work, projects, and expansion they do.  They spent time to answer questions about what they were seeking to do and what was important to them.  Without these questions having been completely hashed out, there is nothing concrete guiding your work.

Inspired Teaching Artists
That well defined identity, vision, and set of values needs to be shared with the teachers! Teachers absolutely need to be on board!  They are the ones carrying out this vision and actually doing the work with the children! If we are not completely sure of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, working in an El Sistema program can turn into a drag.  I think that teachers need to be inspired!  Teachers need to talk to other teachers and see other programs.  We need to know what other incredible things are going on around the world and how limitless our possibilities are.  Today I saw a video of at least 500 children on stage of all levels (and I mean ALL levels) playing Beethoven 9 with choir and orchestra side by side with professional musicians in Sweden.  My jaw was on the floor. I had never seen so many people on one stage of such diverse ages and abilities making such powerful and moving music.  I had no idea that that was possible!  I’m already planning now for how our students at PMP are going to do that very same thing with 500 people in a few years.J  Teachers need to be on board not only with the vision, but also with the approach and delivery of that vision.  This permeates into the curriculum and daily interactions with students.

Actively Engage Parents and Communities
Abreu says that 50% of El Sistema is the families.  Well, if that’s the case, we have a lot of work to do! In our program we engage our community, but in a very passive way. We are always thinking of ways to engage the students more, but their family support is just as important to their success. In Scotland, Big Noise used their six months of prep time to engage their community by playing concerts, holding meetings and knocking on doors! They made a point of making sure there was a strong connection between Big Noise and their community before they even began. For every new site they have opened so far, they have repeated the process because it has been so instrumental in building support and trust for the program. Big Noise also reaches out to the community by sending their musicians to students’ homes where students and their teachers can play together and perform for their families, something they call “Take a Musician Home for Tea”. In Sweden, their program was also started with meetings – that no one attended. They persisted in having meetings every week despite the lack of participation until they had 2, then 3, then 15, then 200 people attending these meetings! They now hold a weekly “Vänsday” – a social gathering of the students and families where they sing songs, eat good food, play games, have guest artists perform and much more! I was most impressed by Big Noise’s adult orchestra called “The Noise”. This orchestra consists of adults from the community, but mostly the parents and grandparents of the students that are already in Big Noise. These participants get to play in a full orchestra with their own set of repertoire and concerts. It was unbelievable fun and exciting to watch this adult orchestra rehearse! You could just see how much more invested these adults are in Big Noise because they understand the hard work and joy that goes into music making. We need to make sure our families have this understanding as well and feel like a part of our program – whether it’s by creating more opportunities for the community to participate in musical activities or just making sure that the voices of our families are heard.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to create a successful program, however, we have the advantage of sharing our experiences and learning from each other.  As noted by Malin Aghed, Director of El Sistema Sweden, it’s easy to hear an inspirational story recapped in 5 minutes and only see immediate success. “Wow, look at that program, they tried implementing a parent orchestra and suddenly all the parents were on board and it’s great!”…The reality is that each success story and inspirational story comes with painstaking work and slow transformation.  Each aspect of our program will grow and develop with each day of focused and intentional work.

The doorway to the music classrooms in Govanhill.

Two violin students performing for their class.

The Swedish team leading all of the delegates in an impromptu sing-along.

The Noise - Big Noise's adult orchestra. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Global Impact, Scope and Depth of El Sistema

Writing to you after having been at the International Sistema Teacher’s Conference for two whole days. We’ve experienced a healthy dose of rain, bagpipes and kilts (but have somehow still managed to avoid the haggis). This has been a jam-packed two days with an overwhelming amount of information, people, and inspiration. 

It’s interesting to note that at an international conference, each delegate comes with his or her own perspective of El Sistema. Each country has their own rules, laws, school systems, and culture, all which greatly impact what a program looks like. At one point we found ourselves in a deep discussion on how to deal with the issue of music often being the first thing cut in an academic world with delegates from India and Switzerland. Three people from three different countries on three different continents were all asking the same questions about their programs – how do we increase government and community support? How can we be inclusive and still maintain high musical standards? How can we communicate effectively with a team of teachers that have widely differing experiences and busy lives? It’s fascinating that the same problems are being brought up all over the world in completely different political, cultural, and social settings.

A delegate from Venezuela, Jesús Marín, talked about Abreu’s four principles for El Sistema; social inclusion, individual integrity, teamwork, and musical excellence.  Beyond the original model in Venezuela, Jesus cited that we are all writing our own chapter in this book we call El Sistema.  It is living, growing, and changing everyday.

The “El Sistema” of it all really hit us during today’s play along. Some of us delegates were lucky enough to play in Big Noise’s symphony orchestra rehearsal today. With all of the extra members, all parts were doubled, tripled or more! It reminded us of the Venezuelan orchestras that often look and sound twice as big as your typical orchestra. You might think that as professional musicians playing arrangements of “William Tell Overture” and the last movement of the “New World Symphony” with children, we were just treating the time as a way to observe rehearsal techniques. That was definitely not the case. When the conductors would stop to rehearse and had to tell the orchestra to quiet down, we all had slightly guilty looks on our faces – because we were the ones that couldn’t stop playing and talking! Looking around the room we could see that every single delegate was having just as much fun playing this music as they would in a professional orchestra with real parts. There was just so much energy and excitement in the room! Sometimes you forget the “El Sistema” when you are teaching and working the program everyday, but this play- along reminded us of why we buy into this philosophy and what we are all about – bringing joy to children through music.

Francis Cummings, Music Director of the El Sistema Scotland program, Big Noise, talked about how our work is challenging.  There is an overwhelming amount of need in the world.  Creating real change and impact takes time and devotion.  We are not only going for broad impact with ESI programs, but also for deep impact.  Francis mentioned a story about a woman who was on the beach and was standing in the midst of thousands of starfish that had washed up on the shore in a big storm.  The woman was chucking the starfish one by one back into the ocean.  The man asked her, “Why are you doing that?  It’s not going to make any difference, there are thousands of starfish washed up on shore and you’ll never get them all back into the sea. “ The woman slung one more starfish into the ocean and said, “It matters a lot to that one.” 

This story is meaningful and true when applied to teaching children.  Every child is in need of positive role models, community, love, opportunities, etc.  Sometimes it can feel frustrating or even pointless working and working to create something beautiful and meaningful for only a few students.  There are over 40,000 students in the Paterson Public School District and we have 75 in our program.  However, PMP is very meaningful to the students involved.  We will also continue to grow and reach more students in the coming years.

The impact that PMP has in Paterson is a drop in the bucket of the impact that El Sistema has globally.  I’ve learned about programs in Hungary that work with Gypsy families, programs from Austria and Switzerland collaborating to make music in Srebrenica, Bosnia, and students in Sweden meeting each Wednesday with family and teachers to sing songs and eat food as a community.  How humbling is the scope and depth of El Sistema across the world!

Students from Big Noise in percussion class

Big Noise String Ensemble

Traditional Ceilidh- Scottish Dances and live band with the conference delegates, students, and families from Big Noise.

Outside of the Community Center where Big Noise takes place each day after school
Raploch Community 

A photo from our tour of Raploch

Big Noise Symphony Orchestra Rehearsal

Monday, October 27, 2014

Leaving for Scotland

Shanna and I are headed off to the International Sistema Teacher’s Conference in Scotland to meet with delegates from El Sistema-inspired programs around the world.  We will be blogging from Scotland to report on what we learn at the sessions, the people we meet, and the things we see! 

I’m excited for what promises to be an inspiring week.  I am most looking forward to hearing different people’s perspectives, ideas, and experiences.  All the delegates at the conference are involved with ESI programs, but come from varying locations.  I have so many questions! What are the circumstances and contexts of ESI programs in other countries?  How do the programs differ?  How are they the same?  What are the students and families like?  What instruments are being played and what music is being taught?  What does this mean for Paterson Music Project? I imagine that despite initial differences, we will find much commonality in our goals, the students we work with, our struggles and triumphs. 

You don't always realize that you are part of a global movement while entrenched in the day-to-day tasks of running a music program.  However, this week, we get to bask in all things Sistema and spend time with like-minded, passionate, motivated, and devoted music educators and advocates.  More to come soon!

~ Liz

Liz and Shanna leaving from Newark Airport

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

PMP in The Ensemble

Check out this article written by our very own, Shanna Lin, Viola Teaching Artist and Curriculum Coordinator at Paterson Music Project (2nd page).  The Ensemble is a monthly newsletter for the U.S. & Canadian El Sistema Movement.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Paterson Music Project Film

PMP spent the weekend on set at the Paterson Art Factory, capturing footage of students, teachers, administrators, and parents in action!  PMP had the pleasure of working with Genevieve Castelino-Merchant from Chakra Media Group, based in Chatham NJ and Faroukh Mistry, Director of Photography, based in Los Angeles.  The two worked together to create a video for PMP’s upcoming Building Harmony Fundraising Breakfast. 

Genevieve has embraced this project with such enthusiasm and passion, exceeding our expectations in terms of commitment and artistry.  Her vision goes beyond creating just a video for the Building Harmony Breakfast.  She hopes to create a documentary about PMP which will follow the students and program for five years.  The footage captured from this September will be the first installation of the long term project. This project is an exciting opportunity for PMP to tell its story to a larger audience and to gain publicity and funding so that the program can continue for many years to come. 

The two days we spent on set this September were very special for the parents, teachers, and students.  Parents shared their personal stories and described the impact PMP has had on their children.  It was touching and emotional at times to hear how meaningful the program is to some of the families involved.  There were also plenty of joyful, fun, and even silly moments.  The PMP students basked in the opportunity to be on camera, play their instruments, get close ups with their teachers, dance and sing with the fog machine.  We are so grateful at PMP for this opportunity and look forward to premiering the film on November 21st at the Building Harmony Breakfast.