Creative Connections

April 7, 2014

The week of March 17, I participated in an annual project in Baltimore called Creative Connections. This weeklong performance project combines students from kindergarten to high school age, Peabody Conservatory students, graduates from the Guildhall School in London, and this year five Sistema Fellows from New England Conservatory, to create 45 minutes of brand new music together and perform it in a capstone concert. This year nearly 200 people participated in this project, 150 of them Baltimore Public School students. My experiences during this week are best described through connections I made with specific people.

One of the first people I met in Baltimore was an 11-year-old. When I met her, she shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and introduced herself as Ashanti, a violist. She asked my name, and I informed her that I, too, am a violist. We had an intelligent conversation about our families, our lives as musicians, and she showed me around the Prep division of Peabody, including a picture of Dan Trahey, the founder and director of OrchKids, with Michelle Obama and one of Ashanti’s classmates. Throughout the weekend, Ashanti continued to be my guide, introducing me to her classmates and teachers.

The next person who made a big impact on my week is Ayana. Ayana is a fifth-grade violinist in the Tchaikovsky String ensemble of OrchKids. One of the older students in the ensemble, she exhibited immense creativity at the outset. Throughout the week, I kept turning to her as a leader to come up with material, help shape it, and help her classmates learn it. (All the musical material, melodies, rhythms, etc. is generated by the students). She played beautiful solos in the concert. She also had a bit of an attitude. This was actually an issue permeating the entire ensemble; the students get frustrated with each other when they aren’t being productive, but their frustrations create more unproductive behavior. Throughout this project, however, I saw Ayana grow in her leadership with her peers, and become an example of productivity and creativity to her classmates.

Eliza is a fifth-year trumpet performance student at Peabody. This year was her second time participating in Creative Connections, and one thing she said to me really stuck out. When the week was over, she said, “I have to go back to regular music school now.” Implied in that statement are all the things she got from this experience that were lacking in her conservatory training: freedom of expression, creativity, learning by rote, teaching and interacting with young students, and even fun. Eliza was radiant during this week, and she confided in me that just before Creative Connections last year, she had been struggling with the repertoire for her recital and felt frustrated as a musician. She told me that the experience of this project saved her recital and reinvigorated her as a musician.

Ross is a percussionist, self-taught and most confident on drum set. He also plays some guitar, and has difficulty doing one thing for longer than 20 minutes or so. Some people might consider him to be spastic; he talks very fast and usually has pencils in his hair, and you will often find him moving around quite a lot when he’s not behind the drum set. He’s also nearly 40 and has a charming British accent. Ross sort of cheated; technically, to do this masters course in creative leadership at Guildhall, you are supposed to have an undergraduate degree in music. When Ross auditioned, no one asked, and he didn’t mention it, so he got into the course. Ross has also spent a great deal of time in South Africa where he went to boarding school, owned his own bar, and loves to cook. He and his colleagues from Guildhall play in a band together, and he teaches in the UK.

The connections I made in Baltimore, of which only a few are documented here, and the experience I had creating new music with nearly 200 other people of all ages and walks of life, has significantly changed how I view myself as a musician, educator, and advocate for social justice. I am energized and inspired to do more creative music-making, on a larger scale and with more people as I continue my career. I have a different outlook on young people, conservatory training, and musicians in general. Is experience has even changed some of the fundamental ways I teach beginning string technique, which you may read about in a later blog post. I am resolved to lead a revolution in conservatory level pedagogy, and to raise my standards for school-aged children even higher. The week I spent in Baltimore was a turning point in my life, and I will never be the same because of it. My fellow Fellows commented on how energized and happy I was during that week, and I realized that I found something for which I had no idea I had been searching.

La gente venezolana

December 6, 2013

Aubree Weiley, a fellow Fellow of this year’s class, hypothesized back in September that Venezuelans held a special “generosity” that characterized their success with El Sistema. Aubree could not have been more correct.
What I have experienced over the last three weeks, what has enchanted me most about my experience here in Venezuela, is not the mountains, or the amount of young children able to play extremely challenging music, or the special needs program and what it offers, or the food. And, mind you, all of these things are exceedingly enchanting. What has truly captured my heart in every corner of this country, from the hotel elevator at the Tamanaco to the conservatory in Barquisimeto to the núcleos with broken windows and no water is la gente venezolana, the Venezuelan people themselves.
Though I haven’t traveled much in my life, I’ve at least traveled enough (mostly just the eastern part of the United States) to have met a lot of different kinds of people. And in the Midwest, where I’m from, people are generally considered to be friendly, nice people, which I have mostly found to be a true generalization, racial issues notwithstanding. But nowhere I have been in my limited travels was I greeted with so much generosity, and moreover, genuine love. Now, I must say that my opinion is slightly skewed, because most Venezuelan people I have met are associated with El Sistema, and the núcleos are special slices of heaven within this tumultuous country. And that can be understood, considering the frustration and restlessness of the general population of the country because of recent (and maybe not so recent) political and economical climates. But I have experienced this same genuine openness from people unassociated with El Sistema, so I am inclined to believe that it is a cultural norm unparalleled in the communities I have visited in the States.
I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in the space of three weeks in my entire life. Not only have I had the opportunity to discover some things about myself, which I have written about previously, but I have constantly been met with overwhelmingly moving ideology, policy, generosity and curiosity. I have met students with an unquenchable thirst, insatiable hunger, remarkable passion for learning; I have come into contact with tireless teachers and núcleo directors who have made it their mission, in the strongest sense of the word, to share their love of music with as many youth as possible, in order to better their lives. They are not just violin teachers or conductors, they are friends, parents, counselors, caregivers, healers. This shouldn’t be a surprise; after all, I’ve felt the same way of many of my music teachers, and that is how we as artists often acquit ourselves with our students. But there is often a line that is understood not to be crossed, or blurred, between the personal life of that teacher and his or her student. The difference here is that there is no line because the teachers here give their whole lives to this mission. It consumes them, literally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. They give themselves wholly to this art, in making music, teaching music, and changing lives through music.
We as a fellowship have spoken at length about the difference between “replicating” El Sistema, which we have all agreed is impossible, and “adapting” El Sistema to the environments in which we hope to work. For me, though I find it somewhat unrealistic that we in the United States can adopt such a tireless and selfless attitude, I am in turn energized and inspired by the opportunity to make it happen.
Eduardo Mendez, the executive director of Fundación Musical, told our cohort yesterday morning that Dr. Abreu informed his first students, back in 1976, that their orchestra would tour the world. That they would become an example to the world, that their music would take over the country of Venezuela. At the time, they had no money, borrowed space, chairs and stands, and a small number of people involved in the orchestra. It seemed an impossible task, and a practical person might not have believed him. But he says everything with such conviction, as if it is the absolute truth, that people have little choice but to believe him. Today, no one can deny that he spoke the truth. If I can capture even a fraction of that conviction myself, along with my colleagues we will affect the change we wish to see in our country as well. Even if it takes 40 years, even if it takes 100, and I don’t live to see it. We will do it.

The view

November 19, 2013

Venezuela is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Here is the view from my hotel in Caracas:


And here in Barquisimeto:



Barquisimeto, Day 1

November 19, 2013

What makes you an artist?

The first day in Barquisimeto was hard for me. As we sat in a circle with our nucleo director and the ten of us, trying to figure out what interested us the most, it became clear to me that I could not articulate my musical identity. Not because of my Spanish language skills, which are passable at worst, but because I didn’t know what to call myself.
I have been struggling with a repetitive motion injury in my left arm for the last 6 years. Some times are worse than others; when I was at my undergrad in my junior year, right after gaining junior standing, the injury first manifested and I could not play viola for more than 15 minutes without pain. I did some physical therapy, but it was clear I would not play like I had been. During my masters program I played in a baroque ensemble, and didn’t have any problems. When I moved back to Chicago I played a little chamber music and some things in church, and I seemed fine. But after moving to Boston, my injury has reared its ugly head with more force than it has since I first became aware of it.
This brings me to the first part of my musical identity, as it is the first I ever claimed: Ayriole the violist. Can you call yourself a violist if you don’t play viola? The expectations of many musicians here would be hard to live up to since I haven’t played viola seriously for 5 years or more. How can I claim this as part of my identity? And how do I express this crisis in my limited Spanish? One of the wonderful things about Venezuela is that there is little distinction between a performer and a teacher; you are known here as being both equally. I can teach strings, but I can no longer perform. For me it is difficult to come to terms with this.
That brings me to the next piece of my musical self: Ayriole the composer. Or, Frosty the composer, as I have only introduced myself as Frosty here. ;-P
Because of my crazy schedule starting at the end of my time in Pittsburgh completing my masters, I have not written any music since I finished my solo percussion piece in April of 2012. How can I call myself a composer if I’m not writing music? And yes, I know it has only been 18 months, and many composers have gone longer without writing anything, but 18 months out of 6 years of studying as a composer is quite a large chunk. Is that still part of my musical identity? I have never claimed it as the only part; I have always seen myself as a performer, teacher and composer all at once. And perhaps without the inspiration that performing gives me, I am unable to usher the creative part of my musicianship to the surface.
Finally, there is Frosty the vocalist. Voice is the part of my musicality with the least amount of hangups; occasionally I get upset if I have a cold and my voice isn’t cooperating, but otherwise I have no problems as a performer. However, I have mentioned that performing, creating and teaching are not mutually exclusive for me, and I am the least comfortable teaching voice. I have taught private lessons and conducted choirs, but I still feel infantile in my development as a teacher of voice. And it is notoriously difficult to identify as a vocalist during this residency, based on conversations with previous Fellows and the experiences Aubree, Millie and I have had already. Can I be a vocalist if I’m not adept at teaching voice? In my world, the answer is usually no because of my love and high regard for teaching, and doing it well.
So what makes me an artist? A violist who can’t play, a composer who doesn’t write, a vocalist who’s not a teacher. In reality, I will have to sort out my neuroses on my own. I know conceptually that I have to be where I am as an artist, and accept the role I am able to play, but I haven’t yet been able to be comfortable in these three uncomfortable places. I’m afraid; frightened of admitting to a diminished career playing viola, frightened that without performing my inspiration cannot come forth, frightened of not meeting my high standards as a teacher. I find myself reminded of the Bene Gesserit litany from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I posed the question “What makes you an artist?” and in doing so, never really expected to come up with an answer. But for me, what makes me an artist must be my continued pursuit of myself as an artist. To keep at bay the obliteration that comes with my fears. Only I will remain. In whatever capacity I am as an artist, only I will remain. I must not fear.

Teaching and learning with Lorrie Heagy

November 19, 2013

I never want to teach elementary music in a public school again. I’ll just keep doing El Sistema after school, because that is the only thing that has been making me happy.

That’s what I thought when I left the elementary school where I worked in Chicago. I knew the administration there didn’t really work for me, but I thought my teaching wasn’t good either. Not for a public school setting, anyway. And not for kindergarteners.

Then I met Lorrie Heagy. The experiences we had this past week reaffirmed some of the things I had been taught through my teaching certification and during my time at the AUSL turn-around school where I had been teaching. I learned new strategies and how to better implement old ones. I learned that, no matter what age or what institution, I am a good teacher, and I can be a better teacher.


The first thing I learned from Lorrie (although I wasn’t aware I was learning it yet) was the idea of rituals. She taught us a lovely song right off the bat that facilitated complete participation called Bombela, after which we took a bow. In that few minutes, she established a ritual of beginning (and ending) our interactions with music making, and acknowledging our accomplishment with a bow. The importance of creating rituals so that students (and adults) know what to expect within the framework of your interactions is a phenomenal way to create a safe culture.

Breathing out

Lorrie had this wonderful way of recognizing when any group she was teaching needed a change. She recognized it in body language, behavior, fidgeting, and possibly many other observations I didn’t recognize myself. I loved the fact that her methods were apparent whether she was working with kindergarteners or the Sistema Fellows. And I didn’t feel like I was being treated like a child. I genuinely had fun and was constantly learning.
Whenever Lorrie noticed that her group needed a change, she implemented a way of giving their brains and bodies a break from taking in information. This she called “breathing out,” which I believe she picked up from her Waldorf training. The basic concept is that taking in information is like breathing in; if you are not given an opportunity to breathe out, eventually you will no longer be able to breathe in, and any information you are given beyond that point will become less effective, if it is effective at all. She did this in the form of music making, stretching, or just plain giving us a break. In the classroom and from a classroom management perspective, she made it into an activity that could strengthen a concept or prepare another, but that gave the children a change of scenery and asked them to use their brains or bodies in a different way.


You need to hear something correctly 7 times before performing it. This was one of the juicier bits of information gleaned from a week with Lorrie, and it was apparent even with skilled and trained musicians (the Sistema Fellows) that it was true. Lorrie reminded me that while knowing your endgame is important, it is just as important (if not more so) to know how to break it down into manageable chunks. I have a tendency to want to move too quickly, and it’s great to remember that while underestimating students is not best practice, it’s better to have smaller steps than to try to skip in order to get to the endgame. In the end, that only creates more problems. Not only did Lorrie demonstrate awesome scaffolding in some of her activities, she pointed out when she didn’t scaffold enough. Her constant reflection was, for me, the true test of her commitment to being (and staying) a phenomenal teacher.

My favorite moments

“Are you a little bit old?” said the kindergartener to Lorrie.
“Just brush it off.” – Julie Davis

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing things I had the opportunity to learn from Julie during this week as well. Her language with the children, her positive interactions with the staff at the school, her bravery in opening up her teaching and her classroom to critique by 12 people at once, and of course her “podium” were all great moments about the week.

I know how to hold a violin bow. I’ve been playing an upper string instrument for the last 15 years. But one of the best moments for me this week was the Fox story used as a motivator for learning bow hold.

“This must be a wonderful town-o.”