Friday, November 26, 2010

OrchKids as an El Sistema-Inspired Program: Accessibility, Intensity and Flexibility

At OrchKids, Andrea and I worked with a group of 17 brass players in preparation for our concert last Friday. What an outstanding group of kids! I saw so much talent, so much enthusiasm, and a strong desire to excel and to be praised. After only five days with them, I felt a strong attachment and it was difficult to leave. Music is giving these kids another way to think about themselves and about the world, and a framework through which they can make and achieve long-term goals. I learned so much, and was inspired in many ways by what I saw. My experience at OrchKids will influence me greatly as I make plans to build my own nucleo.

Two things that I respect about OrchKids: 1. they reach the kids with the greatest need for resources, and 2. they never turns away any kids for any other reason than the program being at capacity. OrchKids truly embodies accessibility.

OrchKids has achieved something miraculous. Kids play their instruments hours a day, Monday through Friday but it is never a chore. Playing their instruments is a privilege, and therefore kids aspire to do it as often as they can. This is the best and most natural way to create musical intensity within a nucleo.

Many OrchKids participants are confronted with unique obstacles in their life outside OrchKids. Emotional and behavior issues can sometimes make a child's participation in OrchKids difficult. Despite these challenging, no one is ever asked to leave the program permanently. An arrangement is worked out, always with the child's well-being in mind. This is commendable, because those who may be most likely to "cause trouble" or get kicked out, are often those who could most benefit from what OrchKids has to offer. This approach demonstrates complete flexibility in dealing with each child and their individual needs.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Last week the Abreu Fellows visited the OrchKids program in Baltimore. It was absolutely amazing! We worked with over 100 kids to prepare for a successful concert on Friday. Here are some things that stuck with me:

I have never seen such excitement over music.

When you ask a question, every hand shoots up in the air.

When behavior becomes a problem in the room, engage the kids in a musical activity and there will be complete focus.

The walls of Lockerman Bundy Elementary school are covered with colorful, beautiful murals.

Kids who have been in the program longer are role models for the younger kids.

Everyone is proud to be an OrchKid.

Across the street from the school is the abrupt end of the Highway to Nowhere, a short section of elevated highway. In the late 1970's this segment of highway was built as part of a project to connect I-70 with I-95, but was never finished. Houses were uprooted to build it, and the neighborhood was divided. Inside the school, laughter and music echo through the colorfully painted walls. Outside, the unfinished highway is a brutal reminder that this is a forgotten neighborhood. The OrchKids program is fighting against this powerful symbol of futility and neglect. Meeting these incredible kids, and seeing their connection to music, was an affirmation of the power of music as a vehicle for social change.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ideas about my Future Nucleo

As I start to move beyond dreaming about my perfect nucleo, and take practical steps toward planning it, I'm forced to think about what are actually reasonable goals. If I had unlimited resources, my nucleo would "have it all," but as that is not something that is likely to happen in my first year, I've started thinking about what would be truly important characteristics of my future nucleo, and what could possibly be expendable (without forgetting, of course, what I would do if I miraculously did have unlimited resources). There are two pieces of advice that I've heard many times over the past few weeks that I believe will help me in deciding how to realistically structure my nucleo. They are:

1. Start Small

2. Identify your Core Values

With that in mind, here are some preliminary thoughts about what my nucleo could possibly look like next year and in the future. These are ideas that will continue to evolve over the next few months.

In its pilot year, my program serves 25 underprivileged children who are living in the neighborhood surrounding the community center where we hold classes. There are classes Monday through Friday after school until 6pm, and the community center is seen as a safe and fun place where children are constantly engaged, learning and building relationships. Our teachers are our greatest strength. They are completely committed to the students. Working here is not a “job” for them, but a way of life. They take both their role as an artist and as a teacher very seriously, with the well-being and growth of their students as the first priority. Each student receives individual attention on his or her instrument, as well as a strong base in music literacy, taught in a fun but practical way. By playing in a string orchestra, instrument choir, and chamber music groups, students learn the importance of collaboration with others. There are frequent concerts given by the teachers, which are community events, attended by families, students and others in the neighborhood. The children also perform often, both formally and informally.

Ten years after the launch of our program, we have become a positive force for social change within our community, serving over 100 children. In our new location we have a beautiful performance space with frequent concerts given by our teachers, as well as visits from many guest artist who give masterclasses and performances. Our first “class” of students are just beginning to graduate high school, having been part of our organization for the past ten years, and all are starting some form of higher education or career. These students have become role models to the younger students, and the pride of their families and communities. We currently have a retention rate of over 90% for our students, even as we continue to target families with great need for support and resources. We have a very long waiting list. We are known throughout the city and hope to open two more locations next fall. Our students perform frequently throughout the city and surrounding areas. There are also frequent field trips with the students to see concerts.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bridging the Gap Between Dreaming and Doing

Uh oh, wake up call, it's time to start drafting a curriculum and a strategic plan for my future nucleo! Brainstorming and dreaming are easy, but I need to start thinking about how in the world I'm going to turn what's in my imagination into reality. Yes, my nucleo will be a real place, with real kids and real people working there. Yikes!

It's time to start thinking about the serious stuff: Is my nucleo going to be part of a university? Part of a charter school? Public school? Will it be a separate after-school program? Will there be a partnership with an orchestra? A chamber music group? How will I fund my nucleo? Who will I hire? What type of community will it be in? Who will the students be? Will they come to me or will I have to recruit? How old will they be? What resources can I offer? What instruments will be taught? Will there be chorus? Music literacy classes? How many hours a day? How many days a week? How many students? So many decisions to make!

I feel like I'm hanging out on one side of a chasm. On this side are all my dreams, wishes, hopes and aspirations for what I want to accomplish. On the other side is my nucleo and all the concrete steps I have to take in order to create it. I'm feeling pretty comfortable over here on this side, but I know that in order to start the planning process, I'm going to have to force myself to take one REALLY big step over to the other side.

Here I go.....