#MusiciansAtWork is an opportunity to tell the stories of working musicians that may be getting left out of the main narrative. This is important because it provides a sense of normalcy for the vast majority of professionals in the music industry who do not see their careers publicly recognized, and who may be missing out on experiencing the empathy and support of peers who are encountering the same challenges and pursuing the same successes.
The first of this semester’s series of curated conversations featured El Sistema and its dramatic growth in Boston in recent years. It’s been a decade since El Sistema became a hot topic in the classical music world in Boston and beyond. Where are we now? Where are we headed?
On Monday evening, a diverse group gathered around the long conference table in the President’s Library to hear the experience of five musicians and educators who have been at the forefront of growing successful El Sistema-inspired programs. My thanks to Avi, Julie, David, Graciela, and Josue for being willing to share their inspirations, challenges, and advice.
I have selected several important strands of the conversation to document here and share:
1. “My job is much more than teaching music”
We talked about the challenge of finding and training musicians to become committed and excellent music educators (“unicorns”), often working in extremely challenging environments with young people who carry the stresses of trauma, poverty, racism, and other thorny societal issues. While musicians trained at conservatories as performers are not prepared for these situations—especially managing an entire classroom—they are finding employment in El Sistema-inspired programs because of El Sistema’s focus on artistic excellence as a pillar of its philosophy. In most cases, musicians get hired and then have to learn a variety of new skills and strategies on the job. This approach is most effective when the leadership of the program is able to instill a clear understanding of the mission of the organization. Fully “immersing” musicians in the program’s purpose and goals is an important determinant of the longevity of the professional musician in this work. This is important because it is clear that long-term relationships between teachers and students adds tremendous value and creates better outcomes.
It is possible that, at least for working with beginners, trained educators (not necessarily musicians) are a pragmatic option to further explore. Later, as students advance musically, teachers with more specific musical expertise become more important. As one program leader explained, “holding kids to high standards is extremely important and we shouldn’t give that up. But we need to consider what the kids need right now.”
2. Depth over breadth
Program leaders talked about the importance of learning to delegate as their programs grow and become more complex. It’s important to know your own limitations, and because leading a program requires so many different skills, it’s necessary to be willing to reach out to others for expertise that you do not possess. Prioritizing the investment in building a strong team of colleagues to share the burden of responsibility for the program’s success is key to long-term sustainability.
More than one local institutional funder recently encouraged an El Sistema-inspired program to focus on deepening its work, rather than attempting to expand its reach to serve additional students. While there is acknowledged pressure to serve as many children as possible, it is not necessarily a wise strategic choice because of the challenges that this creates for young organizations already stretched thin. Fortunately, sophisticated funders, such as the Massachusetts Cultural Council, understand that while the cost per student is high for El Sistema-inspired programs, the more important statistic is that the cost per student per hour is low. This focus on the intensity of a student’s participation is an essential quality of the educational experience, and is recognized as such.
3. “Happy teachers equals happy students”
There is concern about personal sustainability, both for those who are on the front lines in classrooms with kids and for those who are wearing multiple hats as program leaders. The work hours are long, and there is little opportunity to collaborate with others and feel supported by a larger community. The Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Klarman Family Foundation are looking to address this challenge through a new fellowship program that is serving fifty musician educators in its pilot year.
However, program leaders understand that the musician educators who are sticking it out are most often doing this work because they are responding to a powerful sense of purpose and personal fulfillment. This can go a long way in keeping them engaged, even in adverse conditions. If El Sistema-inspired programs can find ways to support these musicians to develop themselves professionally and build strong friendships and community, there is an increased incentive to make a longer commitment to the organization. And this provides dividends for the students as well. As one program leader explained, “happy teachers equals happy students.”
It is both exciting and ambitious to start something from scratch. Asked whether there is room in Boston for more musicians to be inspired to launch their own El Sistema-inspired initiatives, the consensus was that there is certainly plenty of community need yet to be met. However, before setting out on such a uniquely challenging career path, you must know the complex cultural and institutional landscape that already exists in Boston. The way to do this is through lots of exploratory conversations. Ideally, you will be able to find a niche by addressing something or somewhere that is currently neglected or outside of the reach of other programming.
Also, consider placing your energies in “intrapreneurship” rather than “entrepreneurship.” El Sistema-inspired program leaders are generally hungry for close collaborations with new colleagues who bring fresh passion and commitment. Attaching your idea to someone else’s existing idea can be an opportunity to express your personal ambitions while expanding the capacity that is already in place and benefiting from already-developed infrastructure. And you needn’t consider investigating this type of symbiotic relationship only with other arts-related programs. As an example, consider MyCincinnati, an El Sistema-inspired initiative in Ohio that is thriving because it is piggybacking on the infrastructure of a neighborhood community development corporation which provides office space, overhead resources, access to health insurance, nonprofit status for grant applications, and—perhaps most important—credibility inside and outside of its community.
Next #MusiciansAtWork event: Wednesday, February 8 featuring a conversation about the future plans of Boston-based Palaver Strings.
Photos generously provided by Alex Goodin.
Sharing student project documentation and, more recently, my own.