Jacob Adams

Violist • Teacher • Musicologist

Taking a Stand = Standing Together

Posted February 24, 2014

I have just returned from the El Sistema USA conference in Los Angeles, co-sponsored by the LA Phil, Bard College and the Longy School of Music. While there, I heard some fantastic speakers (Professor Robert Duke from UT-Austin was a particular standout), reacquainted with old friends, and met charismatic and impassioned teachers and administrators from other Sistema sites around the country. It is always exciting and inspiring to be in such a setting, in the shadow of Disney Hall where the Bolivars and the LA Phil were provoking rousing applause. (Full disclosure: I did not attend any of the Disney Hall concerts that were being offered during the conference – I chose to spend the money that might have gone to concert tickets on cocktails and dinner with friends. I didn’t feel guilty about that until writing this…)

I returned to Franklin Elementary – iCAN’s school site in Santa Barbara – on Sunday February 23 for a special opportunity. The ‘fellows’ of NEC’s Abreu Fellowship visited our site, having also been in LA for the conference. As it was a Sunday afternoon, only about 25 of iCAN’s regular 120 students could be persuaded to school on a sunny weekend afternoon. Between iCAN Teaching Artists and NEC Fellows, there was an incredible teacher-to-student ratio!

We had a wonderful afternoon – I worked alongside talented Fellows from Chicago and Germany with two iCAN third grade violists. In the course of about 90 minutes, each third grader composed and conducted their own original composition, which we performed for the whole group at the end of the day. Watching the students work past their initial anxiety and begin to imagine the possibilities of compositional creation was exciting to bear witness to – as is any moment when you witness the lightbulb going on in a student’s brain. But more than this, I was struck by the open collaboration between three teachers. The three of us had not met until a few hours prior, come from completely different geographic and ethnic backgrounds. We brought a wealth of diverse experiences and skill sets into the room, but no single teacher voice dominated. While no single teacher voice dominated, there was also no confusion about who was giving instruction at any given moment – everyone listened and shared with respect and consideration. Team-teaching this way has always felt like a form of improvisation to me – adding one more building block to what was just presented, saying “yes, and…” In this room on this Sunday, there was a comfortable give-and-take, an openness to experimentation and collaboration, that I believe is truly the key to creating successful Sistema teaching sites.

Sunday’s work felt a long way from Disney Hall’s bright lights and any media hype or trending topic. But creating these teaching spaces, these communal pedagogical laboratories, where teachers feel comfortable and open to give-and-take with other teaching voices (even if it means slightly straying from the lesson plan) is the key to the social transformation and artistic empowerment of the larger communities that Sistema programs are all striving for. If students are inundated into a teaching environment where such practices are the norm, the learning space is transformed, the student is engaged in fresh ways, intrinsic motivation develops and can be more fully nurtured, and that pivitol first step in the larger culture being transformed is firmly established.