Atlanta Music Project Celebration

Atlanta Music Project co-founders Dantes Rameau and Aisha Bowden have invited me to guest conduct the Sistema-inspired South Bend/Gilbert House Children's Orchestra in their end of year concert celebration at the Midtown W in Atlanta. I’ll spend a full week working with the orchestra and their teachers to prepare for the event. The final performance will feature over one hundred musicians who are "forging confidence, ambition, and creativity through music." The concert will also feature celebrity host Lauren Cohan, star of The Walking Dead. Stay tuned for updates from Atlanta. 

Learn more about the vision behind the Atlanta Music Project: 

 

On the National Summit of Creative Youth Development

Commentary on Emerging ideas for a call to action
 
On the National Summit of Creative Youth Development - Strategic Priority 5: Facilitating Social Change and Social Justice
 
“Make young people’s work visible to, and their ideas heard by, wide audiences.”
 
The social reformer Jose Antonio Abreu often quotes the words of Mother Theresa—“the most miserable thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no one.” The creative arts provide some of the best tools help bring up a new generation that feels more joyful and confident about their chances for success. And while we have done a great work already in the field, it is not always enough. Schools still suffer from budget cuts in the arts and after-school programming for youth does not yet include all those who cannot afford participating in a theatre school or a youth choir. Unfortunately, the arts are still a luxury in many communities, yet there is a great and growing hope in the fact that so many people are already committed to finding avenues to serving those with the greatest needs and most limited resources. Many examples abound, a quick look into the National Arts Guild non-profits membership and the US Sistema-inspired programs should give us a picture of the scope.
 
Upon reading the proposed National Summit Creative Youth Development policy agenda, I am hopeful in that the core of the social justice discussion today is centered in part on the ideal of student visibility and recognition. When I worked as part of a collective impact initiative to bring free music education to underserved children in Oklahoma City, I saw how important it was to provide opportunities for students to share their accomplishments with others. Open-rehearsals and concerts in churches, conferences, and universities provided for a space where families could attest to their student’s progress and feel proud about them. Our students felt acknowledged for their hard work and were encouraged to continue to strive for success. Newspaper articles and television reports highlighted many of their accomplishments. This public recognition is important for the sustainability of youth development programs overall yet imperative for the future of many a youngster in poverty who might feel disenfranchised from the potential of a life of value and contribution.      
 
What can we do to make young people’s work visible to, and their ideas heard by, wide audiences? Here are a few ideas:
 
Programs need champions that will advocate strongly for their students. These individuals of influence can come from within and beyond the arts sector. But in order for them to participate effectively they must fully understand (and articulate) the nature and scope of the social change a program aspires to create.
 
Consider the impact of scale. When like-minded programs and initiatives come together as larger ensembles or collaborative productions their audiences grow and their messages of change can magnify and garner the attention of entities who might not have noticed their individual efforts. 
 
The media can be a great ally to help promote young people’s accomplishments. Program leaders must always keep in mind that these opportunities can be scarce and hence must thoroughly prepare students to showcase their best possible and most inspiring work. Their pursuit of excellence will encourage the public’s ample support.   
 
A student’s work can become socially relevant when shared with an empathic purpose. Young people can reap enormous benefits from being mentors to others, performing for people who might not have access to the arts experience, or inspiring others to also envision their life as purveyors of beauty.  
 
In closing, the movement for social justice through the creative arts is alive and well. There are still many challenges to solve but the provisions enumerated in the “Strategic Priority 5: Facilitating Social Change and Social Justice” will be instrumental to helping hundreds of leaders, advocates, and students in the arts improve the mechanisms that will allow us to better serve our communities. Artistic experiences can be life-changing for those who have the opportunity to participate in them. Let us continue making sure that these truly become a patrimony of society.

@joseherstrada

March 26

On the anniversary of Beethoven's death —

yearning in solitude
the messenger enamored 
a poetic hope

Thoughts for a more joyful art

In my previous post, I wrote about musicians being reminded of the spirit of joy that inhabits their art. The conversations that followed my sharing of the Salzburg rehearsal story have prompted me to try to bring forth a few ideas to help bring us (musicians) to realizing a deeper meaning to the experience of music. These thoughts have been inspired by my own work as a conductor and teacher with El Sistema and elsewhere. In many ways these are also pedagogical in nature. They often guide my work as I seek to help others bring forth their best music-making.  Please feel free to share these with fellow musicians. They are conveniently expressed in 'Tweet' form. 

A few ideas to help ensembles and musicians transcend with a more joyful art: 

Be idealistic in your experience of sharing music. Everyone should play for a reason; those that truly know why they play as opposed to how to play can generate the kind of meaning that will draw more people in.
 
Be creative with your playing. Draw every ounce of surprise, melancholy, mischievousness, and defiance (you name it) from the score and dare to extend the boundaries of what was originally conceived.  
 
Be generous in your music-making. Powerful connections can be made when listening intently to your neighbor’s part while you play yours. This is called interdependence—you are responsible for others and they are responsible for you. Everybody wins.  
 
Be grateful for your gift. Remember that even today, the opportunity to learn music is rare; and the fact that you are a musician makes you a purveyor of beauty, one of the world’s most sought-after riches.
 
Be present in the moment, or better yet… show the music. A musical performance is not just an aural experience but a visual one as well. On stage, thoughtful gestures can help highlight your musical intent and presence.
 
Be committed to excellence. You should always aim to give the performance of your life, but remember, that perfection should never be the goal. A performance is always both the end and beginning of your learning a piece of music. This is an infinite process. 
 
And…don’t forget to smile. It tells everyone that you love what you do. 

March 2014 
 

Above all else: Joy

 

The gardens at the Philbrook

I was recently invited to participate in a concert with members of the Tulsa Symphony at the elegant Boston Avenue Church of Tulsa. It was a wonderful experience. One of my favorite things about traveling is seeing new places and meeting new friends. I certainly made many friends there! I am very fond of museums and my gracious hostess, Janet, took the time to share many of the open secrets surrounding the nationally-renowned Philbrook Museum. In our tour, she pointed out a work by sculptor Harriet Frishmuth. She was one of the very few American students of the great master Auguste Rodin. The story goes that as a young sculptor she had struggled with finding her own personal stamp and was looking for someone or something to inspire that gift. The great French master had one piece of advice for her—show joy. This reminded me of Salzburg. A few months ago, I traveled there to bear witness yet again to the miracle of El Sistema, the system of youth orchestras and choirs envisioned by the Venezuelan social reformer Jose Antonio Abreu. As we were both listening to a very young conductor lead the rehearsal of a children’s orchestra, he noticed something was not quite right. There were some minor issues with the ensemble and the intonation was somewhat scrappy. (This was an important concert, the stakes were very high.) Maestro Abreu, known to be conscientious for precision and of the slightest of technical details didn’t try to point to these issues. Instead, he quickly interjected to offer advice. “Muestren Alegría,” “Show Joy,” he said to the musicians. With that brilliant stroke the room began to light up, there were smiles exchanged. Everyone became much less worried of the technical hurdles and more into the feeling of letting go and enjoying themselves. That feeling was contagious even to the dozen or so people that were at the rehearsal. It was then that the music really happened. It was a reminder to all that joy has to be one of the most important ingredients of artistic transcendence and the only vehicle for authentic communication. In the words of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, showing joy generates “a net of love by which you can catch souls.” And that is the greatest gift an artist can offer. Both Abreu and Rodin are right—it is joy that makes all the difference. 

LIFE IS A LOT LIKE JAZZ. IT'S BEST WHEN YOU IMPROVISE. GEORGE GERSHWIN