December 28, 2014 § 3 Comments
As part of an assignment for one of my music education methods courses at Wayne State, I was required to make a beginning instrument manual for myself to reference, if needed, during my first years of teaching. It was fairly open-ended — I could make the manual in whatever format I’d liked. Naturally, as an educator itching to move education forward with the rest of the world, I created a website.
Though I created it for myself, I realized that other music educators could benefit from its use, as well! It took me a few all-nighters to complete it, so I may as well allow it some good use.
Please let me know if there are any errors or if you have suggestions! I’ve acquired the curse of perfectionism during my years of musicianship…
You can find my Beginning Instrument Manual here: www.frakesfirstyear.weebly.com.
December 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I was working for the Dearborn Recreation’s summer playground program, at least once a day, one of the kids would come up to me and say, “______________ says he’s/she’s not my friend.” You can fill in the blank with pretty much any one of the kids – none of them have been un-involved in these types of situations. And, since it was summer and the purpose of the program was to provide the neighborhood with supervised playground activities, I had heard even more often “___________ said I can’t play.”
I remember being at the end of my rope, not knowing what to do, other than pulling kids aside and saying, “Do you see how this person feels? Will you please play with this person next time?” It obviously didn’t work, and I can assure you that if I were still employed with that job, it would still be happening.
Vivian Gussin Paley reminded me of this phenomenon in her book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. She saw what I saw – kids getting rejected by other kids during play time. After an incredibly long process, which she detailed heavily in the book, she and her students created the You Can’t Say You Can’t Play rule. It’s pretty self-explanatory…
What’s really disturbing about this is the rigidity of the ranking system – the same children are shunned over and over again. Paley has a discussion with her class about the rule and found that “their amazement and distrust and fear that they would not be able to handle what it was that I was talking about – that play would be spoiled – was very apparent.” Despite their resistance, however, Paley kept on with the experiment and it became an immediate success. “It was as if this had always been the way of life,” Paley said.
I think back to my own elementary days. I remember being the one consistently rejected. Each rejection given to me seemed to bolster the logic of everyone’s decision – as if I were wearing a label that instructed my classmates to reject me. To have to play with me would have seemed a perversion of the natural order. How different things would have been – for everyone – if we had had this rule.
From Paley’s experience at the Chicago lab school, the rule seems to have worked. However, if the shunned kids were now somewhat forced into playing with their peers, would it be guaranteeing that the kids play nicely? Couldn’t it potentially lead to more direct bullying? Maybe.
Then again, when these children grow up, they will have to “play” with people they don’t like and will essentially be doing the same thing – learning how to get along) with, or at least tolerate, everyone. Just as we adults have to “play” with people we don’t necessarily care about.
P.S. Thanks for the book, Stephen!
December 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
Recently, I spent some time in Baltimore working with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s El Sistema-inspired OrchKids program. My experience there was like no other! I am grateful I was able to be a part of such a humbling and enriching experience. I wanted to help spread the word about a musical movement that has been in-the-works for years by broadcasting all the amazing things El Sistema programs have been doing.
Now, what exactly is El Sistema? El Sistema, the public music education program in Venezuela, is more than just a music program – it’s a revolutionary idea that mixes social programs of the public government with music.
Musically, Venezuela is like no place on earth. Along with baseball and beauty pageants, classical music is one of the country’s greatest passions. So pervasive is El Sistema in this society that if you were to ask the average Venezuela whether he or she thought classical music was dying, you might be questioned about what planet you were on. So strong is the Sistema lockbox that this program is equally supported by the rich and poor, the political left and right. President Chavez allots it $100 million a year and regularly promises more. For a reality-check, imagine President Obama demanding a $1.2-billion music education system under the rubric of social welfare, only to be challenged by Ron Paul insisting that Congress allocate an even great sum for socialized music.
Though many U.S. and European music education programs claim to replicate El Sistema, it is obvious that it’s a uniquely Venezuelan miracle and hardly replicable elsewhere. I hear, all the time, of Boards of Education in the U.S. proposing to eliminate arts education. I live in a city where arts education is dying, day by day. But it’s not only us. A combination of the international financial crisis and an increasing emphasis on popular culture has meant that cutbacks are happening even in such countries as Finland and Japan, where music has long been a core part of early schooling.
The populist, anti-elitist Sistema pedagogy is also remarkably singular and difficult to import to the U.S. The basic tenet of Jose Antonio Abreu, the revered founder of El Sistema, is the universal aspect of music and he likes to say that music is a human right. THAT, my friends, is an effective, politically expedient slogan. But what he has demonstrated on an even larger scale is that music is not so much a right as a given. It’s not about talent – ingeniously effective system though it may be for discovering and fostering talent. The truly revolutionary aspect of El Sistema is its proof that everyone has the capacity for music.
For Abreu, and other musical revolutionaries like Shinichi Suzuki, music is meant for all, and he really does mean all. He has proven that if we start early enough and are effectively taught, we all acquire basic musical ability.
The format of El Sistema is simple – take children, even as young as 2, into the núcleos (music schools) and let them spend their after-school afternoons learning the basics of music and playing in youth orchestras. Literally, no child is left behind, and that includes those with special needs. Most come from the barrios and they are given instruments, meals and, in more dangerous areas, transportation. These nucleos, however, also attract middle- and upper-class kids who want a superior music education. Everyone has the right to El Sistema and music.
And that is how El Sistema works. Kids aren’t given private lessons and told to go off and practice for hours and hours. The children learn together and play together. The older kids coach those younger than them, and they all rehearse, together, every day. They virtually grow up together, and the metaphor that everyone uses in El Sistema – family – is so perfect and fitting. Coincidentally, I also believe that this is a reflection of life in Venezuela. Crime in Caracas, as of the past two years, has reached the point that it is simply too unsafe to live as a loner. If you want to go anywhere, you had better go in a group.
And an even more unique, and sensical, aspect of El Sistema is the emphasis on music as a social program rather than a cultural one. That tiny detail is also how Abreu convinced the government to fund it.
More and more places are becoming inspired and many places keep trying to replicate El Sistema. I think that it’s certainly adaptable: look at Detroit’s very own Civic Youth Ensembles, and one of the programs I work for, String Project@Wayne, is definitely heavily influenced by the system. Government support for any El Sistema program in the U.S. would of course be a pipe dream, but what works with the government in Venezuela might well work with private funding and foundations elsewhere. The idea is that everyone can make music. The how is up to us, but not the why. We can pick and choose from El Sistema to find what works for us, but the fact is that the Venezuelans’ education system is a triumph and ours is broken. We desperately need all the help we can get.
If you want to learn more about El Sistema, I highly recommend watching the documentary Tocar y Luchar (To Play and To Fight) – it’s a fantastic film about El Sistema.
December 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
This blog entry marks the beginning of a new phase in my life – my teaching career. It has been a long journey to get to this point, but well worth the wait! I feel prepared and energized to enter the field and I want to use this blog to communicate my journey to other educators and friends.
While studying at Wayne State University, I worked for the former String Project@Wayne headed by Dr. Laura Roelofs and Mr. William Starnes. My involvement in this program was the catalyst for my switch to education. As an intern for this lab school, I taught students from in and around the Detroit area. This program’s goal was to provide quality, yet affordable, string instruction in the city while also providing university music majors the opportunity to teach in a classroom setting. My experiences with String Project@Wayne were invaluable to and essential in my development as a music educator. Sincere and infinite thanks to the program and its proprietors.
Recently graduating is surreal, but exciting. I am more than ready to take on the world and keep my friends and colleagues updated with my strides in music education!