News & Resources
A Special Partnership Generates a Regional Residency
The Ensemble Editorial Staff in conversation with Gabrielle Molina, Executive Director of Project Music; Founder of Teaching Artists International, Inc., and Garrett Mendez, Artistic Director of Project Music; Performance Arts Coordinator and Director of Instrumental Music at King School
Music students from many regions, coming together across distances to spend days of intensive music-making together—around the world, this has long been one of El Sistema’s most famous and valued traditions. For the past two pandemic years, that tradition has been largely shut down.
But it’s beginning to come to life again. The spring 2022 “El Sistema Residency” at King School in Stamford, CT is a particularly vivid example. Over 100 students from seven Sistema-inspired programs in the northeast U.S. came together with musically experienced King School students for a wide variety of collective music-making experiences. Activities included a Musical Showcase, during which each program performed one or two pieces; a Collective Composition piece, “We Are Striving,” composed virtually last year and arranged for the full residency orchestra this year; a new Collective Composition piece; a student leadership panel; and a workshop given by Monique Van Willingh for teaching artists, administrators, and educators, focusing on how to cultivate student agency and voice within organizations and classrooms.
The roots of the residency lie in a growing relationship between King School, an independent day school in Stamford, CT, and Project Music, an El Sistema–inspired program in the same city. Project Music provides over 10,000 hours each year of free musical instruction to Fairfield County’s students of greatest economic need, with over a hundred students at four community partner sites. Students begin a rigorous sequential learning process in the fourth grade, focusing on brass, woodwind, or percussion instruments and participating in a variety of ensembles including jazz band, brass band, chamber ensembles, sectionals, and private lessons. Says Project Music Executive Director Gabrielle Molina, “This past January, we began strings at one of our partner sites, and we are excited to launch our first orchestra in the fall of 2022—a reimagined orchestra that will include saxophone and guitar.”
King School began hosting El Sistema residencies several years ago, thanks largely to the vision of Garrett Mendez, who in addition to being King’s Performance Arts Coordinator and Director of Instrumental Music is also the Artistic Director and Cofounder of Project Music. Says Mendez: “During Project Music’s first years, I had some of my upper school students from King School coming to help out, sitting in on rehearsals and giving mini-lessons. I saw the relationships that were being built between the King students and the Project Music students, and I thought this should be done on a larger scale.” The first residency involved a dozen Project Music students, mostly beginners who could read just a handful of notes, coming together on the King campus with more musically experienced King students and also with eight visiting students from OrchKids in Baltimore, MD. The residency has grown in scope and ambition since then.
“The overarching focus of the residency,” says Mendez, “is to inspire a deeper connection between communities of different socioeconomic backgrounds, use music as a vehicle to give voice to diverse cultural identities, and to amplify lived experiences.”
Adds Molina, “We see older students stepping up as leaders and modeling for their younger colleagues. We see those same younger students growing confidence to share their musical ideas in Collective Composition. We see friendships being made across different programs, not only between students but also with teaching artists, administrators, and parents. It’s remarkable to see how this residency has grown, and many have expressed that this seminario is the highlight of their program’s calendar each year.”
A great deal of preparation goes into the residency. In addition to picking an overarching musical theme, logistical tasks include communicating with programs, organizing lodgings and food (meals and accommodation expenses are 100% covered for participating programs), recruiting volunteers, preparing music in advance, and promoting the event. In addition, Collective Composition activities begin via Zoom calls prior to the event.
Mendez and Molina agree, however, that the results are worth all the effort. This year’s overarching theme showcased student voice and agency, with students performing and running the showcase portion of the community concert on their own, as well as developing a 15-minute composition made up entirely of student-created musical ideas. In Mendez’ words, “It was a demonstration of what can happen when you flip the script on the teacher-student relationship, so that the teacher and student have shared responsibilities and are more like equal collaborators. This gives the students more ownership of the music-making process while allowing teachers to step in and provide mentoring when needed.”
Above all, Molina and Mendez emphasize the value of connecting communities through music. The residency brings together students from all over the region, reminding them that they belong to a larger community of students who also “do music every day.”
“Many of our students, particularly our younger students, don’t really grasp that they are part of a larger movement of young musicians who take part in programs like Project Music every day,” says Molina. “The residency helps them see that there are people just like them putting in the hard work. They also get to meet students from very different backgrounds and see how they share similar interests and passions. Ultimately, we want to provide an opportunity for all these young people to come together and focus on our shared passion for music, regardless of our differences.”