Agrigento: Studying Strengths and Challenges of Our Field

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Agrigento: Studying Strengths and Challenges of Our Field

Louise Godwin, Coordinator (Operations, Grants, and Research), Agrigento


A National Open Youth Orchestra residential. Photo: Agrigento.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-article series in The Ensemble about Agrigento, an emergent organization dedicated to advancing the field of music as social action.

Agrigento was created with the goal of improving the work in the field of music as social action. Our journey started in 2019, when Agrigento’s Trustees commissioned Dr. Gillian Howell to lead a scoping survey to better understand the issues, needs, and advances in the field. This survey involved soliciting in-depth reflections from 13 practitioner-researchers who have considerable experience in a wide range of music as social action programs and contexts, including community music, El Sistema-inspired programs, and projects within schools, post-conflict settings, and centers for people experiencing social exclusion.

The findings of this survey, published in the 2020 summary report, offer insights into what exemplary music programs look like and some of the critical change mechanisms linking music to social action. They also identify gaps in provision and knowledge and some of the challenges affecting program implementation and sustainability.

Two years later, the findings of this report remain as current and relevant as they were in 2020. Perhaps even more so, given the Covid-19 pandemic and the strengthening of social and political movements aimed toward equity and social justice.

Over the course of the past two years, Agrigento has continued to listen to practitioners and researchers. Having established a grant program, we have learned from the music educators and researchers we fund. We have attended online conferences and seminars and reached out to a number of musicians whose work has intrigued us. In doing so, we have observed a field that is in a state of uncertainty, shifting and evolving. And, because of this state of uncertainty, we have also observed change taking place.

We have watched features that our survey found to be common to exemplary programs becoming part of public conversations about music as social action. Such features include a widening embrace of approaches that are inclusive, strengths-based, and participatory in focus. We have witnessed a deeper understanding of the need for teaching artists who share lived experiences with their learner community, and for programs that are reshaped to better reflect local contexts. And, little by little, programs are starting to rethink musical and pedagogical content, with creative, student-led, and culturally and socially relevant practices and approaches becoming more common across the field.

Alongside these gains, the challenges that were highlighted in the summary report persist. We have not seen much progress in the gaps in knowledge and understanding about how music as social action works (i.e., theories of change and critical change mechanisms), or in the systemic structural problems that create instability in the field. These challenges represent a concrete opportunity to rethink the established practices and ideas we bring to our work, and there are promising signs of a small but important vanguard of practitioners and organizations rising to do just that.

For example, over the past two years, we have observed closer connections between music as social action and music education. Whereas music as social action was once widely seen as distinct from music education, we have observed a renewal of both language and thinking that is collapsing this (perhaps misleading) distinction. As part of this shift, it has been exciting to observe the flourishing of new pedagogies and curricula in social action through music programs, such as Sistema Toronto’s new and rigorously developed Theory and Musicianship Curriculum. In combination with their Social Curriculum, this work provides a great example of “music education” working in partnership with “social action.”

The lack of progress on systemic structural problems that impede sustainability and survival might be seen as disheartening. How can programs survive when they struggle to retain teaching artists? When program partnerships are short-term and unstable? When funding is short-term, project-based? When the advocacy talking points upon which we’ve always relied are no longer sufficient?

However, progress can be observed here as well. The National Open Youth Orchestra (NOYO) in the U.K. offers an example of an organization with a strategically developed program that, first and foremost, responds to the needs of young people and, by demonstrating this, has secured funding and achieved a level of sustainability through long-term partnerships. Not only is NOYO creating a truly inclusive and “youth-led” youth orchestra that is shifting the sound and practice of classical music; it is also meeting the challenges of sustainability head-on.

None of this is to say that there are any easy solutions to the “wicked problems” that Eric Booth discussed in his January article on the Academy for Impact through Music (AIM). The need for rigorous, honest, and critical engagement with these problems—and with the potential and limits of music to address them—has never been greater. However, we have observed openness to such engagement growing within the field. Agrigento sees possibility and potential in this changing panorama, and we are determined to support and connect those who are advancing practice and deepening knowledge about music and its place in the lives of young people today.

Agrigento’s Summary Report can be downloaded from their website. Alternatively, you can request a copy via email.


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