AIMing Forward: Introducing the Academy for Impact through Music

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

AIMing Forward: Introducing the Academy for Impact through Music

Eric Booth, Cofounder, The Ensemble; Senior Advisor/Lead Faculty, AIM


Faculty member Pablo Millanes coaches the planning of the Lab team from Iberacademy in Medellin, Colombia. Photo: Josep Piñol.

Editor’s Note: Over the coming months, The Ensemble will publish a series of articles about the Academy for Impact through Music (AIM), an international organization seeking to enrich the global field of music for social action.

The global field of music for social change is committed, smart, resilient, and brimming with talented teachers, administrators, and students—that’s a lot of assets! But it isn’t organized to learn well and get better as a field. Indeed, as I traveled during the past decade to 25 countries to observe good programs in action, I consistently heard that their two greatest challenges were finances and faculty. These problems haven’t been getting easier.

The Hilti Foundation, the charitable arm of the global construction tool-manufacturer based in Lichtenstein, has been involved in the music for social impact field for over 12 years, supporting young programs with promise in South America, Europe, and South Africa. They noted how insulated and isolated the programs were, and how many were limited by organizational and pedagogical weaknesses. Research from the Community Arts Lab in Vienna (focusing on 300 such programs worldwide) confirmed that the pattern was widespread. The Hilti Foundation began brainstorming for solutions that would help this field grow into its potential.

The author coaching Firebird Fellow Mollie Westbrook. Photo: Josep Piñol.

The word entelechy means realization of an organism’s full potential. Two years ago, the Hilti Foundation initiated AIM, the Academy for Impact through Music, to help the field of music for social impact reach its entelechy, which is helping young people reach their entelechy.

As Christine Rhomberg, the Hilti Foundation’s Director of Community Arts, wrote: “With this initiative, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel; we want to build upon the vast know-how that exists in the sector, and to develop those aspects that can help programmes . . . empower and help young people to become young change-makers who are able to take control of their own lives and contribute to society.”

Led by Executive Director Fiona Cunningham (previously CEO of Sistema England), AIM gathered a team of experienced colleagues and a cohort of nine programs to undertake a pilot year of AIM activity in 2020. Thirty-five teachers from these programs became the “Firebird Fellows,” whose development was the program’s focus. An advanced learning cohort was also formed, including music directors and administrators from each program.

COVID-19 disrupted the initial plans, but AIM was active online during the pilot year, creating lively, innovative ways to learn together virtually. In August 2021, at the close of the first Fellowship year, Firebirds and leaders were finally able to be together in person for a week in Switzerland.

AIM aims deep, and it brings two radical innovations to the field. First, it is built of laboratories. The Firebird Fellows aren’t “trained in best practices”; rather, they undertake action research to learn how to get better. Each partner program in AIM creates its own Firebird Action Research Lab (FAR Lab), a programmatic center for consistent experimentation, analysis of effectiveness, and collegial sharing. Of course, strong practices are shared, but the fellowship’s main legacy is learning how to build careers around constant experimentation and improvement, while inspiring colleagues to do the same.

Second, AIM has distilled five conceptual “pillars” that provide a North Star for experimentation. All of the field’s best practitioners can list ten or twenty important directions for our work, but we have lacked consensus around a core set of goals to give our work direction and focus. The five pillars are life and learning goals, the kinds of outcomes that Firebirds strive to see for young people (and for themselves!). The pillars are: Holistic Development, Intrinsic Motivation, Optimal Agency, Artistry Without Limits, and Community. (The Ensemble will investigate the implications of the pillars in future issues.)

These comments from pilot-year Firebirds give a feel for its impact:

“Being a Firebird Fellow means continuously creating a new way of teaching, oriented to the students, in active exchange with teachers from all over the world.” – Carola Christ

“A big ‘lightbulb’ moment for my teaching practice this year was when my students began to reflect on the wider value of musical pieces performed, especially their relationship with the human condition.” – Alejandro Giraldo

“Are we training students to be copies of what already exists? Where is the space for individuality and creativity without fear of judgment?” – Filipa Jordão

Firebird Fellows and faculty at August 2021 retreat in Switzerland. Photo: Josep Piñol.

This month, AIM is being established as a legal entity and charitable foundation, with core support continuing from the Hilti Foundation. It is about to launch its website and announce its 2022-23 cohort of 40 Firebird Fellows from eight music programs from Europe, South America, and North America. An additional open call will invite up to three individual teachers who are not connected to the eight programs to join the Firebird Fellowship. Details about applying will be published later this month.

There is a term used in organizational development: “wicked problems.” These are problems that seem insoluble because of their complexity and interconnectedness with other factors. AIM provides the rare opportunity to delve in depth into the wicked problems of our field, asking the hardest questions and experimenting with answers over time, with smart colleagues pouring in bold ideas.  AIM goes deep with this learning among its Fellows and aims to share the learning widely with the whole field. That is how we can turn the wicked problems of our ambitious but often struggling field into ever-better impact for those we serve.


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