News & Resources
Attention of a Different Kind
Patrick Scafidi, Executive Editor, The Ensemble
I joined The Ensemble in January 2020. I attended my first El Sistema USA Symposium just a few days later, experiencing my first taste of music for social change and taking notes for my first Ensemble article. The weekend crackled with excitement and new thinking; after making an umpteenth new connection, I remember thinking that joining this field feels like baptism by fire. (And that’s all I remember. I read that first article now and wonder, “When did that happen? Sounds cool.”)
Still, even my outsider’s eyes could see how joyful everyone was to be with one another. The healthy communication skills that teaching artists model every day were on full display—the eagerness to consider, to respond in earnest, to learn from, to push back on. To connect. In the years since, that first thread of observation has strengthened into a throughline.
The word “connection” comes up a lot in this work. We use it constantly here at The Ensemble; it’s literally our stated mission “to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.” Connection is the field’s lifeblood. It’s what led to the creation of the Inner Development Goals, created by teaching artists to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (read more about that here); it’s what led to the formation of ESUSA’s new Youth Ambassadors, who invigorated this year’s Symposium crowd with actionable ideas for a better future (stay tuned for their story next month). In fact, three years after that first Symposium, it’s clear to me that connection is the field’s singular strength—our north star in a galaxy of good ideas and our most inexhaustible resource in promoting healthy social outcomes.
If you’ve worked in this field long enough—like, for two days—you know this already. But I’ve noticed something surprising since that first realization: practitioners need more connection, more opportunities to be seen and heard by their peers, than our current models allow.
We have published many hundreds of articles since I joined The Ensemble, all written, as is our custom, by practitioners. With each one, I watch as writers become energized, even surprised, by the clarity of purpose they feel when writing for their colleagues. Some express gratitude for a pulpit, even when they have given us the gift of their insight. Others express a quiet determination they plan to carry forward—“I’ve never thought about my work this way; I’m excited about what it means for me.” It turns out that the act of directly addressing one’s peers is a unique brain exercise, unlocking new thinking that might otherwise gather dust in the corner.
I’d like to say this is because we’re such fabulous editors. And, hey, we’re alright—but that isn’t why. It’s because music for social change practitioners, for all their efforts to maximize impact and reach new audiences, rarely prioritize the experience of being seen and listened to by their colleagues. Think about how much time you and your team spend fighting for attention—from funders, from government officials, from community members. Working so hard to keep your programs going and growing. You put in that time because it’s necessary; programs can’t thrive without it. But all that management and self-promotion can deplete our ability to forge the connective pathways that sustain and push our work further. Many of our writers struggle with this early on, unable to shed their promotional voice even when writing for already-interested parties. Only after a few tries are they able to let go of those necessary promotional instincts and dig into their best, most exciting ideas.
And they are exciting. Once Ensemble writers start considering their work in a collegial context, good things happen. A straightforward article on a program’s history leads to a breakthrough on why something worked in the past. In hurrying to articulate this new idea, the writer clarifies it, and the excitement of that lucidity provides them with new energy and focus. And the field grows stronger, as these internal conversations lead to healthier, more productive outreach. I’m drawing from my experience editing articles, but these principles aren’t bound by form. They work in conversations big and small—in symposium breakout rooms, over texts, or in handwritten letters. You learn more about your own work when you discuss it with those who know it best.
We know that students require our close attention as they form their artistic selves; that principle is a tentpole of music for social change. As it turns out, teaching artists need that sort of attention too. In fact, it’s possible that the artistic connections we make inside the field, with each other, are even more essential than those we make outside of it. There is something distinctly hopeful about this idea—to me, anyway. It means that you have more to say than you might have thought. And that, in saying it, you form the strong connective tissue of a global movement.