FEATURE: The Young Leaders Orchestra of Sistema England

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

FEATURE: The Young Leaders Orchestra of Sistema England

12-01-2017
Young Leaders Orchestra performs at Epic Studios in Norwich. Photo: Iván González, Sistema England

“Let’s make music so powerful it influences change.”

That’s the pledge written by Simi, a teenaged cellist in Sistema England’s Young Leaders Orchestra, and taken by all the members of the ensemble last summer.  The Young Leaders Orchestra is made up of the most skilled and committed young musicians from six Sistema programmes in England: In Harmony Lambeth, In Harmony Liverpool, In Harmony Newcastle, In Harmony Telford, Sistema in Norwich and The Nucleo Project.  These young musicians are building a youth orchestra of high musical potential while becoming a close-knit band of future leaders (in all walks of life, we reckon) who will inspire others to hope, dare, stretch, and fight for more.

The Young Leaders Orchestra began in 2015, born of our desire to amplify our young people’s voices, to accelerate their musical development, and to support their growth as role models who will inspire their 3500+ peers. In the planning stages, Sistema program leaders struggled with questions of selection process and criteria:  Should we seek the technically best Sistema student musicians in the country, to set the highest possible musical standards? Or should we take the best of each program, to create a celebration of the nationwide Sistema community?   We decided that it was more important to involve everyone – and to get on with it! – so teachers nominated students for both skill and attitude, and we decided to deal with any problems of balance if they emerged, rather than maintain a rigid “We can only take four basses” mindset. So the orchestra was a touch bottom-heavy – but who cared? It included every nominated musician.

Once the new orchestra was born, any adult deliberation about the value of this nationwide initiative felt obsolete.  The Young Leaders made that choice for us: “We’re not a team, we’re a family.” The initial group of 35 members was helped and supported by teachers and mentors from the UK, El Sistema Venezuela and Sistema Portugal, led by Felix Briceno (El Sistema Venezuela) and Juan Carlos Maggiorani (Sistema Portugal).

In January 2016, the growing group of 46 Young Leaders performed at London’s Southbank Centre during the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra residency, alongside In Harmony Lambeth and The Nucleo Project.  They were paid a surprise visit by Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel, and each Young Leader made personal leadership pledges: to help others, to overcome self-doubt, to persevere.  July 2016 saw the first meeting of the eight Young Leader Representatives (two elected from each of the four oldest programmes), where they discussed icebreakers, peer leadership, and how to welcome new players and avoid silos.   For the August 2016 Camp, the orchestra had grown to a 65-member ensemble with 30 teachers and with new wind and brass and players from Newcastle and Telford.  We welcomed teachers from the UK, Portugal, USA, Italy and Venezuela. An intensive week together ending in an exhilarating performance for the Telford community brought this orchestra to the next level, socially and musically.

Throughout these stages, a collective identity has been steadily emerging – mostly of the young musicians’ own making, but key inputs from us include:

• a supportive “family” dynamic underpinning all activity

• the “impossible challenge” of a tangible musical goal just out of reach, for focus and motivation

• inspiring and effective leadership, to accelerate progress;

• emphasis on the young musicians developing ownership, accountability and reflective practice (e.g. through analyzing videos of rehearsals);

• an international teaching team and repertoire for broadened cultural horizons and new pathways

In 2017, we stepped up our commitment to youth voice: “If young people can say or do it better than we can, they should.” This works; young people often get to the heart of the matter without arts jargon and spin, and they tell us where our real value-add is.  We worked closely with Simi, our Young Leader cellist whose direct communication style cut to the chase.  For example, when we created a sentence something like this:  “We want our young musicians to be defined by their artistry, not their lack of opportunity,” Simi came back with, “We want our music to shine, not our backgrounds.” Feel the difference?

The pledge to make music so powerful it influences change, coined by Simi and adopted by all, became the golden thread for our 2017 Young Leaders camp, and every young leader was encouraged to consider what powerful music sounds, looks and feels like; what kinds of change they might want for themselves, their orchestra, and their audience; and what it would take to achieve these changes.  We expanded the Youth Leadership scope of the camp, carving out learner-led music-making time each day.  Each day began with mindfulness.  We created a reflections tree together. Coaching and mentoring sessions were built in, including a specific coaching session for young people aged 14+ facing key moments of decision-making.

The learner-led sessions were an experiment and had mixed success. Some youth teachers understood the time as structured, teacher-led chamber music.  These explored the joys and responsibilities of chamber music, and beautiful music was created, but that had not quite been the intended purpose of the sessions.  Others involved teachers responding to the requests of their peers:  “We want to learn The Little Mermaid…”.  The example that most closely fit our intention was the Baltimore Collective, facilitated by Dan Trahey (Artistic Director of Orchkids) and his outstanding tuba students Keith and Lowrider – an organic jam group that grew like a fire, with the young musicians generating all the heat.

The thing about learner-led initiatives is that they come with risk – risk that they do something we adults don’t want them to do! – risk that they might spiral out of control – risk that those involved are not thoughtful to those who are not involved.  In this case, some important negotiation was needed between young people and adults, to enable this flame to burn undiminished without diminishing the flames in others.  It was an important learning experience for us all.  Listening to young people is not the same as giving them complete autonomy and control no matter what – we are trying to build a model of co-ownership, an alchemy that mingles the expertise and ideas of both young people and professional adults for learning and performances that are empowering and authentic.

One area we want to improve on in 2018 is increasing youth responsibility within music sessions themselves.  This sounds obvious. It’s easy to get kids to run a social media campaign, brainstorm ideas for repertoire, talk about t-shirt design and social activities.  It’s less common in our community to see learners owning their musical learning journeys through facilitative methods.  This often comes down to lack of teacher training and experience, even amongst outstanding musicians with great potential.  We can also improve opportunities for young people to take responsibility for their learning environment: simply showing up on time, setting up spaces, making sure the whole section has what they need to get started.  This was the main feedback from teachers and students alike in the 2017 camp, and we will use this to inform our next camp.

A group of Young Leaders has already started to help plan for the arrival of the electrifying Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra camp in August 2018.  They take seriously the responsibility of hosting their European peers and are already dividing up roles to focus on different areas of youth-led activity and responsibility.  One Young Leader said to me last week, “We should find the equivalents of us in Turkey, Portugal, Italy, and Greece, and start talking to them in advance of the camp.”

It’s striking that as we’ve expanded our commitment to Young Leaders’ voices, we’ve seen their collective vision evolve.  When we first launched the programme, the young musicians’ visions focused on the high-profile venues in which they would perform – global domination.  Now they talk about reaching out to expand their musical family and engage with other Sistema programmes around the world – more like a global hug.

Looking to the future, our long-term vision is of a Youth Company of 200+ members that holds its own artistically and that pioneers the idea of the 21st century orchestra, with personal development pathways for each member and a strong youth board.  We also hope to draw the gaze of institutions wishing to provide further opportunities and nurture talent, and to engage with the wider music education sector in support of the infinite potential of young people.  Finally, through this orchestra, we seek to strengthen England’s ‘music for social action’ community for maximum positive impact: even where network leadership meetings can fail to mobilize, everyone can get behind dedicated young people from different parts of the country crossing distance and difference for a shared musical endeavor.

The Young Leaders Orchestra is just one example of how taking action with young people can be the best possible course of action for programs trying to build networks and partnerships.  A tip, from our experience: don’t get bogged down in drawing up the perfect strategic plan that then sits on a shelf.  Take a leap and create something together – ideally, with young people – that is authentic, no matter how small or apparently ephemeral.  It’s often the most efficient way of finding out how “we” are a “we,” opening up frank conversations about quality, learning about individual and organizational strengths, and unearthing the true nature and value of partnership.

Author: Fiona Cunningham, CEO, Sistema England

Date Published: 1 December 2017

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