Flying Free

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

Flying Free

Eric Booth, Founder, International Teaching Artist Collaborative; Cofounder, The Ensemble


The author gives the keynote speech at ITAC6. Photo: Seanse Art Center – ITAC6 – Courtney Ropp.

Last week, ITAC6—the Sixth International Teaching Artist Conference—brought together over two hundred teaching artists from 36 countries at a gathering in Oslo, Norway. During 60 in-person working sessions and many activities offered both in person and online, two clear messages rang out.

The first message related to the general experience of many teaching artists around the world: the sense of being isolated in their work and the fact of being underpaid and under-respected within their local arts ecosystems. At the conference, we were inspired by examples of programs and projects—in Scotland, Singapore, Korea, Israel, and Ghana, among others—in which teaching artists are being supported to build a local community of practitioners together. The power that radiates out of these experiments makes a compelling case for local arts education institutions and organizations to create ways of bringing local teaching artists together regularly. The work becomes more sustainable, the impact deepens, and the benefits to schools and communities multiply.

At the conference, this message was most dramatically conveyed through a commissioned work by a Korean dance ensemble, celebrating a research project that explored the power of teaching artistry. The exuberant dance brought all the delegates to our feet, recognizing that however separate we may feel, our power lies in coming together, both locally and globally. [We will share the link to this dance in the Resource Basket once the recording is made available.]

The second important message of the conference was the evidence of a maturing field. Over the course of the five previous biennial ITAC conferences, our field has acquired a global focus, leaving behind a preoccupation with different labels (teaching artist, community artist, social practice artist, participatory artist, etc.) and recognizing ourselves as one worldwide field of practice.

In the process, we have also become increasingly focused on social impact. Ten years ago, at ITAC1, there was much more interest in the ways individual organizations use teaching artists and the techniques teaching artists use to fulfill the mission of arts and arts education organizations. Our focus has shifted to the ways we impact the world—how we are creatively addressing the problems created by social inequity; the challenges faced by refugees and people in trauma; the weaknesses in schooling. There is an increasing reach for cross-sector partnering with health and social justice professions. ITAC’s distinctive focus on activating communities to respond to the climate crisis was highlighted at the conference, and ITAC’s first online course, Teaching Artistry for Social Impact, was officially announced. This is the pioneering energy of the global field of teaching artists.

Urging the field to come together. Photo: Seanse Art Center – ITAC6 – Courtney Ropp.

I want to add one more message specifically for readers of The Ensemble. For over a decade, the music for social change field has been expressing aspiration for a global reach. So I was surprised that no music for social change programs had representatives at ITAC6—no youth orchestra programs were present, and there were only a few music teaching artists at the conference. Indeed, of all the art forms, music was by far the least represented. I have seen this in the past, as well. For example, when the Empire State Partnerships initiative—the largest arts education experiment in American history—was launched in New York 25 years ago, not one youth music organization applied.

Why do our programs show no interest in the wider community doing this work? There is so much to learn from artists doing deep work in other disciplines. Part of the reason we feel isolated is that we isolate ourselves! We have so much to offer the wider field of artists working for social change, and so much to learn. But we don’t show up.

Do you belong to ITAC?—it’s free, and bursting with programs and projects to join. Yes, I know—you are too busy. But everyone in ITAC is too busy, and they join anyway. Because an activated, connected field is a more powerful field. And only as a powerful field can our work help to generate social transformation.

In giving the ITAC6 keynote, I brought up a seemingly unlikely metaphor for our field: caterpillars who eat hundreds of times their own weight every day, often devastating farms and foliage. They eat themselves into a stupor and then hang, suspended, from living plants. Something incredible happens next: structures that biologists call “imaginal discs” are released in each caterpillar’s body. The creature’s immune system tries to kill these discs, but they generate too fast. Eventually, these discs become “imaginal cells,” feeding on the inert body and growing into the organs of the butterfly that will emerge.

In the bloated body of global profit-driven commercial culture, I think of teaching artists as imaginal cells. Although the work of our programs is kept in check by the systemic defenses of this distended culture, we can create the transition to flying free. But only if we come together, creating the better future we carry within us.


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