For Young Music Organizations, Community Work Matters More

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

For Young Music Organizations, Community Work Matters More

Laura Patterson, Executive Director, Make Music NOLA


Author Laura Patterson. Credit: Lacy Davillier.

The first concert that Make Music NOLA ever played was the opening of a community garden. Back then, the organization was still named the Youth Orchestra of the Lower 9th Ward—a group of young musicians with less than a year on their instruments, putting on an unpolished performance of “Saints Go Marching In” for the community. The experience was critical for these students; performing alongside Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, they felt a lasting current of community support and encouragement. Most of those students continued to play their instruments for years, and many went on to learn a brass instrument and join the marching band at Martin Luther King Elementary.

The performance hadn’t been made possible by a larger musical organization or professional orchestra partner. It was sponsored by Common Ground Relief, an organization created by members of the Black Panther Party to support the community by building medical clinics and rehabbing homes after Hurricane Katrina. This wasn’t the exception. When Make Music NOLA first started, we found that our strongest partnerships were not music organizations but those with a focus on social justice, anti-racism, and positive youth development. Very little of our work relied on the music community; the program was founded in a converted Walgreens, which also served as a hub for local church leaders, neighborhood business owners, rebuilding nonprofits, and local leaders to come together and fight to rebuild what they knew and loved.

Context matters—Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city and community action was necessary—but there was a larger dynamic at play. Socially driven music programs often wrestle with the question of what to prioritize. Is music our number one focus? Or social justice? What about academic improvement? We recognized that we had to serve our student and community needs in a way that was significant and culturally relevant to New Orleans. This meant leaving behind traditional program models and exploring and building new ones. We found a different lens through which we could view our work, forming strong partnerships with organizations outside of the music world and finding ways to educate string teachers on the deep history of New Orleans music.

We were fortunate to work with Partnership for Youth Development, New Orleans Youth Alliance, and anti-racism coaches and consultants. In doing so, we shifted the focus away from the traditions of classical music training, which can maintain and perpetuate white supremacy and the ivory tower, to center trauma-informed approaches, equity, and anti-racism and prioritize positive youth development. Through trainings on reframing conflict, classroom management, building community, and social-emotional learning (SEL), our staff was able to collectively build a curriculum that focused on meeting and prioritizing the needs of our students. In order to accomplish this, we had to ask all of our musician teachers to develop a different perspective.

There were challenges. As many string teachers, and musicians in general, come from traditional classical training, many of our teachers had to unlearn the way they were taught and adopt a way of understanding and teaching that would work for our students. Shifting our musical focus was challenging and humbling for many people. Many did not agree with the decision. However, with the support of our partner organizations, we were able to provide the necessary training to individual teachers and our programs. Most importantly, we were able to develop a curriculum centered on positive youth development while remaining culturally and historically relevant to New Orleans. Over time, we compiled method books that focused on music by BIPOC composers, arranged New Orleans tunes for orchestra and chamber ensemble, found ways to include local musicians in all of our big performances, and developed a program-wide class routine that enabled teachers to include SEL in each class without having to plan for it in advance. Not only did this improve our daily programs, but our attendance increased, our enrollment doubled, and we were able to train teachers to be successful at a much faster rate.

Letting go of what you know can be challenging, but the next generation of musicians deserves to have a framework to express themselves and develop the skills to create their own systems, organizations, and music. New Orleans music is alive and ever-changing, defined by the people who create it on a daily basis. Our mission is to give the children of New Orleans the keys to claim their musical heritage and the tools to build their creative legacy through music education. Getting it right from the start is key to engaging the next generation. And following your community—and those who have been working to strengthen it—is the most effective way to get it right fast.


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