Lessons from Firebird Fellows

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Lessons from Firebird Fellows

Kai Jack, Teaching Artist in Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine; Daniel Bermúdez Tamayo, member, mentor, and FAR Lab Leader, Iberacademy; and Francis Gagliardi, Director, Young Leaders Program, El Sistema Greece


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

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, Eric Booth introduced you to the Academy for Impact through Music (AIM) and Director Fiona Cunningham walked you through their Five Pillars of Practice. Our AIM series continues this month with feedback from some of AIM’s Firebird Fellows, a cohort of teachers from social music programs who are participating in a collective journey to transform learning for young people, supported by AIM’s dedicated international faculty.

For 15 months, the Academy for Impact through Music’s (AIM) Firebird Fellows collectively poked and prodded their own teaching practices. Results varied from teacher to teacher; as AIM Director Fiona Cunningham put it, “focusing on one pillar at a time is like isolating and working on a particular muscle set in our bodies.” In that spirit, Ensemble editors spoke with three Firebirds about which teaching muscles have been most transformed, asking them to describe a specific change that they attribute to their experience in the Fellowship. Their responses were rich, thoughtful, and relevant in any classroom.

Kai Jack, Teaching Artist in Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine

Kai Jack teaches an outdoor lesson. Photo: Kai Jack.

I pride myself on my ability to improvise using whatever resources are available to me. I suspect this skill came partly because of my procrastination habit, which necessitates big ideas under tight deadlines. Those procrastination-induced skills have proven useful over the years, but at a cost; “fake it ‘til you make it” can only take you so far.

It was fascinating to learn about lesson planning from my fellow Firebirds, but not until sharing my own story with them did I see how useful planning could become in my own teaching. Every week, I conduct orchestra rehearsals with around 20 kids from refugee backgrounds. As the project is brand-new and the first of its kind in Israel, we are faced with a plethora of challenges, many of which present themselves at the last minute. It could be that my volunteer teachers are unexpectedly busy one day, or that one student has brought friends who want to join the project. The conservatory that lends us rehearsal space might change our room to one without music stands. Sometimes the kids are just not in the mood to learn music, tired, or upset from circumstances outside of the classroom.

I had always felt that my proclivity for last-minute thinking made me the perfect person for my job. But my Firebird experience prompted me to think deeper, showing me how planning could develop those very skills I attributed to procrastination, improving my on-the-spot functioning. It is remarkable how a brief planning session focused on mapping out a lesson’s objectives, as we learned to do as Firebirds, enables me to make the best out of any situation and optimize each student’s experience.

Daniel Bermúdez Tamayo, member, mentor, and FAR Lab Leader, Iberacademy

As a Firebird Fellow, I became more cognizant of the pace and clarity with which I communicate. Because it can be tough to focus on those things in the moment, I recorded myself while teaching so that I could observe my lessons from an outside perspective. In discussing what I saw with my AIM advisor, I recognized a need to be more attentive to my own body language, to my verbal and nonverbal communication, and, most importantly, to my students’ nonverbal responses.

These ideas led me to interrogate my teaching methods. I wanted to give my students tools to explore their own intrinsic motivation, their interests, and their autonomy. I designed my Action Research Project to that end: tasked with identifying a big idea to serve as a throughline for twelve lessons, I chose to explore the relationship between music and emotions—most notably, how emotional inquiry helps us interpret music more authentically. I called my research project “Music Inside Out.” We started by analyzing students’ “emotional repertoire” (joy, sadness, anger, fear, etc.) before relating these emotions to specific musical elements, such as scales, articulations, intensity of sound, phrasing, and more. At times, we did improvisation and composition exercises using these sounds and melodies. Slowly, we crafted these elements into fragments of the musical arrangements themselves, with students using emotions and life experience to play phrases with more musical sense.

Music is an art of the moment—it should help us reflect and express ourselves as sensitive beings, and in doing so connect with others. And through this student-driven exercise, I was able to improve the elements of the lesson—communication, musical excellence, commitment—that I had initially sought to address.

Francis Gagliardi, Director, Young Leaders Program, El Sistema Greece

Francis Gagliardi leads a rhythm circle at ESG. Photo: Kasia Łukasiewicz.

So much of my growth as a Firebird Fellow can be attributed to the respectful, open environment in which we work. I’ve seen improvement in my mindset, my teaching skills, and even my emotional skills. Since noticing these shifts, I’ve endeavored to reflect AIM’s learning environment in my own classrooms, creating respectful, friendly spaces where everyone feels confident and comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.

For my Action Research Project, I hypothesized that improving the social interaction between my young musicians would help improve their artistry as well. My students didn’t even know the names or positions of their orchestra mates; sometimes, they didn’t even know which instruments others played. So, that was our starting point: getting to know each other without pressure. And, funnily enough, I relied on the same methods used by the Firebirds—asking them more questions during class, letting them decide elements of each day’s lesson, providing them with space to solve problems as a team, and giving them more responsibilities.

Sure enough, the entire rehearsal dynamic changed. In learning about and alongside each other, they began to see the orchestra as their family. And, like a family, they take care of the orchestra together; they arrive early, prepare the room, tune their instruments, ask each other for help, prepare the music, create mini-sectionals, and even conduct parts of the rehearsal. Because of their care for one another, they feel responsible for helping the orchestra grow.


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