Merging Our ‘Why’ with the Community’s Needs

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

Merging Our ‘Why’ with the Community’s Needs

Armand Hall, Board Chair of El Sistema USA; Executive and Artistic Director of ROCmusic Collaborative


My recent election to the position of Board Chair of El Sistema USA is a great honor for me, especially since I am following in the footsteps of my inspiring friend and mentor Christine Taylor Conda. Since then, I have reflected on how I can best serve the communities that comprise our membership and the greater field of music for social change.

As a music educator with 20 years of experience, I have spent considerable energy in the areas of instrumental and ensemble pedagogy, pre-service and early-career teacher training and development, and repertoire selection. Like all good educators, I find myself regularly questioning my “Why” for doing this work. Early in my career, my drive was to have the best band possible. Later, my teaching at the university level served to prepare future music educators through ensemble instruction, and this led me to question the status quo. I began to want more for my students; I came to believe that the primary purpose for learning the skills and language of music is to be able to employ them in any imaginable fashion. Our students can learn to be music professionals—or they can use the ensemble skills of music to influence how they collaborate and solve problems in their professional and social communities. As a conductor, I see the ensemble as a community unto itself, an incubator for problem-solving, consensus-building, and collective action skill-building.

In 2009, during an amazing trip to Venezuela, my eyes were opened to the enormous energy of this movement. I have seen fantastic youth ensembles in public and private schools, but the sense of community in and around the Venezuelan Sistema ensembles was something else entirely. I had never seen such public support, in every conceivable way, for music programs in communities. And I had never imagined such an equilibrium between community and music program; there was almost no distinction between the two. This was more than an effective parent-organizing group. At the summer festival I observed and helped with, the older students, who had already matriculated to college to study a myriad of topics, shouldered the responsibility of mentoring the younger students, performing alongside them in the festival and making it a success.

I remember being slightly dubious, prior to my trip, about what I saw as the “hype” around the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. I could not doubt their musicality and success, but I did not understand the flair with which they performed, and I felt it to be a detractor, simply because it was so different from any of my training and experience. However, meeting my friend and mentor Roberto Zambrano opened my mind and heart to this powerful version of music-making. And I realized that what I had previously seen as “flair” was actually genuine artistic expression from student musicians in the safest place imaginable, their orchestra.

In El Sistema USA, I have found a group that continues to challenge my “Why” question. February’s El Sistema USA National Symposium/Seminario was a great reminder of the power and plurality of the wider movement; the week’s conversations were driven by questions around “why, how, and for whom” regarding pedagogies, approaches, and repertoire. The Conference theme “Connect, Adapt, Thrive” led the Symposium committee to select presentations covering a gamut of concerns around music instruction and the communities we serve. The conference was imbued with a sense of hope, a passion for music, and a recentering of the conversations on equity, access, and cultural responsiveness to our communities in our music teaching. Most session topics could single-handedly have caused heated discussion in traditional music education conversations. Here, they were presented in the spirit of community, challenging us to be better by providing us with examples of success, not admonishment. The week was, for me, a chance to reconnect with my “Why,” as well as a welcome opportunity for connection and togetherness.

I know that all of you in our greater music for social change movement have been creating new avenues for music-making, with positive results. I implore you to take account of those valiant efforts. Refuse to let them go as the world strives for a return to “normal” that, let’s be honest, was not equitable for everyone. We have explored and developed new approaches and technologies to reach students; these cannot be allowed to go fallow if we are to remain dynamic music-makers. Keep pushing the envelope. If music is our vehicle for uplifting people and their communities, we should never be satisfied with our music pedagogy.

And if we are to approach our work with a “by any means necessary” mindset, let’s do so with our communities in mind. Prepare your students to employ the musical skills, cultural competencies, and artistic expressions that your programs foster. Today, my passion lives at the intersection between social justice practices and musical excellence. As a professional educator, I wish I had employed this community lens earlier in my work. A few Austrian friends once expressed envy of U.S. public school music education programs, mostly because of the continuum of instruction across a student’s life. In turn, I was envious of their community music programs—town ensembles that carry shared culture across time. In Roberto Zambrano’s music program (in Venezuela, and now at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra), I glimpsed both community and continuum in music education, and I will never forget it.

These ideas and conversations—those around music excellence, and those around empowering young people through community—are happening concurrently, right now. Let’s bring them together. We need each other; we need consensus; we need music! Working in distinct communities requires us to learn as much as we teach; what we do with that knowledge will determine how history views our work. Let’s make space for all of our students to discover their “flair” in the safest place imaginable, their orchestra.

I look forward to impactful music-making and learning with you all!

For more information on the ROCmusic Collaborative, visit their website.


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