National Take a Stand Festival & Symposium

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

National Take a Stand Festival & Symposium

Stephanie Lin Hsu, Founding Director, Yakima Music en Acción (YAMA)


When visionary partnership combines with vigorous activism in the field, the sky’s the limit. That was the feeling in Los Angeles last week, where the 5th annual Take a Stand Symposium ran parallel to – and intersected with – the National Take a Stand Festival. Both symposium and festival were sponsored by the Take a Stand partnership of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bard College, and the Longy School of Music of Bard College, a collaboration that has consistently provided the field with frameworks for creative inquiry and growth.

While our most accomplished students were together for the first time, deep in the life-transformative intensity of rehearsing with the Festival orchestra for their final concert, we – their program leaders, teaching artists, funders and supporters – were nearby in symposium conference rooms, discussing the central themes and urgent questions of our evolving field.

I remember that the first Take a Stand Symposium in 2012 was shaped by questions such as “How should we go about starting an El Sistema program?” and “What outcomes should we evaluate, and how?” This year’s symposium, which included YOLA students as participants, was framed by very different questions, signaling our relative maturity as a field. Questions that arose from workshops, facilitated discussions, and organic dialogue included: “What tools can we use to facilitate our students’ musical excellence while simultaneously achieving the social goals essential for their success?” and “How do the traditional conventions of orchestra coexist with the lived experience of our students?”

Two pedagogical threads ran through the entire symposium: “Creative Music Making,” with OrchKids director Dan Trahey, and “Strings – Finger! Bow! Go!” with Suzuki trainer Ed Sprunger; these, along with a site visit to YOLA at HOLA, kept us grounded in practice. An abundance of other presentation topics included redefining quality and excellence…helping students move through transitions…perspectives on the national and international movement…and more. I got to be a part of many conversations that were infused with humility, curiosity, a growth mindset, and a spirit of collective responsibility.

An especially striking aspect of this symposium was its highlighting of substantial research initiatives that are currently underway and beginning to roll out valuable findings. No fewer than four prominent studies were featured, all of them partnerships between Sistema-inspired programs and academic or independent research enterprises. One of the studies, by WolfBrown, is the first to produce a truly nationwide perspective; the researchers studied12 core sites across the U.S for three years, and in the process developed measurements and instruments specifically tailored to Sistema research – which they are making available for all programs to use. [The Ensemble will cover this research more fully in a future issue.]

One exciting tension that arose from the TaS Symposium dynamic was the relationship between excellence and failure. The pursuit of excellence is a motor that propels most El Sistema-inspired programs. The symposium addressed our collective desire to strive toward excellence in every way, from the pursuit of musical excellence for and with our young people, to program excellence by our community’s standards, to excellence as teaching artists and program leaders.

Newer to many of us was the idea that frustration and failure play important roles in learning. From Sprunger’s Suzuki workshops, I learned about the importance of “frustration tolerance.” From the results of the YOLA study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, I learned about “failure mindset”—the belief that failure is necessary and helpful rather than debilitating and something to be avoided. If we never fail, is it possible to achieve excellence?

With the active presence of YOLA students throughout the symposium and the powerful performance of the Festival orchestra at the final concert, excellence was embodied and alive all around us. But we can learn just as much from the frustrations we experience on a weekly or even daily basis. What will you learn from a failure or frustration this summer, that will infuse your own pursuit of excellence in the year to come?

[For another perspective on the Festival, read Mark Swed’s article in the LA Times:]ybtw4usp


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