Scenes from the YOLA National Symposium

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

Scenes from the YOLA National Symposium

Libby O’Neil, Executive Director, East Lake Expression Engine


Dudamel rehearsing the YOLA Chamber Ensemble. Photo: Miloš Tošić.

The work of running an El Sistema-inspired program can sometimes feel intensely lonely. But last weekend at the YOLA National Symposium in Los Angeles, this work felt rich with community—with good music, new friends, and shared experiences. The Symposium’s umbrella theme was, simply, “Change,” and participants approached that theme with joy, experimentation, challenge, and connection.

As our shuttle bus from the hotel approached the new Beckman YOLA Center, I heard a few gasps from fellow attendees in response to such a beautiful building. All the details, right down to the easily replaced carpet squares, were designed with young people in mind. My favorite part of the building was the artist’s entrance for students—to honor them as performers.

The new YOLA building in Inglewood, CA. Photo: Miloš Tošić.

The Symposium opened with an electric performance by some of Los Angeles’ most prolific music, dance, and community voices, Kati Hernandez, Kahlil Cummings, Afimaye Galarraga, and Alberto Lopez, and keynote remarks by Ana Maria Alvarez—choreographer, mother, artivist and Founding Artistic Director of L.A.-based activist dance theater CONTRA-TIEMPO—who posed this question: “What happens when we fail? How do we pick up the pieces and continue to boldly spiral upwards?”

Over the next three days, Symposium participants were offered a wide array of sessions in a hybrid format—some in person, some virtual and livestreamed, and some with pre-recorded videos. The sessions centered around themes of social justice, youth voice, pedagogical challenges, and partnerships; the formats ranged from PowerPoints to participatory music-making.

Many sessions featured perspectives from outside of our field. Activist Patrisse Cullors offered inspiration around social justice, defining her “abolitionist” perspective as “fundamentally about caring.” She’s best known for her work in the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, so it was exciting to hear her say, “I was an artist before I was politicized.”

Sociology professor Manuel Pastor spoke forcefully about how inequality stunts economic growth, and how bringing together equity and growth requires concerted local action. And Classically Black podcast hosts Katie Brown and Dalanie Harris spoke about how our programs often live in a place of conflict by adhering to European classical music traditions while committing to social justice. In this session, I got a glimpse of how powerful that place of conflict can become when we use our resources well.

Other presenters were practitioners in the field of music for social change. YAMA’s Stephanie Hsu and Alex Pualani led a tactical, playful workshop on the multi-level method they use to help students celebrate incremental progress and better engage peer teaching. In the context of that drinking-from-a-firehose conference feeling, it was marvelous to “play” together; the room became an imaginary string orchestra as we sang, clapped, spoke, and air-bowed our way through the levels.

ESUSA panel with Angelica Cortez, Alonzo Chadwick, Liz Moulthrop, Lorrie Heagy, and Meghan Johnson. Photo: Miloš Tošić.

Tricia Tunstall’s presentation focused on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s); she led participants in workshopping how our programs could make a case for support by aligning with one or more of these goals. Of the new partners we might find by operating this way, she said: “They don’t think of partnering with us, so we have to think of it for them.”

Lorrie Heagy and her colleagues from Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM) presented a vivid glimpse of her program’s new initiative to teach music in Lingít, the aboriginal language of the Indigenous people whose community they serve. Only 30 people in the world now are fluent in Lingít; the objective is to help revive the language in the context of music.

Eric Booth’s session, from the perspective of a longtime ally and critical friend, issued a powerful challenge to do better at contributing to the field as a whole—which means gathering meaningful data about our collective impact. Both for our own movement and for the larger field of arts for social justice, we need to become a generous laboratory, contributing to and learning from one another’s work.

Other sessions touched on a diverse range of topics, including songwriting, ensemble composition, curriculum, graphic scores, youth development, Black composers’ legacies, drum circles, culturally responsive teaching digital tools—and joy. And The Ensemble team itself was there, hosting a session on “telling your story” using various media.

Saturday morning offered us the opportunity to sit in on a YOLA string orchestra rehearsal conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Leading with both high-intensity praise and an equally intense critical lens, Dudamel captivated audience members as well as students. The young musicians were too shy to speak, but their playing improved dramatically as they responded to his playful, sometimes fanciful guidance.

Playfulness permeated his conducting as well—not only with the young people, but also with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in a Disney Hall performance of Mahler 4 on Thursday night. Clearly, he was having fun, and the musicians were having fun with him. It felt as though beautiful music and passion were themselves products of play.

Of the Symposium as a whole, MYCincinnati‘s Bernardo Lopez said, “It was an opportunity to be inspired by our colleagues doing the same work we’re doing, across the states. Like-minded, growth-centered people were willing to be vulnerable, share space, and grow together.”

The author, standing at left, with colleagues. Photo: Miloš Tošić.

Gerdlie Jean Louis, a student in the YOLA National Institute, said: “My biggest takeaway was to make space for conversation. And they did it successfully, though I wish there were more youth involved. Overall, I think it encouraged program directors to grow and change.”

My primary takeaway from four days of learning (and perhaps changing): gratitude. I came home richer in inspiration, tools, ideas, and friendship, and a little more healed from the last year and a half. I remember a particular moment when a circle of us realized that all our programs are of a similar age and face similar challenges. It was a collective realization that froze time; a resounding “you too?” rang out. In that moment, I felt seen and understood. As Kirk Johnson, Founder and CEO of Sounds Academy, said: “I don’t often get to meet organizations that are our age!”

I left the Symposium confident that, if we remain open to one another’s experiences and insights, we can rise to meet the challenges ahead. Ours is a generous community, and it was a wonderful privilege to learn from my colleagues and hear about their work. More than ever, I am hopeful about the future of music education for social justice.


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