Student Empowerment in Music Learning

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

Student Empowerment in Music Learning

Karen Cueva, Manager of Learning & Engagement Programs at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute


Students as leaders. Increasingly, teaching artists in U.S. Sistema-inspired programs have been thinking about this important idea.

In February, a group of music teaching artists and program directors came together for a PlayUSA workshop on “Empowering Students to Lead.” PlayUSA is an initiative of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute that supports quality instrumental instruction reaching young musicians in local communities across the country. The workshop brought together faculty from 13 PlayUSA grantee organizations, including Sistema programs and other instrumental music education organizations, to focus on student agency in musical learning.

PlayUSA partners arrived at this workshop at the midway point in a yearlong exploration of “collaborative action research inquiries,” in which lead teaching artists identify a question that focuses on a challenging aspect of teaching practice. This part of the PlayUSA grantee partnership was developed in consultation with WolfBrown, an arts evaluation firm.

Teaching artists from five Sistema-based organizations took part in the workshop, having the opportunity to meet each other and learn from top educators and teaching artists in the field. Dr. César Cruz, co-founder of Homies Empowerment, an afterschool program in Oakland, California for gang-involved youth, led a keynote session on the journey to becoming culturally responsive educators. His ideas resonated with Pamela Kihnley from Tocando, a Sistema-based program affiliated with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, who said, “Our collaborative action research focuses on courage, and this workshop gave us so many ideas on giving the kids more of a voice in the classroom.

Nick Malinowski, executive director of the Sistema-based Kidznotes program in Durham, North Carolina, was inspired by the workshop’s focus on culturally responsive teaching. “I would like for our students to know about their heritage… so that they can be made to feel more at home in the U.S.,” he said, “especially since many either have emigrated [themselves] or are from families who have emigrated from Mexico.”

The workshop also included a session by composer and teaching artist Thomas Cabaniss that used instrumental improvisation and circle singing as ways to elevate student voice and agency. “We are already incorporating activities from Tom’s session into our teaching,” said Adrienne Taylor, resident cellist and Daily Orchestra Program Director at Community MusicWorks in Providence, RI.

Allison Loggins-Hull, flutist and teaching artist at Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program, led a session on cultivating meaningful student and teacher relationships. And an open rehearsal featuring students from Opportunity Music Project, an NYC Sistema-inspired program,was led by Randal Swiggum and Margaret Jenks, who guided the students in playing a piece by their classmate, 13-year-old Arianelle Arroyo, entitled “Going South.”

Jessica Garand, executive director of Opportunity Music Project, said, “When our students are given space to explore their creativity and have their voices sincerely heard, learning deepens. It creates a way for students to become not just recipients of information, but creators in their artistic spaces.”

El Sistema Oklahoma, another PlayUSA partner, is focusing its inquiry on exploring the instructional strategies used to transition students from sound to sight. This has resulted in rich dialogue across the program to reframe behavioral challenges in the classroom as opportunities to increase student engagement, through a variety of rehearsal strategies and diverse repertoire selection. Carnegie Hall will be sponsoring an inter-visitation in mid-April, bringing lead teaching artists from partner sites across the country to Oklahoma City to further discuss ways to impact the ways rehearsals and lessons are led.

This year’s commitment to student agency and empowerment is part of PlayUSA’s greater call to action to develop instrumental programs that are responsive to student needs and receptive to their voices. Through changes big and small, local and national, the PlayUSA community is looking at ways to improve student learning and give them the courage to take the lead.


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