Student Voices Take the Lead during YOLA National at Home

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

Student Voices Take the Lead during YOLA National at Home

Tricia Tunstall, Executive Editor, The Ensemble Newsletters


For close to a decade, the month of July has meant national Sistema gatherings hosted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and this year was no different—except that it was extremely different, because it was all virtual: YOLA National at Home.

The switch to digital led to a big increase in attendance. Attendees this year included 320 students and 1,142 non-students, some tuning in from Latin America and Japan. But the differences went far beyond numbers. Many of us are responding to pandemic times by hewing closely to what we’ve always done in person, moving as much of it online as possible. That’s exactly what the L.A. Phil did not do.

We often talk about El Sistema as an inquiry—and YOLA National at Home was a remarkable example of imaginative inquiry around three hot buttons in the current U.S./Canadian Sistema field: youth voice, professional development, and partnership. The inquiry was grounded in a decision to forgo the established structure and to create a flexible, open, multi-layered experience for all participants.

What has traditionally been the “Festival”—a ten-day seminario that brings together students from Sistema-inspired programs across the country to rehearse and perform—became an intensive summer learning program with open-source courses, masterclasses, project-based learning, and ongoing work within three symphonic student ensembles. A new layer was added, the YOLA National Institute, to provide in-depth training for young musicians interested in pursuing musical careers.

What has traditionally been the “Symposium”—a three-day conference for Sistema professionals—morphed into a three-week array of keynotes (by Gustavo Dudamel and Thomas Wilkins), presentations, and panel discussions around four themes: Community Voices, Teaching Insights, Pathway Explorations, and the Young Artist Series. All events were available free to both students and professionals, livestreamed on Zoom and YouTube.

“As we began to shift everything online,” YOLA Manager Angelica Cortez told me, “it became clear that we couldn’t say, ‘These things are for the students, those things are for the grownups.’ Things that we had traditionally separated out, we saw no reason to separate out. We decided it was not so helpful to have separate spaces for adults and children; they need to be in the same room. In the end, we invited everyone to participate in everything.”

This was a crucial decision. It meant that instead of students working in one set of spaces and adults in another, they were all often in the same conversations. Youth voice was not only prioritized—it was empowered, and it was consequential. Professional development, too, was galvanized by this new dimension: in most sessions, there were students in the room, students at the table. (And isn’t it interesting that this happened once there were no more actual rooms and tables?) The conversations changed. Issues of social justice, youth voice, and concepts of identity were front and center.

Another part of the L.A. Phil’s experimental inquiry was the development of several partnerships to further open up conversations. Classically Black, a podcast produced by violist Katie Brown and double bassist Dalanie Harris, worked with clarinetist Alex Laing in moderating sessions that centered Black voices and pathways in classical music. Project 440, founded and led by Philadelphia Orchestra double bassist Joseph Conyers, was another partner, offering YOLA National Symphony musicians a series of trainings with a dual focus on career-building and working toward the goals of music for social change.

A third partner was El Sistema USA, which contributed several sessions on best practices and helped organize forty 3rd-5th grade children from six member organizations across California to take part in a weeklong virtual seminario of their own. That seminario was led by the L.A. Phil’s fourth partner: Collective Conservatory, launched this year by Daniel Trahey in response to the pandemic. The CC staff worked with California students to create their own miniature DJ booths and record and collect “found sounds” around their homes. Their sonic output was edited to make elaborate collective soundscapes that were aired at a livestreamed drop party.

What’s the takeaway here, for those of us (i.e., all of us) without the L.A. Phil’s heft and resources? We can’t, of course, reproduce what they did. But we can note and aspire to the spirit of bold inquiry and experiment that guided their choices. It takes courage to commit to inquiry rather than to predictable results, especially when the predictable results are usually good. But our movement’s most remarkable results are often the outcomes of experiments that feel risky and unpredictable.

I believe that the L.A. Phil’s crucial experiment in blending student voice with professional development doesn’t have to end when we go back to in-person gathering; indeed, it will become more powerful. “We invited everyone to participate in everything”—just imagine what that scenario would look like and feel like in physical spaces filled with people. For Sistema inquiry, I can’t envision a better experiment than that.


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