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Working with Urban Youth
Adam Eccleston, Program Director, BRAVO Youth Orchestras in Portland, OR
As a teacher, musician and administrator in an El Sistema-inspired program, I ask myself four principal questions every September. First, Who are our students? In my community, they are generally black and Hispanic, from low-income and/or single-parent households or dual language households. In choosing how to shape ensembles and repertoire, I rely heavily on my students’ backgrounds; I often make choices that help them learn from one another about their different languages, holidays, and cultures.
Second, What do our students want? Certainly, every student wants to feel successful. I believe that students also want to relate to what they’re playing. When I teach my ensembles Handel’s “Water Music,” I talk about London’s River Thames, which is like their city’s wonderful river. I tell them how the royal family has always been white – until now! My students create their own version of the royal court, making their own crowns and tiaras, scepters and capes – and taking turns walking and playing the piece!
Third, What do our students need? Our students benefit from regimens, such as class agreements and warm-up routines. Further, they need validation and positive reinforcement. For example, when Eric volunteered to help Felipe, who was struggling with a tough passage, I sent Eric a thank you card. Validation can also be in the form of inviting guest artists of various genres and cultural backgrounds. Every week for 30 minutes, our program brings in guest artists who introduce novel techniques such as sound bathing or looping; this encourages our students to explore the many forms music can take.
Lastly, How can we, the teachers, fulfill their needs and ours? Students need leaders and champions, especially ones that look like them and represent their future. If that is not you, that’s okay, as long as equity, diversity and variety are priorities in your ensemble. Most essential: talk! Talk to parents and caretakers, and to the classroom teachers who are with your students six hours a day. Maybe even invite them to concerts. They’ll be surprised what students can do through the power of music.