World Ensemble Day at SEYO
Eric Booth, Cofounder, The Ensemble and World Ensemble Newsletters
Twenty-something short videos in an online gallery. They aren’t the finalists for a film festival “short film” competition, or a set of algorithm-selected favorites. They are us, the best of us—short films about innovative solutions that music for social change programs around the world submitted for World Ensemble Day workshops at SEYO (Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra) Summerfest 2021. World Ensemble Day celebrated the proud history and healthy future of innovation to address the challenges and fulfill the high goals of our programs—a fitting presentation for a news hub that exists to connect our field around all kinds of aspirational ideas.
I began the presentation with a warm-up exercise that surfaced an overlooked tendency in our field. I presented a challenge: “Students are leaving snack wrappers on the floor; how might we change this habit?” The Zoom chat box filled up with suggestions of playful things we could do with wrappers, but none were innovative ways to change the problematic habit of thoughtless littering. How often are we guilty of this tendency—investing our innovative energies to make the problem less obnoxious, but not targeting the more challenging work of change? Happily, the videos we went on to study, and the activities we engaged in, aimed squarely at change.
In the day’s first session, small breakout groups went on scavenger hunts in the video gallery to find videos with the most promising ideas. The video from El Sistema Japan shared the way they sometimes disrupt orchestra seating—using circles with one of each different instrument, so that students listen sharply and take greater responsibility for their parts. This idea captivated many attendees, spurring them to imagine ten more ideas for cool orchestra-seating experiments, to help students develop new skills. The video from Keys2Success (in Newark, NJ) shared their Practice-A-Thon project, which highlights the importance and process of practice and raises money for the program at same time. Among our attendees, five innovative ideas sprang up about using practice to raise community awareness, have fun, and make money.
Sistema Whangerei (New Zealand) challenged everyone with a video about their two-day commitment to arts-based research. They felt they weren’t hearing deeply enough what their students needed and wanted, so they used a music-based research practice to hear their students as individual artists more deeply. Sam Winterton, who led the work in Whangerei and made the video, joined World Ensemble Day to describe the innovative process. Imagine investing two days to discover more about your students’ inner lives! According to Sam, the results have been curriculum changes and dramatic increases in student motivation and agency.
These videos, and many others, await your visit to the Ensemble News website!
In the second half of the workshop, we created innovative solutions on the spot—a dozen of them: ways to strengthen students’ musical ambition; ways to engage communities more fully. It was interesting to note that all the initial innovative ideas to boost community connections were centered on bringing the community into the program, rather than ways to bring the program more deeply into the community. This was a reminder that we need to check our assumptions before we innovate—we might be missing a blind spot. They got this in Whangerei; they understood that the motivation issues weren’t in the kids, but in the limitations of the ways they were hearing the kids. Sam Winterton showed us how a program can inquire its way into a whole new chapter.
If innovating is so great, and if teachers and staff like it so much (as a workshop poll overwhelmingly indicated), why aren’t our programs innovating all the time? Two clear answers arose—not surprising, but serious: time and fear. The latter is harder to admit. We fear failure. We have placed the stakes too high around trying new things. This workshop led to a clear cry for the need to create cultures of experimentation wherein failure is no big deal, just part of the process of continual advancement. We touched just a bit on “how” answers. How do you create an atmosphere of courageous experimentation? An important question for every program to answer. You know good answers, I am sure, but can you take the steps to enact them?
The other innovation inhibitor—time—is simpler on its face but harder to address creatively. Participants recognized that innovation requires dedicated and protected time, to generate ideas together, to plan innovations together, to check in about the learning along the way. Time to invest in high quality as the innovation proceeds. But we generally don’t support innovation by dedicating protected time for it to flourish. That’s why we don’t innovate as well or as regularly as we could.
If we were to prioritize and support innovation, we might follow leads such as those that quickly sprang forth in our session; there was a spray of ideas about new ways to invite used instrument donations, ways to build deeper relationships with donors, and ways to address the needs of community members more directly. To build students’ musical hunger, we heard ideas about student repertoire selection committees, giving students project management responsibilities, composition projects, students giving lessons to administrators, and arranging for college students to get credit for service hours.
At one point, Tricia Tunstall presented a speed-through history of Sistema/music-for-social-change as a series of innovations that sprang from facing challenges creatively. It was fitting: innovation shows us at our best. It is the only way we can uncover the best ways to achieve our complex mission of social advancement through musical accomplishment. Supporting the natural impulse to experiment in the face of challenges is the future of our field. World Ensemble Day showed how ready we are to do it, if we choose to prioritize it, support it, and follow its lead.