WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘art education’

I have recently been conducting research in connection with the New Jersey Symphony’s efforts to develop a strategic plan for their arts education programs. In looking to identify effective educational programming offered by other orchestras, it is nearly impossible to avoid the influence of El Sistema, Venezuela’s highly successful youth education program that provides free musical training to hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s poorest students. A number of U.S. orchestras are working to adapt the El Sistema system in their own cities, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Baltimore Symphony, and the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio. New England Conservatory has established a fellowship program, (which Tom Wolf wrote about in his article in the April 16th On Our Minds) for those interested in establishing El Sistema programs outside of Venezuela. And an El Sistema USA network has been set up to support those interested in the program. A conference was recently held in Los Angeles at which both the successes and the challenges of translating the program to the United States were discussed. Not surprisingly, the current need for “proof” of the effectiveness of the program in order to generate funder support is one of the challenges that U.S. implementers are facing. In Venezuela, financial support, which happens at the national level, is based on qualitative evaluation only. Will U.S. programs be able to model their evaluation efforts on the same foundation of qualitative research? Is collecting stories enough to convince funders to step up and contribute?  I can only hope so, as these programs introduce young people to a lifetime passion for music, and help develop future orchestra audiences.


Several of my WolfBrown colleagues have been working tirelessly to promote the understanding that art education, as well as greater focus on math and science, is critical to the creativity and innovation that drive our economic growth and vitality – in other words, the “creative capital” about which so much is written. I was thus astonished to learn, in attending the annual conference of the National Association of Art Educators (NAEA) a couple of weeks ago, how resistant visual art educators remain to mentoring creative process in the classroom.  Instead, most apparently prefer to teach the fundamentals of art (meaning line, form, and the color wheel), despite efforts to elevate the purpose and standards of arts education as championed in The Qualities of Quality: Excellence in Art Education study, underwritten by the Wallace Fund and the Arts Education Partnership.

And yet, there is hope: both “creativity” and reform are hot topics among the field’s leaders.  I attended a session, for example, in which Kerry Freedman, a professor at Northern Illinois University, and three graduate students described their efforts to craft curricula at the district level. Thanks to their efforts, youngsters will now explore the references at work in “visual culture” and how they influence us in both conscious and unconscious ways.  Julia Marshall, a professor at San Francisco State and my sister, offered a fascinating case study in which high school students “invented” tools to address chronic social or environmental problems about which they are concerned. Julia’s case study, “Thinking Outside and On the Box,” was published in the most recent edition of Art Education.**  They both offer cause for optimism.


It seems that many of WolfBrown’s clients are helping answer the question of what it means to be a productive and successful musician in the 21st century, and discovering that one of the more important components of being a complete musician now is about engaging in your community in a deep and personal way.  Recently, I’ve been inspired by programs that promote and support community engagement, including:

  • Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island supports a professional string quartet and other musicians using music to help build and transform community.
  • Weill Music Institute and Carnegie Hall’s joint program called Musical Connections takes music out of the concert hall and directly to people who don’t readily have access to live music (e.g., hospital patients, prisoners, seniors). The program also supports participating artists through its Professional Development program.
  • Carnegie Hall and Weill are also partnering with the Juilliard School and the New York City Department of Education on The Academy, a two-year fellowship program for up and coming professional musicians which helps them to develop community engagement and leadership skills along with artistic excellence.
  • The New England Conservatory (NEC) has a number of programs that focus on community, including musical entrepreneurship that WolfBrown helped design and the American version of Venezuela’s El Sistema, a voluntary musical education program.

Tony Woodcock, President of the NEC, in a recent talk at the Salzburg Seminars last month discussing NEC’s programs and innovations around professional musicians, quoted Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of the El Sistema program in Venezuela: “It is not enough for them (musicians) to love their instruments; they must also learn to love their responsibilities as citizens. They need to be apostles to the community.”  I think this pretty much sums up the importance of artists’ activity within their community – agents of social change.



Arts Education Matters

March 4th, 2010

In a recent series of visits to schools and after school programs, I had the chance to remember why this work matters.  In many classrooms, no activity lasted more than three minutes.  Classes opened with short “do-nows,” followed by mini-lessons, then practice, then small groups, then reading journals, then assignment notebooks.  Children and adults knew and moved through their routines – with Buzby Berkeley-like precision.  No one loitered.  No one faltered.  There were no “side conversations” allowed.  Then in one primary classroom, a teacher opened and read a beautifully illustrated book.  Everyone – adult and children alike – spent time “just” inspecting the pictures.  Slowly, they shared what they each noticed, producing a lattice of possibilities.  Children remembered, connected, and re-visited earlier stories they had read together.  For an entire half an hour, something developed, grew more complex, acquired meaning – and hung there to be admired.


Arts education for youth has been recognized as a long-term strategy for developing cultural participants of the future. Because of my own personal interest and my involvement in projects here at WolfBrown, I have an eye out for research on the impact and effectiveness of programs in this area. RAND and the Wallace Foundation have done a tremendous amount of writing on this topic over the past few years. I recently ran across a “Readers Digest” version of their findings, which is helpful for those who are short of time but are interested in current thinking about effective programs in this area. The summary is concise, four pages, and provides references to other more extensive writings for those interested.

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