Striving to Be Better

By Andrea Landin

It is absolutely invigorating to be in the room with 60 children completely immersed in performing a piece of music together – counting under their breath, listening and watching as if their life depended on it, eyes shining with pride when they hit their highest note without a squeak.  Our New West Symphony Harmony Project student concerts are perhaps the opposite of traditional symphony concerts: toddlers dancing to the music, older brothers recording on their cell phones, the wide range of repertoire (think Mozart, Mexican folk music, and the Mario Brothers back to back). Nonetheless, the energy and passion on stage inspire me every time to be a better musician, teacher, and person. By the time I return home from each performance, no matter how exhausted I am, in my mind the sparks are flying with possibility. There is no limit to what our students can accomplish.  

New West Symphony Harmony Project promotes the healthy growth and development of children and communities in Ventura, California, through learning, practicing, and performing music. We reach out specifically to children from low income families who would not otherwise have access to a such an opportunity, with the belief that music can change lives and that everyone has the right to develop their musical potential.  We focus specifically on West Ventura (known locally as “The Avenue”), where poverty and crime rates are high. 100% of our students are from Title I schools, and within Sheridan Way Elementary, our original site, approximately 1 in 6 families are homeless. The majority of parents’ primary language is Spanish, and most of the students in the program are the first person in their family to play an instrument.

While the novelty, passion, and joy that comes with teaching and playing music is both satisfying and addicting in its own right, I constantly remind myself that music is not the ends in it of itself, but rather a means to positive transformation.  In an effort to more effectively think about our program’s objectives, I recently framed the question: if we truly adhere to and realize our mission, where will these students be in 10 years? I encouraged other teachers to think similarly, and write down their own dreams for the children they work with. We then asked ourselves: based on these aspirations, how do we work backwards in order to bring students closer to becoming who they want to be? For example, where will students be in 8 years, 5 years, or 1 year? Next month? Today? And when our intentions are so far reaching, how do we measure our success as we go along?

While I don’t think that shaping our program with these questions in mind is unique by any means, I have noticed how easily this futuristic thinking can lost in the day to day challenges of running a music program like Harmony Project, where priorities more often than not become untuned violins and grant deadlines. Every day, I find myself wavering between a micro and macro perspective: What does this child need at this very moment to be able to play the D Major scale, and what does this child need to be successful as an adult? What can we do for this one particular family who can’t pick up their child from rehearsal because both parents work at night, and how can we make the greatest impact on this neighborhood? Which decision for our upcoming concert will make this piece sound the most in tune and in time, and what will most genuinely build community?

I always tell our students that in 10 years they will be the ones organizing and executing Harmony Project. In order to encourage this future oriented thinking, we try to create a culture of engagement and giving back, through a student leadership committee, older kids as “teaching assistants”, and turning concerts into student run productions as much as possible. Most importantly, at the end of each semester, students take the time to fill out a self reflection form, in which one of the questions is “How can I be a better musician and citizen?” Last year, one young cellist answered, “I can learn the Bach Suite no. 1. and I can help others more”.  For some reason these two statements put together made me pause:  at first glance it was an example of futuristic thinking in two seemingly unrelated realms (playing the cello and assisting peers). But perhaps the two aspirations are more related than we think; for if we are intentional enough in how we teach students and build the program, our musical integrity may just lead us to connect more deeply with ourselves and others ­ all the while striving to be better people.

Andrea Landin is the Program Director of New West Symphony Harmony Project in Ventura, CA. A cellist and anthropologist, she was a recipient of the Sistema Fellowship at New England Conservatory in 2012/­2013. She recently received a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to explore socially oriented music curriculum, and continues to search for effective and intentional ways of using music to bring about positive transformation.

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