Being present as youth musicians come "into presence"

"Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language."
—  Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller

I saw the orange of his plaid shirt and the shine on his trombone before I saw the young man who wore both as extensions of his being, as he made his way to his awaiting family through the narrow passageway between the auditorium seating and the doors leading to the outdoor courtyard. A woman standing beside me against the wall between two open doors exclaimed words of congratulations to the boy, noting that the afternoon’s orchestral performance was “wonderful,” and “great!” The boy’s face showed a serious expression. “I only had to sight read the first piece.” He repeated himself and then explained with conviction, “I knew the rest, I just had to sight read the first piece.” The woman next to me beamed with a measured yet joyous pride as she told me of her grandson’s multiple musical accomplishments, that in addition to playing the trombone and the violin, he was more than adept at the drums, which he started playing at the age of five. The young man was just ten, and the roundness of face matched his age even as his maturing body belied his status as a musician still in elementary school. “They had him tested when he was five,” the grandmother continued, “and they told us he played [the drums] better than most twelve-year-olds. And now he wants to learn the piano.” I had barely finished uttering my “Wow” before she added two thoughts that made me wish I could stay and talk with her more extensively. First, she noted that music was in his blood, an influence of his grandmother. Then she smiled. It was a shy smile that she followed up by proudly stating that she was a graduate of Settlement Music School, a singer, who had been a member of a professional singing group. She paused momentarily – I suspected that it had less to do with allowing me to digest all of these fantastically intricate pieces of information that begged for follow-up, and everything to do with taking a moment to revel in that memory before continuing to regale me with tales of grandmotherly adoration – and when she continued she said, with a sort of excited urgency, that she, who had come from Delaware to see him perform, was encouraging him to “learn all the instruments!” Learn as many as he could, was her advice to her young, talented, earnest grandson. And within seconds they – the young man in his pumpkin orange shirt and his grandmother who was the picture of spring in deep purple – were in the slow but steadily moving line of humanity edging toward the stairs that led to the courtyard reception below.

This was a mere glimpse into the many stories in the lives of one young musician who was among the nearly three hundred who performed as part of the 2012 El Sistema Seminario concert held at West Catholic High School yesterday. Present were members from eight different youth orchestras from as near as Philadelphia’s own Play On, Philly! and as far away as Durham, NC and Newport News, VA, all of whom shared the ethos of the El Sistema global youth music movement. As I walked out, my mind filled with questions I might have asked and wish I could have asked the musicians, the parents, and other family members, the passers-by who happened to attend. I was struck by the way the young musicians worked and played together, the mutual allegiance youth and adults seemed to have for one another, and observations and thoughts about the silly debate that goes on in education policy about “the arts” – clearly anyone who marginalizes art-making and art-being has never attended a youth orchestra! But first, let’s go back to the beginning.

It was 4:54 pm when I arrived at the high school where I’d never been before despite spending many years living and later working with youth in the same neighborhood. Across the street is a mural of Paul Robeson and the side entry where a woman dressed in black from head to toe was handing out programs was lined with murals whose once vibrant colors had faded over time. Art was everywhere, for anyone who cared to notice.

Ascending the outdoor metal stairs to the auditorium level, I heard familiar sounds that increased in volume with each step and were fully amplified as I walked in and found an empty aisle seat a few rows from the front. The stage was overflowing with young people clutching their violins, waving bows in the air, responding with waves and smiles in the direction of family members who were doing the same as they desperately tried to get their child's attention from various vantage points inside the large room. In the audience, families quieted younger children and some searched for, then photographed names they recognized in the program. Near the stage, adults, all of whom were also dressed casually like the youth – most wearing jeans, that universal garment that has come to function as both uniform and talisman of ease in a bevy of uncertain social situations – attended to what looked like last minute requests and preparations. In one corner, a group of young women was singing softly and swaying smilingly; behind them two young men stood at the ready behind basses that towered over them; and from one corner of the large room to another, waves of shushing continued – it wasn’t altogether clear who was doing the shushing and who was being shushed.

And then suddenly a voice cut through the ambient chattering and shushing instructing everyone to be quiet so that the concert could begin. The room fell as silent as a room full of people sitting together in a slightly warm auditorium with overhead fans doing their best to cool the room could. Stanford Thompson (@stanfordleon), the director and founder of Play On, Philly! (@playonphilly) took the microphone and, after offering a note of thanks to a woman named Ms. Naomi who had quieted us down, provided a few words of introduction before turning to the eager faces in front of him. He told the audience, made up people of all ages who seemed to have some tie to what felt every bit like a human movement, that there were nearly three hundred students on stage, that people had traveled near and far to be here, and that what we would hear during the “short concert” were pieces that the large group had been practicing as individual groups and more recently as a massive, whole orchestra. He then thanked the parents and teachers who enabled this concert to happen. Loud applause. To introduce the first piece, Thompson, also wearing jeans and a tan, lightly striped tee shirt, simply described it as a “collection of songs you’ll all know.” He then turned to the expectant orchestra and said “Spiritual Melody” before handing the mic to someone and standing on top of wooden chair so that he could be seen by the whole group.

Thompson energetically signaled for the group to start and the first notes came streaming out – strings, woodwinds, and possibly the tingling cling of the triangle, which had a starring role throughout the concert. Even as I should have known the first piece, recognition eluded me so I just enjoyed watching the performers, only about a third of whom were playing at first. Others looked on, predictably waiting for their turn to join the composition in progress. The orchestra easily transitioned into the second selection, a rendition of “Ava Maria,” and I think the pair of women sitting behind me as well as a few others in seats several rows to my right were singing along. The little boy next to me looked at the women behind us, then looked at me and we both smiled. Now this was a concert.

It was during the third selection when I noticed the violinist who played the music with her whole body. With each measure, she bloomed with musical energy that matched the vibrancy of her fuchsia top and matching flower hairpin.  She bent from side to side, swaying as she applied vibrato to coax a few more decibels from her violin strings. In between numbers, her horn-rimmed glasses remained fixed on the music stand in front of her that she shared with a bespectacled fellow musician whose muted, pastel striped shirt belied the animated personality that was on display after the concert. The selection of spiritual songs ended as more applause erupted from the grinning and altogether charmed audience. It was then that I noticed the cameras blanketing the aisles, held in varying lengths from people’s faces and serving as filters through which many of my fellow music lovers – at least for the afternoon that’s what they were – were receiving the music.

The second piece was conducted by Rey Ramirez from the Soundscapes orchestra program in Newport News, VA, who will be the hosts for next year’s concert extravaganza. He led the group in a performance of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” It is fair to say that feeding off the energy of engaged young people already puts me in a truly blissful mood, but when a subset of the orchestra broke out into song and married the lyrics with the instrumentals, I fought hard to keep the bliss from pouring out of my eyes. The players-turned-singers were led by a woman wearing a sleeveless, black dress and was the owner of sculpted upper arms who, like Thompson earlier and Ramirez, who also stood on the wooden chair beside her, conducted with exuberance. The boys and the girls sang with earnest, a few closed their eyes when they were trying to hit a high note or hold a long note, and still others smiled with a combination of shyness and pride. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I, too, sang along for a few bars.

Before the third and final piece started, Thompson introduced yet another conductor, Dan Trahey who leads the Tuned In orchestra in Baltimore. Trahey started off with some shoutouts to the various cities represented in the orchestra and in the seats as audience members gleefully obliged by cheering when their city was called including New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. He then offered a few more words about the mission of this collaborative effort to increase access to music and to “get music into kids’ lives.” This work, he noted, was motivated by a desire to “change kids’ lives and society through music” noting that present in the multi-orchestra group in front of us were young people from “different races, different genders” – suggestive of a microcosm of the nation and world, more broadly. This last observation elicited not only cheers and applause, but a few Arsenio-type rolling fist pumps in the air.

The last piece, Finlandia, had a thunderous beginning that heavily featured the percussionists, and it was while paying attention closely to the way the beginning unfolded that I noticed the various ways in which adults were peppered throughout the orchestra: as musicians, as page turners and enthusiastic cheering squads. In this piece, too, as the music fell almost completely quiet except for a solo (an oboe, perhaps? My ear is a bit off, so pardon the uncertainty here!), the singing began. While holding their instruments, some looking directly ahead, others looking at each other, and still others making eye contact with loved ones, the musicians became singers once more and delivered lyrics of peace, of hopes and dreams. They were what they sang. And we the audience, appropriately moved, leapt to our feet as the last note evaporated into the air. More fist pumps, more cheers, a parade of cameras (including the man in the front recording the performance with his iPad) and applause.

The adults, the youth, the families and supportive audience members – they were all players in this performance, each one somehow committed to the success of this afternoon, wherein success was neither tested nor measured but plainly observed, felt, and celebrated. The violinist in fuchsia, the trombone player in orange, and the bass player with the black pants and matching vest – each of these young people and their many fellow youth orchestra members are part of a beautiful story that is being written through music. Not all of them will become musicians, but they each, at least for a short time, will have had music in their lives in a most intimate way. And yesterday afternoon, through music, they brought joy into the lives of a few hundred others.

I write these words from a vantage point of an educator and researcher of young people’s lives, their literate practices, and their creative endeavors. And being in the presence of these young musicians this weekend and last weekend has brought the ever-present education angst into sharper focus. The rhetoric surrounding schooling seems to move ever further and further away from education. The discourse has become – or rather continues to be – saturated with band-aid “solutions” about how to “fix” a system that is presupposed to be a complex if/then statement premised up readymade packets of information and methods of digestion and evaluation. But the more I read -- academic and popular publications, alike -- the less I see any sense of purpose in how school is being understood. That is, there seems to be no imagination or consideration about how to escape a pre-ordained sense of what schooling should be and thus an inability to move beyond “doing school” as the “simple insertion of the human individual into a preexisting order.” And I can’t help but think of the theme song from “Kids are people, too.” It’s really as simple as that – kids are not less than people. They are people. Period.

In spaces, like Play on, Philly! and the other El Sistema-inspired youth orchestras, where young people are taken seriously and invited in to explore oeuvres and create their own – artistic and otherwise – there appears to be education occurring wherein education might be seen as a “focus on the ways in which the new beginning of each and every individual can come ‘into presence.’” Gert Biesta, from whose book Beyond learning: Democratic education for a human feature, argues for an education that nurtures every-one's coming into presence and, one might argue, an education that is nourished by pedagogical trust. In doing so, he implicitly honors and extends the words from Hannah Arendt that are included as an epigraph to his book:
“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” 
To notice and to be seen, to listen and to be heard, to be expected to work hard (not simply because others have done so or because that is what one is supposed to do, but because each individual contributes to the larger whole), to come into presence – a system seems too large of a unit of analysis at times, so for the time being I will seek out smaller spaces that allow young people to pursue these goals that may allow each of them and each of their stories to “come into presence” in whatever way seems right, and seek bliss in the process.. To wit, Ammons’ poem seems an apt place to pause for now:

Poetics, by A.R. Ammons

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiraling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

not the shape on paper -- though
that, too -- but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

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