Music education in public schools across the United States is wildly inconsistent, with some schools offering robust programs in instrumental and vocal music, and others offering none at all.
So I found it fascinating to speak with Brooklynn Phillips, who as Director of Education and Engagement for Bravo! Vail, is tasked this fall with expanding a music instruction program in a public school district that up until recently, has had almost no music education.
This at first might sound a little strange - Bravo! Vail, isn't that a summer music festival? And Vail, Colorado - isn't that a high-end resort town?
Yes and yes - but Vail is actually located in the rather rural Eagle County, Colorado, where the public schools serve a student community that is more than 50 percent Hispanic, with 32 percent being English Language Learners, and 42 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunch.
And Bravo! Vail actually has a year-round presence in Vail - not just in the summer. Founded in 1987, the organization has been expanding its educational mission ever since. Of course there are the educational programs associated with the summer festival, like audience education programs before concerts, professional development programs for accomplished young musicians, and internships in arts administration. But there are also a host of free programs for the community.
"Over the summer months we have more than 50 programs that are free for the community," Phillips said. "Actually, more than a third of what we do at Bravo is free for the community - we have our pre-concert talk series, library concerts for toddlers. We have hospital concerts and concerts at senior centers. And we also have chamber music series at the Vail Interfaith Chapel, and our Music Box.
But beyond that, "for eight months out of the year, during the academic school year, we have a program that offers weekly music classes for students grades two through 12," Phillips said.
Bravo! Vail started offering instruction in the Eagle County School District a dozen years ago with an after-school piano program, expanding to offer a violin program four years ago.
Recently, though, they have re-thought the program, coming up with a three-year plan to expand it.
"It's kind of an exciting venture we're undertaking," Phillips said. In the Eagle County School District, "six of our nine elementary schools have no music education, and Bravo is the only organization filling that gap. We have more than 120 kids on the waiting list for the program, and so over the next three years we are going to expand to be in all nine elementary schools, eliminate the wait list and turn our program completely bi-lingual, to serve our local population better."
They have even re-named the program, Music Makers Haciendo Música, to reflect the largely Hispanic population of the area, offering instruction in both Eagle and Lake County schools. (Neighboring Lake County is in Leadville, Colo.)
"For the first time, too, we're going from a group model with our violin classes and turning it into a curriculum that goes from grades two through 12, so no matter what school they go to, they'll have a place in an ensemble," she said.
Violin students will be able to begin anywhere between grades two through five, "and then we will provide them a place to continue their studies through 12th grade, no matter which school they attend and what that school may or may not offer," Phillips said. "We will have benchmarks that students meet to move on to the next level, so that students can progress at their own pace."
The first three levels, beginner, beginner-intermediate, and intermediate-advanced, will be in groups of no more than eight students. Upon completion of those levels, which should take three to five years on average, students will move up to an Ensemble "so they can learning skills of following a conductor and having a stand partner and all those things that if they want to play in a community orchestra are crucial to know, for violin," she said. "Our most advanced students will also form part of the advanced quartet after their ensemble study. This quartet will have the opportunity to perform throughout our community and integrate into our summer music festival."
The idea is to "provide a comprehensive path for students to develop technical violin skills, learn how to read music, learn about music theory and history, and finally experience an ensemble environment, with stand partners and following a conductor."
If this program seems a little different from typical school programs, it might be because it was influenced by Phillips' extensive experience teaching music in Perú with an El Sistema-inspired program called Sinfonía por el Perú.
"Sinfonía por el Perú is an organization with more than 10,000 youth across the country, in a very typical El Sistema-style program of intensive music study to help combat child labor and gang violence - things that are big issues in South America," said Phillips, who spent four years in Perú. "I came back to the U.S. and wanted to continue working in that, but in my home country, to be able to help progress music education in a part of this country where it's not provided in public schools."
"The issues the youth are facing in the United States are slightly different than in South America, but the tools that music can provide are the same: the leadership skills, the social-emotional learning, teamwork, and finding a sense of community through music," Phillips said.
One idea she took from her time in Perú was "getting out of this mindset that in Year One you must achieve this, this and this, and transitioning more to the mindset of: if we push our youth to achieve things, nine times out of 10 they will step up to the plate, if they have the tools to do so," Phillips said. "Incorporating that into our programs has been important."
Another idea: let go of perfectionism and perform more.
In Perú, "they would do 3,000-kid youth concerts around Christmas in the big town square in the major cities," Phillips said. "It's about creating tons of performance opportunities in the community so that the community knows who you are, and so the kids get out in the community more. It's less like, 'We have to be perfect before we can play in public,' and more about embracing the joy of music."
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