All-Bach Fest!

I love making music with Community MusicWorks. This weekend, I had the privilege of playing in the all-Bach concert at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence. We played Brandenburg concertos and other great pieces that really move people.


Rehearsal: Tim Macri was the flute soloist in Brandenburg No. 5 and the Polonaise and Badinerie from the B Minor Orchestral Suite.

The music was fantastic, but the people involved really brought it to life. Whether it was Fred making the audience roar in laughter about Bach’s letters; Chloe making her viola shine; Minna playing a beautiful cadenza; Sebastian adding color with his fun pink striped shirt [see below]; or Liz creating a wonderful meal for the musicians, each person helped to create an incredible experience for the audience and musicians alike.

Bach3Fred and Sebastian unwind after the concert.

The location was perfect–a beautiful library with tall ceilings and lots of fancy woodwork. A room surrounded by great books, with huge paintings and tapestries decorating the walls.

The audience was varied–retired folks, CMW families, CMW board members, friends, and many others. My favorite audience member was the little guy [a CMW sibling] in the front row who succumbed to sleepiness about halfway through the concert.

At intermission, I ventured out into the audience and was stopped several times by audience members expressing their appreciation and enthusiasm. They wanted to know about what was behind this incredible concert, and it gave me an opportunity to tell them about the amazing way CMW engages and involves the community.

Bach2Longy ladies (l-r): Sarah, Rachel, Arlyn (now a CMW Fellow)

What strikes me most about all of my experiences with CMW is the all-pervasive spirit of inclusiveness I sense whenever I am around CMW folks. They are a humble and fun group of musicians who genuinely desires to make life better for everyone else.

Thank you, Community MusicWorks!

-Sarah Glenn, violin

The culture doesn’t speak, people do.

"The culture doesn’t speak, people do." -Maxine Greene

Reflections on Conversations Across Culture: Community Arts Education, Exploring Possibilities, a conference at Teachers College, Columbia University, November 9 & 10, 2007.

(Or, "Minna, Sebastian, Arlyn & Rachel’s trip to the Big Apple.")

We talk about empowerment. But what kind of power are we talking about? The overwhelming answer at this conference was the power of the individual voice. This conference reminded us of the long history of Community Arts Education, shared with us some of the great work going on in other branches of the arts, but also reminded us of what makes CMW so gosh darn unique in the field today. 

As for a history, the idea behind settlement houses was that the reformers would settle there rather than swoop in from somewhere else. Lillian Wald consciously worked to distance herself from the elite superiority of reformers that characterized the times in developing the Henry Street Settlement with immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. 

We saw students’ own work from the Education Video Center, where students have filmed a powerful documentary about Hurricane Katrina survivors, to students with incredible insights to share who started out in Harlem Children’s Zone’s TRUCE and are now nationally-competing slam poets. 

Sebastian was invited to be a part of a panel on the philosophy of community arts education. He referenced the 2004 Gifts of the Muse report and the ways that we need to value both the instrumental and intrinsic benefits of the arts in our programs. He talked about the inspiring work being done with the Baltimore Algebra Project and the many ways that seemingly abstract subject matter can give students the abilities to re-create, to experience empathy, to develop flow and the abilities to focus the mind and self-analyze.

As Geoffrey Canada, the director of the Harlem Children’s Zone put it, "Our job is expose young people to as many things as possible—-you never know what will change [them]." 

This conference was more than just a pat on the back for CMW, however. We did recognize the long-term elements that make our programming powerful, but we also saw some common struggles among arts organizations around the country. Here are a few examples:

1. The multifaceted effects of gentrification are being felt in so many cities. How can communities continue to feel ownership of these organizations when the community members are being pushed out by developers? Are there positive effects of gentrification that should be recognized? How can we talk about this issue with our students?

2. If community arts education has such a long history, why has the world not seemed to improve in so many vital ways? A founder of El Museo Del Barrio raised this heart-wrenching point. How do we stay so positive with more and more difficulties to overcome?

3. What’s the balance of finding out what the community really wants and having an ultimate purpose beyond those immediate wants and needs?

We were inspired, and we were challenged. And that’s what a good conference is all about.

-Rachel Panitch, Fellow 07-09

A “musical fireball”

So writes Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing a recent performance by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Led by the electric 26-year-old conductor (and charismatic face of the state-sponsored music education system that has reached upwards of 250,000 children) Gustavo Dudamel, the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela has taken American concert halls in LA, San Francisco, and Boston by storm during a tour that concludes this weekend at Carnegie Hall.

This youth orchestra is a big deal. Part of what makes it a big deal is that we have evidence now in front of us that attests to the power of music and music education to provoke social change on a massive scale. Due to the thirty plus years of advocacy and negotiation by founder Dr. José Antonio Abreu, Venezuela has developed a comprehensive music education system (known as El Sistema) that puts musical instruments into the hands of children in every province (246 centers known as nucleos), creating opportunity and access for all. Talent affords greater opportunities later on, but is not a prerequisite. Especially notable is the fact that El Sistema is funded, not through the culture budget as one might imagine, but through the budget for social services.

This carefully cultivated belief in music as a vehicle that provides transformative experiences and opportunities for (largely) poor and at-risk Venezuelan youth is what has allowed the $29 million El Sistema to thrive through seven regimes, most recently that of President Hugo Chavez. Music is no frivolous after-school activity, and there is clearly a widespread popular base of support for music education that is significant enough to be matched by the top-down support from Venezuela’s elite.

And how might we go about creating something as extraordinarily successful and far-reaching as El Sistema here in the United States? This was the topic of much optimistic and passionate discussion at New England Conservatory’s symposium last Wednesday. Among representatives from the American Symphony Orchestra League, the LA Philharmonic, and Harvard University, CMW founder/director Sebastian Ruth sat on the eight-member panel that was charged with distilling and exploring the core issues involved in the potential replication of El Sistema.

What influence will Venezuela’s story have on American music education over the coming decades? It certainly seems like Community MusicWorks with its social justice themes may have a part to play. Stay tuned!


Please visit the links below to learn more about Gustavo Dudamel, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and the symposium at New England Conservatory.

-NY Times Magazine feature about Gustavo Dudamel and El Sistema.

-San Francisco Chronicle review ("Dudamel and his orchestra
unleashed an extraordinary musical fireball, which they then shaped
into the form of music by Shostakovich, Bernstein and more.")

-Boston Globe article by Jeremy Eichler reviewing the Symphony Hall concert.

-LA Times concert review by Mark Swed. ("If this incredible orchestra hits San Francisco, Boston and New York
with the same revelatory effect as at the first Disney concert, our
country, with its poor music education, may never — should never — be
the same.")

-Follow-up article in the LA Times by Mark Swed. ("The town is abuzz. Politicians are talking about music education — for real.")

-The symposium presented by the Music in Education program at New England Conservatory.

Music and Social Justice, an essay by Sebastian published on Jonathan Biss’ blog.

All aboard the musical fireball!

-Heath Marlow, CMW staff