by Morgan Beckford
When I first returned to Memphis after teaching in Virginia, I worked for Opera Memphis as the Coordinator for Education and Outreach. My charge was simple: find opportunities for local students to engage with Opera Memphis. I accepted the challenge; over the first month, I drafted an email list that included every music and drama teacher in the greater Memphis area (that I could find). I designed a flyer with our school shows, camps and student dress rehearsals. I even called school district offices to discover the best ways to connect with teachers and principals. I thought, “if I build it, they will come. They HAVE to come! Right?”
In the end, with all of those efforts, we had a satisfactory outcome. We had a chorus of 33 children for Hansel & Gretel, and two of the largest Opera Conservatory sessions to date the following summer; but, I didn’t feel it was enough. We didn’t hear back from over 90 percent of the schools that we’d contacted, and more importantly, as a result, the majority of Memphians were not represented. How could we reach those communities where we hadn’t established a presence? In hindsight, what Opera Memphis really needed was a bridge.
In my current role with MMI, I serve as the Coordinator of In-School Partnerships. I am lucky to help MMI act as a bridge between our In-Schools Fellowship and nonprofit partners in the community. Over the course of the spring semester, we have facilitated information sessions and presentations for current parents, teachers, and principals at our network schools to learn about opportunities for their students in the community. This benefits the schools because principals, teachers, and parents almost never have time together that is dedicated to arts engagement. Additionally, school music teachers’ primary concern is the music happening at their school site. It can be hard to find the space to track all of the after-school and summer opportunities that Memphis has to offer.
For Spring 2017, our Network teachers and principals engaged with a variety of organizations: Angel Street, Memphis Black Arts Alliance, Hattiloo Theater, Germantown Community Theater, Germantown Performing Arts Center, Visible Community Music School, Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Youth Symphony Program, Harmonic South Strings Orchestra, Opera Memphis, Stax Music Academy, PRIZM Ensemble, Art for Life’s Sake, and Notes for Notes. These meetings took place in various sites around the city of Memphis, to help our attendees experience new communities. The organizations often brought students to help with their presentations, so that the principals and teachers could hear, in their own words, how their programs benefitted the students, or experience it through performances. The In-Schools Leadership Team experienced some amazing things during the meetings:
- A principal attending one of the meetings jumped up and said, “That’s my student!” during one of the organization’s performances.
- A student described how theater helped her overcome her shyness and become a better leader.
- Two college students performed string duets for the attendees, and discussed how music instruction had helped them with college readiness.
- A presenter played a student-created podcast, and showed how his organization helped his student through hard times at home.
While I was working at Opera Memphis, I would have loved to have the chance to explain to teachers and principals, face-to-face, that our goals were the same: that we both care passionately about the students. I would have loved to tell them that I saw their students grow and mature over time. I would have loved to show them how opera could help them be brave and discover their own power. I would have loved to discuss what I could do to make their jobs easier! Now, with MMI, I have the chance to create that opportunity for other organizations, and I feel really lucky to get to be in the “room where it happens.” (Thanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, for an awesome phrase!)
Morgan Beckford is the Coordinator of In-School Partnerships for the Memphis Music Initiative, as well as the Camp Director for the Opera Memphis Summer Conservatory. She also sings with the Opera Memphis Chorus and Germantown Presbyterian Church.