by Lecolion Washington

The last few years have been an amazing time for the MMI in-schools team as our work has grown by leaps and bounds. One of the key attributes that MMI brings to the table is that we have created an environment in which the tail doesn’t wag the dog. The level of intentionality that we bring to our work is well above most programs nationally. For example, we don’t collect data so that we can continue to justify our programming; we collect data in order to determine whether or not we’re doing the right programming in the right way, and we have honest and candid conversations about the efficacy of the programs. Our stakeholders have always played a role in our decision-making, and I believe that this is one of the reasons that we have been able to gain a healthy amount of buy-in as we have learned to navigate this very challenging, yet rewarding work.

As we have learned more through our very extensive qualitative and quantitative data analyses, we have developed a strategy that we believe will continue to create positive youth outcomes for the foreseeable future. We have been blessed with a wonderful group of music fellows who are working with youth all over the city, but we came to the conclusion that just doing the work wasn’t enough. We started to ask ourselves: “What’s the best case outcome for the youth who we are working with?” The in-schools team and the wider MMI leadership team sat down many times over the course of the last year and tried to determine the greatest potential for positive impact for our current stakeholders (students, teachers, schools, and fellows). We were able to narrow it down to two key outcomes:

  1. To further strengthen the quality of school music programs
  2. To foster a connectivity between all stakeholders (students, teachers, schools, and fellows) that leads to sustainable after-school and summer pathways for youth

As we thought about improving program quality, we had to define what we meant by quality. I recently read an article based on the writings of Emmanuel Kant, and this article alludes to three attributes to define quality:

  • Following standards, being robust, and being free of faults
  • Sublime beauty
  • Usefulness/relevance

Most people understand quality as it relates to the first and second bullet points above (standards and beauty), but there are fewer discussions about quality as it relates to relevance. We have come to the understanding that the definition of quality is flexible when relevance is added to the equation. A definition of quality that is not built on all three pillars will have a difficult time being universally inclusive, and in many environments a lack of commitment to relevance can come across as oppressive. This is why a commitment to student voice is so important.

As a classical musician, I was not always a person who listened to popular music. Through my desire to learn more about this generation of young people I’ve started to listen to more hip-hop, pop, and other forms of music that young people are listening to. I did this to learn more about them, but by learning about them I learned even more about myself. I have been completely changed by it. While looking for them, I actually found myself.

There are conversations in the education world that are focused on teaching the “whole child”. Instead of just teaching, we should be learning about them. Rather than teaching the whole child, we should learn how we can get better at “valuing” the whole child as they currently are. We should be finding out from where the whole child enters the conversation. You can’t “teach” the child while holding the child at arms length. This doesn’t just mean playing hip-hop and/or pop songs in band or singing gospel music in choir. This may help, but it is not the only answer.

When we thought about connectivity, we specifically thought about the wonderful networks to which MMI has access. In addition to our school partners, there are multiple partnerships that are being created through MMI Works and the grantmaking team. We also realized that we had these expansive networks through the relationships that our fellows have created throughout their professional careers. We started to ask ourselves “How do we best utilize these networks for the benefit of our students?” That has led to some amazing conversations about how we might best facilitate the creation and strengthening of pathways into as many networks as possible in order to create scenarios like this:

Student: “Ms. Choir Director, I’d love to have some additional opportunities to sing in women’s choir, play chamber music, and do a little jazz.”

Teacher: “Have you heard of Angel Street, PRIZM, and the Memphis Jazz Workshop? Well, let me tell you all about them! Did you know that one of the fellows in our class teaches at PRIZM, and the other fellow works with the Memphis Jazz Workshop? I met the directors for all three organizations last month, so I’ll connect you to them.”

Once the relationship has been created, the teachers, fellows, and organizations have the opportunity to work together to help students take advantage of the many opportunities that Memphis youth have available to them.

It has been one of my life’s honors to lead the creation and development of the in-school programs for MMI, particularly the MMI Music Engagement Fellowship. We have worked hard every day to bring our full and best selves to this program. Although I will be leaving in a couple of weeks to become the Executive Director of the Community Music Center of Boston, I am excited that this strategy will live on in Memphis for years to come.

Lecolion Washington, Jr. is a bassoonist and founder and director of the PRIZM Chamber Music Festival. As a member of the International Double Reed Society he has been invited to perform at conferences in Austin (TX), Ithaca (NY), and Birmingham (UK). He has performed as soloist with many groups including the Eroica Ensemble, the Meadows Symphony Orchestra at SMU, and the orchestra at the International Festival Institute at Round Top. During the summers he teaches and performs at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival in South Africa. His CD, Legacy: Music for Bassoon by African-American Composers was met with favorable reviews in several magazines including Fanfare Magazine and The American Record Guide.