by Eric Booth
The beautiful work of MMI (that I praise loudly just about everywhere I go) contributes to a larger field. This larger field is called by many names—such as creative youth development and arts for change, and social practice arts—but all share the same mission: to provide new life opportunities through highly engaging arts programs for young people whose backgrounds didn’t give them fair access to their birthright of artistic learning and expression. This larger context includes hundreds of strong programs across the U.S. as well as around the world.
Over the past four years I researched and co-authored a book about one of the big players in this global field: the El Sistema-inspired movement. El Sistema is an intensive after-school orchestra and choral program that began in the barrios of Venezuela 42 years ago, and over decades inspired programs like it across Latin America. (You may know of Gustavo Dudamel, the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who is the most famous graduate of El Sistema.) About ten years ago, El Sistema-inspired programs began to pop up independently across the U.S., and there are now 130 such programs. Programs have also grown around the world and are now in 65 countries. I have seen programs very like MMI in Afghanistan, where I passed through barriers of intense security to find that the vibe of the teenaged musicians is as easy and playful as it is in Memphis. In Greenland, the orchestra sometimes performs in front of an ice wall for sound projection; in Nairobi, in a slum on a garbage dump, I watched students pause more than once during a rehearsal of Finlandia to brush soot off their instruments. Around the world, teaching artists like the MMI faculty—truly, citizen artists—dedicate themselves to the power of music to change young lives in areas of the harshest poverty, in refugee camps and in the poor districts of wealthy cities. You can read more about this in my book Playing for Their Lives, co-authored by Tricia Tunstall.
Each country seems to focus its El Sistema-inspired programs on a social problem that has defied all other well-intentioned efforts at improvement. Programs target gang membership in some cities, immigrant enclave hostility in others, trauma in some and hopelessness in others. Most of our U.S. programs aim to disrupt the entrenched cycles of generational poverty.
The research on this movement is young, and so it can’t make a definitive case. Yet. But the early findings are promising. In the few U.S. programs that have students old enough to finish high school, the graduation rate is 100%—in communities that regularly see rates half that. The college matriculation rate is near 100%, showing promise for changing the trajectory of young lives. Research is already showing that the more hours that students work on music, the more their school grades rise, even though they have fewer hours for homework. They show advances in “executive function”—meaning they self-manage their learning more effectively as a result of their music studies.
Sistema-inspired programs have the good fortune of lots of student time each week, averaging some 12 hours weekly in the U.S. (in Venezuela it is over 20 hours a week). No wonder they get strong social results as well musical advancement. But this emerging data affirms the positive impact of programs with fewer hours of contact too. MMI is part of this movement that is demonstrating in practice and in research that investing seriously in students’ musical potential pays off in youth development. In Memphis, and around the world. What are the most powerful tools of these citizen artists?—relentless positivity, focus on developing intrinsic motivation in learners, and a passion for the musical and social potential of each young musician. Thank you for the beautiful work of MMI that is helping to convince the dubious world that music lights rockets that can lift kids into new worlds of possibility.
In 2015 Eric Booth was given the nation’s highest award in arts education, and was named one of the 50 most important people in the arts in the U.S. He began as a Broadway actor, and became a businessman (his company became the largest of its kind in the U.S. in 7 years), and author of six books, the most recent is Playing for Their Lives. He has been on the faculty of Juilliard (12 years), Tanglewood (5 years), The Kennedy Center (20 years), and Lincoln Center Education (for 34 years, where now he is the leader of their Teaching Artist Development Lab). He serves as a consultant for many arts organizations (including seven of the ten largest U.S. orchestras), cities, states and businesses around the U.S.. A frequent keynote speaker, he founded the International Teaching Artist Conferences. Website : ericbooth.net