It has been almost a decade since my first meetings with members of the National Symphony Orchestra. The National Symphony Orchestra Education Department, part of the Kennedy Center Education Department, decided it was time to develop a larger and more varied outreach program for area schools and in-house presentations. Previous engagements with the Kennedy Center and extensive experience in program development for the Pittsburgh-based Gateway to Music and the Performing Arts made me a more qualified consultant (on paper at least!) than some. But it was my years as a Head Start teacher, and creator/director of outreach programs for five opera companies, that really informed my work. In the “old days” I was part of the performing ensemble as well and, in this capacity, I have passed through the halls of more than 500 public and private schools across the United States.
In my time with Gateway, I observed many in-school programs, my own and those created by others. As a consultant, I continue to observe the results of planning and development in a variety of programs. These observations have helped to define some principles that form the basis of the initial conversations I conduct with performance groups. In this, the first of three articles, I focus on these principles and pose some questions that I feel should be addressed at the start of the development process.
Some Important Assumptions
Before I begin, I make the following assumptions about the members of the group:
- 1. They have come together (or decided to come together) as a musical performance group. No amount of educational material will compensate for the music making that must be in the program. It does not matter WHAT the instrumentation is, as long as the members are willing to find, arrange, and/or create repertoire for that combination.
- 2. Each member has an interest in performing and educating students through that performing. It does not matter at this point that the members of the group have the SAME goals. That will be negotiated later.
- 3. Each member is aware that the program will take time to develop, rehearse, and revise. Some of this time may be compensated, but there is always extra work to be done in the development process.
- 4. Everyone is aware that the presentation of these programs will increase their time committed to performing, and that performances often will occur at a time and place that is not “ideal.”
- 5. Everyone agrees that (contrary to many opinions), “A bad first experience with the arts is worse than no experience at all.” If the group is not committed to quality, stop right now! The world does not need another half-baked arts education program.
The First Meeting(s)
My role in the first meeting with a group is threefold: to direct the conversation, to stimulate ideas, and to record the session. In the absence of a consultant or facilitator, these duties should be clearly divided between/among the members of the group. Obviously, in the case of a solo or duet program, these roles must be combined. In this case, it may be helpful to tape record the session for future reference. Here are some basic “job descriptions” for each of the roles:
Conversation Director: This person will be responsible for the flow of the meeting. It is important that all members and all ideas are aired. This person will hush-up the vocal, and encourage the silent to speak. It is critical at this point in the process that ALL members have a voice. If, later on in the process, a single member becomes divested or uncomfortable about the program content, it may be necessary to start the whole process again. The Conversation Director should distribute the agenda (see below) and direct the group to its items.
Idea Stimulator: In the case of a lively and verbal group, this person may not be necessary. But it can be helpful to assign this role to a single member. This member will, at times of stagnation in discussion, throw out an unusual thought or idea for consideration. It is helpful if this person is comfortable thinking “outside the box” and is willing to present “crazy” ideas, as in, “Hey, I have a crazy idea! Let’s all . . .” See the suggestions below for ways of encouraging “outside the box” ideas.
Idea Recorder: This job is for the fastest writer or typist in the group. A good laptop and fast fingers can record the ideas in a free-form way. The notes do not have to be organized at first, but they should be as complete as possible. As the program develops, it is sometimes helpful to have notes from early sessions. Ideas that have been discarded may be reinstated in later sessions.
It is also important that the Idea Recorder be able to contribute creatively to the session. The Conversation Director is responsible for that!
The agenda for the first meeting(s) need not be tightly structured. But creative and energetic people can easily become sidetracked. An agenda can provide focus. Here it is presented as a series of questions that the entire group should discuss. It is helpful if a printed agenda is given out before the meeting, and it is important that each member of the group have a copy at the meeting.
When planning the meeting, it is important that the members commit to a time frame for the meeting. Individuals coming late and/or leaving early can often lead to more difficulties along the way. Reserve two hours for the first meeting, then mutually agree on the amount of time for the next.
Feel free to copy and modify the information below to create the printed agenda for the meeting.
Notes:To begin, it may be helpful to review the list of “assumptions” in the section above. It may be that members of the group have not considered these issues. If necessary, consensus should be reached on these matters before continuing.
In the beginning, it is also helpful to use a brainstorming approach to these questions. No ideas or suggestions are edited! They may seem silly or out of place to some, but accept everything at this point. The Conversation Director should make sure that this happens. It is often helpful if the ideas are written on a black board or flip chart.
Agenda Discussion Questions
In discussing these questions, keep in mind that the resulting program should reflect those ideas and concepts that you truly care about. You will be presenting this program many times and in many circumstances. If you are not convinced of the significance of the content, the program will wither quickly.
- Specifically, what is it that we want to present in this program? What do we care about the most, what are we passionate about, what ideas, concepts, music, feelings, etc. do we want to present and/or teach in this program?If the list is long, the Conversation Director should write them on a board.Do not limit your thinking in any way. ANY idea, no matter how abstract, can be developed into a program if there is passion for it. Ideas might center around (but are in no way limited to) the following:
- A composer’s works
- A family of instruments
- A period of history
- The way the body and instrument(s) work together to create sound
- The way music affects us
- The place of music in our lives
- The things that instruments are made of
- Rhythm (international, internal, cosmic!)
- What is GOOD music?
- What GOOD is music?
- Based on personal preferences, for which age group do we wish to perform? Assuming that you have some control over the age group, discuss the previous experiences and preferences of the group. A compromise may be necessary.
- Based on personal preferences, for what size audience do we wish to perform?Again, assuming that you can select an ideal audience size, discuss your sense of the ideal audience size. Later in the process you can compare your program content with your audience-size choices.
Note: Later on in the process you may discover that you are able to adapt your program to a variety of ages and audience sizes. For now, discuss the ideal.
- What should the students take away from our program? What do we feel we can accomplish in the time frame of a single program?AT THIS POINT – Revisit question 1. The discussions around questions 2, 3, and 4 will help to edit the first list. Some ideas will be too broad, some too narrow. Edit these out of the list. DO NOT YET eliminate ideas that may seem impossible or difficult to accomplish in a program.
- What music would we like to, and what music can we, play?Take into consideration:
- Can we find the music?
- Can anyone arrange music?
- Are their other similar ensembles that may have arrangements of music?
- Do we want to make a time line? When should we be ready to rehearse? When should the program be ready to perform?There already may be a deadline for the program. Divide your time carefully!
Wrap-up And Homework
The discussion at this first meeting (it may take two sessions!) may lead to a jumble of ideas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. What is important is that all members are provided with a copy of the notes from the meeting – unedited, misspelled and jumbled as they may be. This is where having a printer or copier on-hand is helpful.
- Each member should review the notes before the next meeting. In this review, new ideas may arise and old ones prioritized.
- Before departing, the next meeting time should be established. If there is a timeline to be followed, review it before setting the date.
- It may be helpful to discuss special interests or talents that exist in the group. Does someone enjoy arranging? Does someone have a stockpile of sheet music? Does anyone have a recent copy of Finale on their computer? Does anyone sing, play another instrument, dance, have puppets, roller-skate, etc.?
- Also, it may be helpful to ask members to bring in potential repertoire for the next session.
AT THE NEXT SESSION, the group should be prepared to create a script for the program. This will be the topic for Part Two of these articles. It will address the writing and assigning of speeches, activities to involve students, the order of repertoire, and the use of visual aids, among other things. Part Three will address the rehearsal and performance process.
Some suggestions for the Idea Stimulator to inspire ideas:
- Remind people that they do not need to make sense!
- Ask them to remember the times they were most moved or excited as a young person about music. What was it that made that exciting?
- What ideas have you always thought should have been addressed in young people’s music study BEFORE or IN ADDITION to the stuff they usually learn?
- What do you wish someone had taught you as a young musician?
- Why was it that your best teacher was your best teacher? What was it about his/her approach that ranked him/her above the rest?
- Who was your worst teacher and why?
- What other exciting musical situations or educational situations have you been in, or have you exposed your children/family/friends to?
- What movies, TV shows, pop culture elements, arts events, and news items are on your mind?
- I have a crazy idea; does anyone want to go for coffee?