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RIFFING ON THE TRADITION #19: You Don't Learn That in School

My column last week, about drummer Gerald French stewarding the 102 year-old Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, made me consider other examples of leadership in our music community. This week, my attentions turn toward music education.

As musicians, in order to have sustainable careers here, teaching has long been important, from visiting soloists with our operas and orchestras in the 18th and 19th centuries to various programs that provide opportunities for us to teach in classrooms today.

One program, Artist Corps New Orleans, stands out by training the highest caliber musicians to be equally excellent teachers. The model distinguishes itself, as director Sonya Robinson explained to me, by recognizing “... New Orleans as an incubator for excellence in music AND excellence in music education.”

The program started in 2009 as part of a national pilot for engaging musicians in service. At that time, less than one-third of our schools reported musical instruction in the classroom and the greatest need identified was our youth in grades K-6.

Artist Corps New Orleans places teaching artists in select schools that commit to growing their music programs in tandem with the training of these “Fellows.”  In three years, Robinson calculates that her eight Fellows have impacted about 1,400 students in 10 schools, providing more than 8,000 music classes. In all cases, they proved so essential that their schools kept them as full-time music instructors.

For example, violinist Rebecca Crenshaw built a strings program from scratch at Crocker Arts and Technology School. In three years, she has gone from students modeling violin technique with rubber chickens, to more than 160 students enrolled in group instruction, string quartets and orchestra, with instruments each child can practice at home.

Current Fellow Troy Sawyer told me that the intensive classroom support is a big reason the program works, and described the service component that includes professional development at the end of each school week. Regular mentoring by music education professionals as well as peer support from musicians who have been through the program allows Fellows to “express what we went through that week, and how to improve. It’s therapeutic. We maintain our sanity and it also keeps us motivated.”

He went on to explain that Artist Corps “emphasizes that we’re artists first.” He recognizes how powerful it is for his students at New Orleans College Prep to “have a positive African-American role model as a teacher, but also as a musician who they can actually see performing in the community.”

Starting with a founding grant and sustaining support from the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, Artist Corps New Orleans' funding base has expanded some, but there remains a great need for continued support. Randy Fertel, author, educator, and philanthropist, told me, “We know that this program is just what New Orleans needs, and offering certification will make it all the more attractive to great musicians and to great schools. As we enter this new phase, New Orleans needs to seize the opportunity to take a leadership role for music education in the country.”

Specifically, this "certification" phase Fertel alluded to means that, besides receiving a living stipend with health benefits, Fellows will soon be able to pursue teaching certification concurrently with their service.

In the end, the reason teaching is such a key element to fostering leadership in the music community is that it is integral to re-imagining artistry as a catalyst for change. It's so much more than an additional income stream, or "Plan B." For musicians who are passionate about music education and believe in music as a service that can improve their community, Artist Corps is a model to get there.

Note: Applications are currently being accepted for the 2012-13 class of Artist Corps New Orleans Fellows. Deadline is April 1st. Go to http://www.artistcorpsnola.org/Artist_Corps_New_Orleans/APPLY

 

 

 

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