A few weeks ago, a five-year old Chittick kindergartener named Devon approached me in the hallway outside his classroom. He asked a simple, innocent question, “Why do you come to our school to teach music?”
Well, in case anyone else is curious about logistics, I started working at the Chittick School through From the Top’s Center for the Development of Arts Leaders – a program that pairs highschool musicians with community partner sites, to design and implement an intensive, year-long outreach project. My partner site was musiConnects. I started out there, along with my teammate Nash, as a complete beginner; our first few months were spent testing the waters of responsibility, slowly growing closer to the musiConnects students and becoming comfortable around them. We made mistakes and we did things we had no idea how to do – organizing a benefit concert in the middle of a snowstorm, and teaching a class of five year olds about concepts I didn’t understand until I was twice their age. We learned a million things that you can only learn through experience, through crouching down next to a frustrated student and teaching her how to get past the tough parts of being a musician. Or through seeing a smile on a child’s face that reminds you of the most wonderful parts.
And through it all, I fell in love with the way we were approaching music.
Music, for as long as I can remember, has been the way I’ve been able to say the things that are most important to me. But, in a way, I’d been stuck in a one-sided dialogue. As the performer, I did all the talking; I was only hoping my audience could understand me. At musiConnects, on the other hand, we were having a conversation through music; we were teaching the language to a whole group of students, who could use it to share with us as much as we could share with them.
As my yearlong From the Top project come to a close, I realized that I couldn’t imagine leaving the family I had found at the Chittick School – Betsy, Jason, Marji and Mike, the classroom teachers and all of the students. During our time with musiConnects, Nash and I had also started teaching two classrooms of Chittick kindergarteners, in an effort to spread music throughout more of the arts-deprived school. So when CDAL ended, I continued in those classes, returning every two weeks to introduce the kids to a new musical concept or genre. I enlisted “guest artists” to teach them about those aspects of music I had plenty to learn about myself – jazz, opera, and composition, to name a few. We’ve be-bopped, we’ve swung, we’ve breathed with our balloons (kindergarten translation: diaphragms), we’ve even learned to sing a Mozart aria! And through it all, the students have not only learned vocabulary and basic music making skills; they’ve learned things about music that I myself had forgotten, and things I only truly came to understand during my time with musiConnects. We drew pictures a few months back, illustrating the story of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” – a little boy drew a landscape in which instruments stretched like rainbows through the sky. And when our jazz guest artist invited them to “improvise” with their classroom instruments, there was not a voice in the room that was anything less than joyful. A girl told me, of Debussy’s “Reverie”, “When I listen to this music, I imagine my whole family and me sitting on clouds in the nighttime, and singing together”. What could be better than that?
So, do you know what? I think little Devon managed, at only five years old, to pinpoint the essential question in all of this. Not how I came to be affiliated with Chittick School, but why I continue to go there. Of all the places I could play music, and all the people I could share it with, he wanted to know why Chittick, why his class, and why him.
And that’s the big question isn’t it? Why do we do this? Anyone who has seen musiConnects in action – in fact, anyone who has ever been lucky enough to do this kind of work – could list a hundred reasons: all the things music can teach us about, the opportunities it can provide, the repercussions it can have in our lives. But really, the main reason that I go to Chittick is to listen to kids like Devon. Because what he didn’t understand was how much I’ve come to care about what he has to say.
Music, for as long as I can remember, has been the way I’ve been able to say the things that are most important to me. So at Chittick, what I want to do more than anything is to give the kids a way to express themselves completely, and a place where their voices will be heard and valued. Once you find that, it can never be taken away. You can always escape to the clouds at nighttime, where everyone is singing. Now, I’m not sure Devon understood all of that quite yet – but I know he understood me when I crouched down to his five and a half year old height, and told him that there was no one I would rather be playing music with.
Thank you so much to Betsy and musiConnects for teaching me, inspiring me, and letting me blab about all my experiences in this blog post! Much love to all of you!