The Most Ambitious Teaching Artist Training Ever?: Launching MusicianCorps

By Eric Booth

MusicianCorps Fellow Jeff Harms and two colleagues were singing and playing various instruments in their hour-long performance for twenty patients at a hospital’s Alzheimer's/dementia unit during the second week of the training. They played mostly old standards from the ’40s and ’50s. Many attendees fell asleep but continued to tap toes while nodding off. One woman was given a shaker to play, and kept falling asleep lowering the shaker to her lap, but she would wake back up and start shaking it if aides tried to take it away. Three different times, one woman rose, walked toward the musicians and then turned off down a corridor, to be guided back her seat by an aide. Only afterward did Jeff realize her body language indicated she had wanted to dance with him. As they were leaving, he found her in a hallway and apologized, saying he hadn’t realized she wanted to dance. She lifted her arms, and they danced down the corridor. At the end, they stopped. She lay her head on his shoulder. Jeff said, “We were at the prom. It was 1942.”

Jeff and his colleagues were among the 21 musicians in the pilot-year cadre of MusicianCorps. They arrived in San Francisco in August 2009 for the twoweek intensive portion of their month-long training. Selected to comprise teams based in the four cities involved in the launch of MusicianCorps (San Francisco/Oakland, Seattle, New Orleans and Chicago), they ranged from 20- somethings (fairly new teaching artists) to 50-somethings (deeply experienced experts). The musical genres they represented ran the gamut from jazz to world drumming, classical to San Jarocho, hip-hop, funk, musical theater to singersongwriting.

I was the training’s designer and lead trainer along with a national faculty. Here was the challenge: the widest range of experience I had ever seen, the widest range of musical backgrounds I had ever seen, all to undertake the greatest challenge any of us had ever faced in our field—learning how to use music to build community. Both trainer and trainees were mounting the steepest learning curve any of us had ever encountered.

These master TAs knew they would probably make less income if selected to be a MusicianCorps Fellow than they make in an average year, but they wanted the gig anyway, to join a national program—what they had believed in for their lives suddenly had a name, a full time program, and a national spotlight. We had the benefit of many great applicants for the positions in the four cities so we could assume strong potential or practice from all applications, strong artistry, and dynamic positive energy. So we could winnow hiring choices down to key criteria, and the most crucial one became teaching artists who had demonstrated a longtime personal commitment to the social welfare of the target populations and communities.

A little background. MusicianCorps is the flagship program of Music National Service (MNS), envisioned and founded by singer-songwriter/social entrepreneur Kiff Gallagher, a onetime White House staffer for the Clinton Administration, a singer-songwriter, and a social entrepreneur who was involved in creating AmeriCorps. Over the past several years, Kiff traveled the country, building support and working the inside game in Congress (and on Obama’s campaign and transition arts committee) to launch MusicianCorps. He and his growing band of supporters came to include leaders who elicited the commitment and raised the money for pilot programs in the four above-named cities. In his behind-the-scenes work in D.C. in 2009, Kiff helped launch a Congressional Music Caucus—made up of representatives and senators who play musical instruments and are committed to supporting legislation that advances music. (The group jammed together at The Kennedy Center when the Caucus was announced; no, they won’t be popping out chart-busting CDs, but the music wasn’t eardrum busting either.) Gallagher succeeded in getting wording about Obama’s Artist Corps and a MusicianCorps into the landmark Edward Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009; this opened the channel for federal dollars to flow when Congress and the administration are ready to make the leap—which we anticipate will be within two years. He then leveraged a lead grant from the Bay Area’s William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to catalyze a national pilot year. I worked closely with Kiff for the better part of a year to bring the pilot cities’ project to life, developing infrastructure and to making sure the Fellows would be trained to meet the challenge. [As of this writing in early 2010, MusicianCorps has received additional private grants to keep its pilot work developing, to evaluate the impact of the work in the four cities, and is still working behind the scenes in Washington DC to open the funding gate for MusicianCorps and Artist Corps.]

After studying the strengths and weaknesses of how people are trained for AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and VISTA—three programs that required a deep understanding and appreciation for community and social dynamics—I realized that even the particularly gifted and motivated Fellows in the MusicianCorps cadre would need a lot of preparation to have any chance of success. Those three trainings are quite successful in building camaraderie and esprit de corps, but I heard consistent complaints, often bitter, from participants that they were not prepared to succeed in the reality they faced. All of our selected Fellows had the skills succeed in teaching music full time in typical classrooms, but that wasn’t the challenge. Their full time assignments would be in the most challenging settings and their mission was broader: to create a rich musical learning community for young people and/or adults in a variety of settings, from afterschool programs to community organizations, from churches to parks-and-recreation programs. Their job was to break down barriers, forge unprecedented partnerships, engage the chronically disengaged, in and through music. There is good reason the tagline of Music National Service is Music Saves Lives.

Some Fellows would be placed in public housing settings, some in health care facilities. The primary goal for the first two training weeks, when the Fellows were together in San Francisco, was to prepare their habits of mind for learning on the job, since we couldn’t, in two short weeks or even the training month, responsibly do justice to the range specific issues they would be addressing in the year ahead. Part of our preparation was to help them plan their goals for the second two weeks of training, back in their home cities and to clarify yearlong learning plans for each team and each individual. (In each city, the Fellows work for four days and then take a fifth day of professional development or exploratory service together every week.)

I must acknowledge the invaluable contribution of the small, dedicated group of Music National Service staff and local volunteers, the backbone of the logistical operation that supported the MusicianCorps training. The vision of MNS seems to bring out the absolute best in people wherever it appears—from the lasagna makers and van drivers to the daily thousand-problem solvers, the local team was as fired up by the reality of MusicianCorps as the Fellows and faculty were. I think MusicianCorps ignites such extraordinary commitment wherever it appears because it taps a deep seated and almost-lost belief that engagement in music is so powerful that it can save lives and transform communities.

Suddenly, here it was, the chance to fulfill the yearning I had given up hope that I would see it in my lifetime—the best teaching artists given a full time job to explore how much impact their teaching artistry can have, given a consistent placement, full time pay (and health insurance coverage), and the right expectations in the inaugural training. The training was built upon six threads of learning, and three design principles. Let me describe them.

The six threads

When I distilled all the different kinds of learning that lay ahead for the Fellows, I teased out six distinct kinds of thinking they would have to master over the year. Our intensive two weeks introduced these six kinds of thinking, with:

  • a conceptual framework for each (What is this perspective, where does it come from, and where does it appear in the community and world? Where does it appear in the arts, in education, in community development, in music-making?)
  • hands-on experiments (we did activities in each of the different kinds of thinking to get a feel for working in that distinctive way of thinking, problem identifying and community building)
  •  leading experts (we had guest teachers in each of these kinds of thinking as resources, doing some presenting and question-answering), small group discussion (sometimes we mixed the city-groups and sometimes had local teams delve into what they understood, knew, needed to learn, and address crucial questions together) •
  • local team planning (each team determined what they needed to include about this kind of thinking and learning when they got back to their home city, and how they were going to do that);
  •  individual self-assessment (we had each Fellow keep a running journal of strengths and weaknesses in each area, and what she or he was going to do to fill in the gaps).

We focused on developing these six habits of mind, habits of inquiry we might say since the goal was a year of effective learning, which inform, support and catalyze the ambition, potential and sustainable growth of MusicianCorps.

> Ecosystemic thinking

Musicians who teach are good at creating exciting learning in a classroom, but MusicianCorps Fellows also create connections between classrooms, and within the school as a whole, and between the school and the community. They need the habits of mind to explore how this community, this system, works. What is the context within which these students and families function? Fellows need ongoing analytic and empathetic exploration into the assets, beliefs, traditions, power structures, taboos, concerns, passions and patterns of this group and its environment—ethnographic thinking. These habits of mind provide the Fellow with a healthy relationship to, and respect for, the group and its context, and an ongoing inquiry into ways to be most effective within it. Who are the gatekeepers? Where is power really held? Where does music currently and historically live? How do we partner well with all stakeholders? Experts provided us with a short course in the accepted wisdom and essential practices of the community development field, and their committed presence and no-BS approaches to the challenges they face, set a tone that informed all our thinking. This is also a basis for exploring racial and ethnic prejudice—a delicate issue for Americans to deal with, but necessary for the in depth relationship building of the Fellowship. (Two of the city teams decided they needed to delve more deeply and courageously into issues of racial sensitivity and communication, and developed special workshops for themselves when they returned to their home cities.)

Indeed, in their early months of service, Fellows find themselves in meetings with pastors and police, gang members, recreation professionals—to find how the life, how the spirit, is flowing in this area, so their work can tap the energies already moving and grow.

> Service thinking

Music teaching artists are good at delivering a service, but what does it mean to be of service? We found that being of service emanates from a different part of the musician and changes the relationship with those in the room, redefines what success looks like, and taps a deeper part of your artist-self. Key questions are: How can I best serve to strengthen this community, and enrich the lives of these individuals rather than a more typical TA question, “How can I knock the socks off this opportunity?” These habits of mind provide the Fellow with an ongoing and increasing sense of effective agency, creatively identifying the leverage points and actions that will make a difference, given the resource and situation realities. Service thinking begins in appreciative inquiry that recognizes, acknowledges, and respects what is present, rather than the traditional education model, which seeks to redress a deficit.

As I now talk to Fellows, well into their year (or two) of service, their reports of what the work feels like sound unlike any dialogue I have ever had with teaching artists. We speak at length about building partnerships; we think about long-term ways to overcome entrenched barriers; we think about building musical traditions that will take years to grow to fruition; we discuss neighborhood violence not as victims, but as stakeholders who will be able to reduce it.

> Musical thinking

Certainly thinking “in music” is a strength of all good music teaching artists, but the addition for the Fellows was the extension of thinking of the many ways in which music can serve a community and these individuals? What is it about music and musical processes that can be tapped to create the transformative impact we aspire to? What musical vitality and relevance is present, and what can I bring to better achieve our outcomes—not only “art for art sake outcomes,” but also the many kinds of community need that music has served for the last 30,000 years. This kind of thinking in music, as much as about music, taps the ancient power of art that brings people into emotional and spiritual connection beyond words. What is distinctively powerful about music that other social service approaches cannot provide? (This is the same question that Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute program called Musical Connections brings to their music teaching artists working in longterm experiments of finding ways that music can enrich the community of homeless shelters, prisons, hospitals. Not “What music can we play?” But “In what ways can music enhance the quality of life in this community?”) The answers to this question provide the sustainable effectiveness of music as a tool for social change, and will, we believe, prove to be a strong argument for government support.

> Teaching-and-learning thinking

These skills are the core kitbag of every good music teaching artist. The challenge of full time work pushes Fellows to deepen the thinking they have traditionally brought to workshops and residencies. They have the opportunity to really develop musically-conducive environments, to balance skill building with creative engagement over a longer term. Their group management skills will be pushed beyond anything they ever tried before, their settings and participants are challenging, and they will have to broaden their kitbag of teaching approaches and tools. Whatever lesson design work they have done before, they are now curriculum designers, project leaders, and regular fixtures in the institutions where they work. They will be delivering professional development to colleagues, not in hourlong blocks a few times a year, but every day, in a hundred little ways. However good they have been as teaching artists, this job will require them to double or triple the number of teaching approaches they have used before.

> Evaluation thinking

Many music teaching artists have dealt with challenges of assessment and evaluation. These Fellows will assess not only the learning in a classroom, but will participate in the national data gathering that determines what impact MusicianCorps creates, and the ways it can become more effective. The key questions explore the learning happening in each learner group (musical and social, as well as learning skills), as well as in the institutions involved, and within the Fellows themselves, as well as community impact. Fellows serve as data gatherers and help determine the ways in which the learning they are guiding succeeds. Each city is given a VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America) to support the research and evaluation processes to lighten the load on the Fellows and to coordinate good data on what actually happens in the four cities. Any savvy program with national ambitions knows it must collect good data right from the start to build the case for public support. I can’t claim all Fellows were enthusiastic about this component of their mission, but all recognized that it is essential.

> Innovative-entrepreneurial thinking

Teaching artists often have an entrepreneurial bent in their careers, but rarely are they invited to flex those muscles inside their education work to create new entities that will work so well they will outlast their tenure. The habits of mind we addressed asked: What new ideas, new approaches, could make a real difference? What does it take to successfully bring new things into the world and have them sustain beyond our time of direct involvement, even when resources are scarce and results will not be fast? What processes of change will succeed and sustain in this setting with these stakeholders? How do we effectively advocate for, develop champions for, the changes we seek; how do we give ownership over to others to carry on and keep it growing?

And answers are already emerging in MusicianCorps: a band that includes kids from both sides of the gang turf divided by 47th Street in Chicago; a charter school in New Orleans in which the jazz legends who live nearby are regular fixtures.

Three design features of the training:

The two week intensive had daylong workshop sessions and planning meetings, as you would expect. We had a national faculty of experts, and hands-on activities every day, and lots of planning and reflection. And even some spare minutes for meals and sleep. But we used three unusual learning design features:

Meeting one another through music.
We spent the first week of our training in a beautiful retreat setting at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, and then the second week in the culturally rich Mission District in San Francisco—in dormitory style living in both places. I had (typically) created an overstuffed daily agenda, but we left most of the evenings free for the musicians to make music together. I hadn’t realized just how powerful that idea would become. Because they hadn’t had time to chat during the day, they met one another musically every night. Indeed, many met by jamming together before they had even chatted together. Because so many musical styles were represented, the jamming was fluid, taking up the style of one player, and others would join and discover new musical ideas in themselves and the musical identities of one another. It also authentically connected the musical staff members to the Fellows. It led to the most powerful bonding I have ever seen in a group of strangers, as they shared their musical selves bravely, creatively, adventurously, playfully, lovingly. It was musically fascinating to see the interplay of styles, to see the jazz legend play with the world drummer, to hear the rock/hiphop drummer support the singer songwriter. I confess I was somewhat less than thrilled to discover that my bedroom in this dormitory style house out in the state park was immediately adjacent to the music jam room (I go to bed early when leading a training); so I may have lost some sleep, but the music that kept me awake was endlessly fascinating.

Service project.
In the second week, we took a half-day for teams to experiment with musical service at a San Francisco site—a YMCA, and several hospital settings. As good as all our workshop thinking and planning had been, reality looked and felt very different, very good, when the living breathing point of it all was musically engaged with us. The Fellows were flying high with excitement at this first taste of their year ahead, and it grounded our expectations and sense of reality in very productive ways.

Ridiculously big challenge.
Creating something together forges bonds and boosts learning. On the first day, I dropped the bomb: “On our last night together, in a San Francisco performance space, you will present a half-hour event that is entirely of your own creation, for the San Francisco arts and arts education communities that are curious about MusicianCorps. It must include all the Fellows, and its goal is for you to present your understanding of what MusicianCorps is and means to you. You have no budget, no guidance from anyone but yourselves, and almost no rehearsal time within our workdays. Good luck.”

They took the opportunity seriously, rehearsing at night and on breaks. They created an event that was far beyond our most ambitious expectations. The pastiche included music from all their genres, an eight minute introductory film they had somehow managed to create and edit late into the night, and stories of why and how they came to MusicianCorps, including Jeff’s story at the top of this article. They composed an original song that was bossa-nova irresistible—all these months later, I can still sing it anytime. They moved the audience to tears and cheering. Give great artists a worthy challenge, and get out of the way. There is one other feature of MusicianCorps that I want to mention even though it wasn’t launched in the training l led, but it was launched by it. As I mentioned earlier, a MusicianCorps Fellow’s workweek consists of four days of work (and yes meetings to build community and meet and plan and establish a workable network are all part of work time), and then the fifth day spent together. The fifth day has become an essential and beloved feature. Each city’s Fellows team spends that fifth day together in a professional development experience of their own design. They delve into an area of work that feels weak to them: they go out and have a service experiment together; they just catch up and give each other feedback; they observe one another’s work; they bring in a particular kind of expert. The luxury of time to reflect together, to keep learning together, to grow and handle difficult issues together, has proven to be a powerful element of the program’s design. In our national training we built in many occasions where they could plan, solve challenges together as a group, so they were ready to take the next step of building their own ongoing professional development when they got home. For a field that knows the importance of professional development, but consistently stints It for ourselves, our work partners, and our learners, it has been a powerful support to the program to have the, not luxury, regular oxygen of time to create our own ongoing learning together.

That was the sense of mission and commitment that drove us all so hard for those first two training weeks, and that shaped the very different kinds of subsequent two weeks they designed for themselves back in their home cities, and that continues to fuel the passionate efforts of the first cadre of Fellows. Let me close with a story told by Fellow Jamie Topper, who is also the Team Leader in Chicago, about an instance in her past when the idea of being a musician in service really hit home.

"I was working in a children's hospital, going from room to room, to work with patients who wanted to participate musically—my job was to engage them creatively and build their musical skills. I had this one patient who was a sixteen year old pregnant girl, dying of cancer. The baby would be born just about at the time she would die. She found out I had instruments and recording equipment. She asked me to work with her to record her speaking and singing so that her child could know her voice for all the child's life. We worked together four times. That is when I discovered what serving someone through music was all about. And I still used my teaching artist skills to create a safe and comfortable environment, to help her make strong choices about what music she would create, to ensure her voice was strong and clear, and to manage a recording that captured her voice well. Skill and service, inextricably blended.”

Eric Booth, is Senior Advisor to Music National Service, and designed and led its inaugural training in August 2009. To find out more about Music National Service and MusicianCorps, go to where you will find ongoing blogs and listings of upcoming events.

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