Stinky Schumann and Orkidstras (Part 1)

Posted by Adrian Anantawan on Sunday, July 31, 2011

Stinky Schumann and Orkidstras (Part 1)

Above: The Stinky Schumann group demonstrating "bad posture"

Last November, in preparation for this summer, our CODA Project had found a partner with a program known as Orkidstra—Ottawa’s attempt to replicate the El Sistema philosophy in Canada. Founded in 1975 by Venezuelan economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, El Sistema (or “the system”) provides free instruments and lessons for the children of his country, most who come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. The Orkidstra program is in its fourth year, and their artistic director had been a cellist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, looking for a connection for her program to her former employers. When we approached her with our idea, she was more than happy to have the Schumann group visit to give an education outreach presentation to her kids, who all played string instruments themselves. Of the list of learning objectives we provided for her, all musical, she was attracted to one: we want our children to learn how to interact with one another within a chamber group.

Because the children would be younger in Orkidstras than at Hawthorne Elementary, we decided it would be best to have the youngest of the CODA chamber ensembles present an outreach program to them.  The group was diverse--

First violin: a twelve-year-old boy from Korea
Second violin: a shy thirteen-year old girl straight from a farm in rural Canada
Viola: a pleasant boy with a hairdo inspired by Justin Beiber
Cello: a twelve year old who was already reading Shakespeare
Piano: A multi-talented twelve year-old who was currently balancing her interests between music and bird watching

Their assignment was to learn the Schumann Piano Quintet, one of the great masterpieces of the 19th century, and normally a chamber work performed by musicians twice the age of these kids. It would be difficult for them to present a program about how to rehearse in a chamber ensemble, considering that they didn't have a lot of experience themselves.

Sometimes creative ideas come from places far outside of the domains we encounter in our work lives; all the good ones are often hiding within moments of leisure and rest. A week before the start of the Summer Music Institute, I had decided to catch up on some non-academic reading, although my cursory interests still found their way to education. Instead of reviewing the New York State Department of Education’s arts curriculum, I found a book at my local library by Bob Katz called “Elaine’s Circle.” The book jacket described its contents as follows:

Elaine Moore, a veteran teacher in Eagle River, Alaska, is a firm believer that the classroom is, first and foremost, a community—and that learning is best when shared in a circle of peers. When one of her students, ten-year-old Seamus Farrell, is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Elaine, her students, and her innovative methods of teaching are put to their most severe test.

It sounded like a good read, and I finished the book one lazy summer day in my backyard, sitting underneath our patio umbrella with a glass of lemonade on hand. The story spoke of a group of difficult students who rallied around their classmate Seamus, who was diagnosed with cancer, visiting him either in the hospital or his home everyday, to keep him abreast of what they were learning in class themselves. It was the quintessence of peer tutoring, where Elaine’s students had an intrinsic motivation to help their friend, and worked hard to understand their material. Eventually, the class finished the school year with the highest standardized tests scores in Alaska.

It was in the planning phase of the Orkidstra visit, when the idea struck me: what if we get the Schumann group to teach these kids how to hold a great rehearsal by having them “pretend” to have the worst rehearsal possible? We would help the Schumann group create a skit, thereby making them more comfortable with each other, and also get them to actively meditate on what a good rehearsal looked like. Then, they could have the children in the audience to “correct” their mistakes, making it into an interactive experience where everybody learns.

Tags: "stinky schumann" "orkidstras" 

The CODA Project

Created in 2010 by myself and colleague Bryan Wagorn, the Community Outreach for Developing Artists (CODA) program was implemented June 2011 at the National Arts Centre (NAC) Summer Music Institute (SMI), founded by Isreali violinist Pinchas Zukerman.