The Cambridge, Massachusetts, music school with a social mission

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How can we do more? A simple question led to a US music conservatory’s change in mission and a legion of students ready to lead the charge

In 2006, Longy School of Music President, Karen Zorn, was leaving her post at the Berklee College of Music, looking to embark on a new journey. What she didn’t know was that the journey would be short, just over the Charles River to a small music conservatory a few blocks away from Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The school was contemplating a new mission, a social mission — one that would change the way musicians are trained and the way they see their role in the world.

Zorn, who is celebrating her 10th year as Longy’s president, has expanded that mission by integrating it into each program the school offers.

‘When I arrived at Longy, the social mission was essentially embedded in one class. My immediate thought was: How can we do more? How can we increase the number of students we engage and broaden the impact on our community?’

From seed to spark — a social mission at work

In 2013, Longy launched what would become the main focus of its social mission: Sistema Side by Side (SSBS). The program pairs children aged 6 to 17 from El Sistema-inspired community programs throughout Massachusetts with Longy’s conservatory musicians to create several different ensembles, including a symphony orchestra, string orchestra, wind ensemble and choir, with three ensembles added in the past two years to meet the growing demand for the program.

In addition to rehearsals, performances and other activities that build community and valuable life skills, the SSBS program presents opportunities for children from diverse, under-resourced backgrounds and neighbourhoods to receive conservatory-level training. SSBS enables all participants to use their new skills by performing in world-class venues with nationally renowned conductors and guest artists.

Alongside the year-round program, there is a two-week Summer Academy, with between 150 and 175 children involved each year across both elements. The regular program is free of charge while the Summer Academy tuition fee is US$200, though this is waived if a student’s family needs financial help.

The program is influenced by the principles of the Venezuelan El Sistema movement, founded in 1975 by the late musician, composer, pianist, teacher and economist, José Antonio Abréu, who died on 24 March 2018 at the age of 78. El Sistema, or ‘The System’, aims to achieve positive social change by reaching children from underserved communities through orchestral music education.

The late Jose Abreu, founder of El Sistema with Jorge Soto (Music Director of Longy College of Music’s Sistema Side by Side Orchestra) and Longy President, Karen Zorn with members of the Side by Side Orchestra in 2014 © Karl Rabe
The late José Abreu, Founder of El Sistema, with Jorge Soto (Music Director of Longy School of Music’s Sistema Side by Side Orchestra) and Longy President, Karen Zorn, with members of the Side by Side Orchestra in 2014 © Karl Rabe

‘Maestro Abreu’s singular vision has changed the lives of countless children, families, and communities – including every young musician you will see on stage this afternoon’, said Zorn after a 2014 performance of Longy’s Sistema Side by Side ensemble in Abreu’s honour at Bard College.

Among those who have endorsed Longy’s program is the best known product of Venezuela’s El Sistema program, Gustavo Dudamel, Grammy Award-winning Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2014, Dudamel came to Longy to support the program and participate in their inaugural Sistema Side by Side Gala in which he directed an open rehearsal with the orchestra.

Since its inception, the SSBS orchestra has been led by Music Director, Jorge Soto. Born in Venezuela, Soto is a product of the El Sistema program and went on to be a founding member of the Simón Bolívar National Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. He has also performed with the Youth Orchestra of the Americas and the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas.

‘Beyond the many musical accomplishments the students, teachers and I have achieved in the last five years together at Longy, nothing makes me happier than to see the young students smile’, says Soto.

‘I love to see them smile when they meet each other at rehearsals, or when they finally learn to play a passage of music well, and I especially like to see those big smiles after a great and exciting performance. I think they see me as an older brother and I see them as my young siblings… this makes us a family. We have a responsibility to one another.’

Beyond Sistema Side by Side

The early success of the SSBS program strengthened Karen Zorn’s determination to integrate the social mission more fully across the conservatory. Today, the school’s mission influences nearly all its programs, including the Teaching Artist (TAP) and Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) programs.

The Teaching Artist Program aims to give students the understanding and skills necessary to create engaging musical experiences for a wide variety of audiences and participants, while the Master of Arts in Teaching program, on Longy’s Los Angeles campus, offers the first one-year accredited degree program worldwide inspired by El Sistema. The course covers performance, music pedagogy and social justice and is led by a faculty which includes Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians and leading scholars in music and education.

In Summer 2018, Longy will partner with the Music for Healing and Transition Program to provide an intensive, scientifically based Summer institute. The music is provided as a service, not as entertainment, and is curated to address each patient’s condition with the aim of providing comfort and promoting healing.

The impact on the community — The Longy/WolfBrown Impact Study

In 2013, Longy partnered with WolfBrown, a leading provider of research-based knowledge to the cultural sector, in a multi-year study to measure the benefits for children participating in Longy’s El Sistema-inspired music program. An emphasis was placed on how multiple years of participation might benefit participants’ development as musicians and in other socio-emotional skills at school.

Among the findings:

  • Development as individual musicians. On average, students exhibited a significant degree of musical growth from beginning to end each year of participation in the program. Additionally, they began each successive year from a place of greater musical accomplishment.
  • Impact on socio-emotional skills. Students enrolled in the programs reported significantly higher levels of growth mindset at the end of each year than they had at its outset. Growth mindset refers to the belief that one’s capabilities – such as intelligence or musical ability – are due in large part to one’s actions and efforts rather than to a fixed trait or talent.
  • Transfer of socio-emotional skills to areas outside the music program. Students enrolled for two or more years exhibited more rapid development in their growth mindset and drive to learn outside their music program.
  • Gender roles in socio-emotional skill findings. Boys in the program exhibited higher rates of growth than girls did in a number of other domains of socio-emotional growth such as cooperation and perseverance. For girls there was no relation between program participation and perseverance.

The full report can be found here.

The impact on campus and beyond

Nearly one-third of Longy’s current conservatory students participate in the SSBS program. (The school has 210 students, of which 80% are undergraduates, with international students comprising 55% of the total intake.) The profile of Longy’s social mission has had a positive effect on the number of applications from prospective students: in 2016, many of new applicants said the mission, rather than the opportunity to study with a particular faculty member, was the driving force behind their interest in applying to the conservatory.

Longy College of Music Side by Side Orchestra at 2018 Gala with special guest conductor Thomas Wilkins © Dan Busler
Longy School of Music Side by Side Orchestra at 2018 Gala with special guest conductor, Thomas Wilkins © Dan Busler

‘Before Longy and the Side by Side program, I thought I was prepared for my future as an educator and performer’, said Laura Reyes, a Longy Master of Music student. ‘Now that I’m almost finished, I look back and I see how much working closely with these children has helped me learn and grow as a musician. They’ve taught me as much as I’ve taught them and I will leave Longy feeling rewarded to have performed and rehearsed with the next generation of Boston musicians who will change the world.’

According to another student, cellist, David Hurtado, ‘Seeing how the kids, parents and faculty bonded and interacted made me realise that the secret to the success of a program like Longy’s lies in building a strong community. This has been one of the greatest lessons I learned from my time at Longy. It is one that I have carried with me in my career.’

Hurtado is currently the El Sistema String Orchestra director at Lawrence High School in a suburb of Boston. ‘I started working in the Lawrence Public Schools district in the Summer of 2015 and had to build the program from the ground up. We now have over 70 kids, grades 6-10, and now we are working to expand the high school program so kids can participate up to graduation.’

The future of Longy’s social mission

According to Karen Zorn, Longy is preparing for the future by continuing to answer the same simple question: ‘How can we do more?’ The conservatory is now in talks with current faculty and international specialists around how to build a range of opportunities for Longy students to mentor, teach and reflect on their progress.

As for the young children who are the recipients of the conservatory students’ work, Longy has plans for them too.

‘The children are the future and we want them to lead the way’, said Zorn. ‘We can achieve this by strengthening their confidence and enabling them to hone their leadership skills. We want the young adults who graduate from this program to see themselves as college-bound students ready to return to Longy to mentor the young musicians who take their place.’

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