In September, Sistema Toronto's Centre Directors along with several representatives from the admin team travelled to Chicago to attend the Fire Up! Retreat, hosted by the Academy for Impact Through Music (AIM). The retreat was an excellent opportunity to engage in discussions about teaching, leadership, and impact with other change-makers using music as their vehicle, including six Sistema-inspired organizations.
Amongst in-depth conversations surrounding innovative teaching methods and using music as a catalyst for social action, the Fire Up! Retreat paved the way for a deeper exploration of beauty in performances by young musicians. The most provocative question that came up during the retreat was what does it mean for a beginner group to perform beautifully? Can our students give a beautiful performance even at the earliest stages of technical and musical development?
Part of the AIM experience involves participants pursuing “Action Research” projects, where they carry out 6-week mini-experiments within their respective programs. Alex, of Sistema Toronto, suggested that we use this as an opportunity to examine the ways in which beginner performance can be beautiful.
Four of Sistema Toronto’s teaching artists volunteered to take part in this experiment while working with junior or intermediate classes. Each week, these teachers received prompts, leading questions and suggestions for class topics, and then worked with their students to discuss and carry out activities around beauty and performance. They filmed each of their classes and shared the recordings, sometimes providing written feedback on their classroom activities.
Ultimately, the Beauty Work project examined beauty in music education through six key topics:
Tone: the art of making beautiful sounds)
Ensemble: playing together, coordinating with peers and teachers
Creativity: understanding the decisions students make and how it impacts the audience
Intention: clarifying the message students aim to convey through their performance
Expression: utilizing musical tools, body language, movement, and facial expression
“Setting the Stage”: managing audience expectations and connecting before and after performances
Then, using these topics as a framework, participants sought to answer six big questions:
How do students understand beauty and what factors contribute to making their performances more or less beautiful?
How does beauty come across to the audience?
What will make an audience find a student performance more beautiful?
How aware are students of these things?
Do they think about beauty?
Are they aware of the audience’s reaction?
The activities varied from class to class and teaching artists would integrate the beauty work with the music and learning that students were already doing. Here are some samples of outstanding classwork that took place:
In week two, Rae encouraged her students to practice elements of healthy tone, while Lucy worked with her students to listen, set goals, and play more together:
In week three, Rae’s students created movements to accompany their Canoe Song, while Kelvin’s students practiced non-musical sound effects on their instruments:
After the six-week experiment, our Teaching Artists were asked to provide feedback through an online questionnaire. This feedback suggested that the project had increased student awareness of their behaviour both on and off stage, improved communication skills (and understanding of the importance of communication) amongst the ensemble, and profoundly impacted students’ understanding of the role beauty plays in musical expression.
Below are some quotes from Sistema Toronto’s teaching artists when asked how student performances would improve thanks to this experiment:
“Taking the time to discuss the different aspects of performance in the 'Setting the Stage' week helped students air out their nerves and build the group's confidence leading up to the term concert. We came up with strategies for dealing with performance anxiety like breathing exercises and taking space between different sections of our piece.”
“[Students] now have a clearer sense of what makes a performance beautiful within the music itself as well as the other aspects such as personal conduct on stage before, during and after the performance.”
By challenging traditional norms and actively involving teachers and students in the exploration process, AIM has championed a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of musical excellence. It has become clear throughout this process that beauty in music goes beyond technical prowess; it is about crafting an experience that resonates deeply with both the performers and their audience.