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The Academy's Educational Mission: Interactive Performances, Part 1

You might be familiar with the chamber music performances of Ensemble ACJW. But as fellows of the Academy, who make up Ensemble ACJW, our concerts are only one aspect of our musical work. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging about the unique educational mission of The Academy in our partnership with the New York City Department of Education.

During our two years in The Academy, each of us is partnered with an NYC public school and music teacher, spending a total of 25 days in the classroom, bringing high-quality performance and instruction to students in all five boroughs, ranging in age from kindergarten to high school.  Twice a year, we team up as chamber music groups to design what are called Interactive Performances (IPs), and take the show on the road to each of the group members’ schools. These assembly-style concerts are filled with activities, questions, visual aids or props, and other creative presentation methods through which the students can experience great music firsthand.  

Recently, I was a member of a woodwind quintet IP group, and we chose to perform Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Quintette en forme de choros. This terrifically exciting piece is loosely based on Villa-Lobos’ impressions of the popular music culture in his native Brazil, circa 1928 (a choro is an instrumental music form characterized by improvisation and many world styles—think New Orleans jazz, à la Rio de Janeiro). The Quintette, however, unfolds as a series of dreamily connected episodes. It's anything but formalized—carefully notated to give the impression of free improvisation and general chaos. The music is often dissonant, rhythmically irregular, and complex, but with possibility of great reward for listeners and performers alike. So how would we present this piece, which has the potential to befuddle even a seasoned audience, to an auditorium full of 8–10 year olds?

This is where the magic of the IP comes in. Because for these kids, as many Academy fellows have said, all music is “new” music. And that's where things with my students got really interesting. Unlike a more traditional concert audience, the students have very few preconceived notions about what classical music is or should be. We try to tap into the wide-open possibility of this by finding a way to illuminate the music through an emotional connection or previous life experience. (We call this our “entry point.”) With the Villa-Lobos, we drew on what we already knew about the composer’s life to make this connection: Villa-Lobos spent his life in big cities around the world—from Rio and São Paolo, to Paris. He was inspired by the vibrant culture in those Brazilian cities and took part in the choro tradition as a member of street and café bands.As for our students in Queens and Brooklyn, they certainly know what it means to live in a big, bustling, diverse city.And for them as well as Villa-Lobos, street performers and musicians are part of the cultural tableau.

So the idea at the center of our IP was as follows: Can music be a way to share our memories or our culture? As New Yorkers, we are likely to share many of the same experiences Villa Lobos would have had in his cities, and this gives us special insight when we hear music inspired by those experiences. We came up with a pretty fun way to listen to the music—“musical postcards”—and I can't wait to share more about this next time!  

’Til then,
Leelanee Sterrett

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