The seventh annual music residency, El Sistema, returned to King School in person this year with a powerful new sound. Talented student musicians from King’s Middle and Upper Schools collaborated with seven El Sistema USA music programs from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Connecticut. The collaboration resulted in an original composition that premiered at a community concert to showcase the learning and partnership that took place over the weekend.
The overarching focus of the residency is to inspire a connection between communities of different socioeconomic backgrounds, using music ensembles to encourage deeper communication among its participants.
The visiting programs included Roc Music, the Paterson Music Project, Trenton Music Makers, Peabody Tuned In, Baltimore Symphony Orchids, and Stamford’s own Intempo and Project Music. The programs joined together on the King School campus to blend music from varied styles and cultures into a 15-minute collective composition.
“My freshman year, when the pandemic hit, the whole program got canceled. For my sophomore year, we did El Sistema but it was actually online so it was a totally different experience than I had this year,” said Bryce Heaton ’23 who expressed excitement about experiencing El Sistema in person for the first time. “This year was one of the best experiences I’ve had at King so far.”
Although faculty and program leaders were available to provide guidance, over 70 student musicians worked together in small groups to create melodies and riffs that contributed to the final piece.
“When students are given an opportunity to use their resources and gifts to express themselves creatively, it’s truly an empowering and impactful experience,” said Garrett Mendez, Director of Instrumental Music at King School and Artistic Director of Project Music. “That type of freedom is always where the magic happens.”
As part of the El Sistema Residency, Vice-Chair of El Sistema USA programs Monique Van Willingh facilitated a panel discussion of students and teachers who shared their experiences with student-centered projects. The panel emphasized the role and impact of students’ voices in the educational process.
Jamie Munno ’22, who has participated in El Sistema since Middle School, was a student on the panel. “When everyone is playing something different, it’s important to find those small pieces that you can rely on as a baseline. Find confidence in that smaller thing and then build from there so you can feel comfortable in exploring other parts or making up your own part to vibe with the people around you,” she said.
“Forget that you’re on stage. Forget that there’s an audience. Be present with the other musicians and artists who came together for this and enjoy those moments. We’re all in this together.”
Following the panel, Van Willingh led a public workshop entitled “Intentionally Cultivating Student Voice and Agency.” Educators from all disciplines were invited to attend the presentation on a scaffolded approach to facilitating student voice in the classroom.
“It’s important that the students have some wind along the process because, if not, there might be some students who won’t have the bravery to express themselves. Ask them, ‘What do you think about this process? What would you do if you could change this whole thing?’ Invite them to bring in some of their own ideas,” said Van Willingh.
“They’ve got to share and they’ve got to make mistakes. How you respond to their mistakes is what will make all the difference. When you embody shared responsibility and shared leadership, it inspires co-creation,” she said.
The residency culminated with a community concert that featured music performed by each participating El Sistema USA music program. For the grand finale, all student musicians came together on stage to perform the collaborative composition. The entire performance can be viewed here.