My trip involved volunteering with an El Sistema music project in New York. El Sistema was created to allow children the opportunity to learn a musical instrument when they would otherwise be unable. The programme I volunteered with was the Queens-based Corona Youth Music Project, where children aged 6-16 who live in deprived areas of Corona were given an instrument to learn.
Prior to working at Corona, I had some experience in teaching individuals a string instrument in Edinburgh, however had never before rehearsed groups of pupils together. Therefore, on my first day when I was put in front of a group of six young chirpy and cheeky children, with the task of teaching them Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony among other things, it is fair to say I was more than a little nervous. By the end of that first day I had considerably re-evaluated my rather naïve preconceptions of the ease at which I’d be able to teach these kids.
I quickly realised the key to a successful lesson was preparation. I wanted to make each lesson as fun as possible, whilst making sure music was also learned. With each lesson totalling ninety minutes, this was a challenging task. However, I found that the more I got to know the children, the easier it became.
The group I was coaching from the children’s orchestra ranged from age 10-12, and were a very chatty group. They were curious about the music, and asked questions relating to the pieces we were studying. However, they were also often curious about other things including the UK, my trip to the US, and all the other things a group that age likes to talk about. I directed conversations back towards music, and was delighted when the children became rapt with attention as I told them a story about Beethoven conducting his ninth symphony whilst completely deaf.
The group I was coaching from the Youth Orchestra were slightly older, aged 13-15, however were far quieter than the younger group. I found this more difficult to manage. In the initial days they would hardly speak at all, despite my encouragement to get them involved and chatting. It was always therefore a slightly bigger success when one of the children from this group would ask me a question unprompted, or exclaim an interest in a passage of music we had worked on.
The two weeks teaching passed incredibly quickly, and on the final day it was sad to say goodbye to the children and friends I had made. An unexpected invitation to play at City Centre in Manhatten however made me decide to extend the trip a little longer. I had reached the final of a competition the City Centre had organised, and therefore got to play an arrangement I had made of a song from Little Mermaid to Alan Menken, the very composer of this film and many other Disney films.