July 27, 2015

Fast Learners: What makes Ang Misyon so special?

Reading Time:   3 Mins

Last week, I was in Manila with two New York Philharmonic teaching artists to explore the work of Ang Misyon – Tagalog for “the mission.” Ang Misyon, just three years old, aspires to be an El Sistema for the Philippines, modeled in a general way on Venezuela’s famous system of youth orchestras for impoverished children.   We spent time with the flagship ensemble, the Orchestra of Filipino Youth, and also out at nine satellites, some several hours’ drive from Manila.  Student ranged from true beginners, to quite accomplished teens.  Their neighborhoods ranged from what passes for middle class in Manila, to appalling poverty.  Our violinist Katie Kresek led group classes with up to 50 string players at a clip; our trombonist Stephen Dunn worked with anything from four brass players to a full-scale symphonic wind ensemble.  They both employed methods deriving from esthetic education, to improve both technique and musical understanding.

We went as teachers and resources, but there were many lessons for us to learn there.  What I keep thinking about is how well and how fast these students learn – really, virtually all 300 of them we saw.  Ang Misyon’s reach well exceeds its grasp: there are not remotely enough teachers, and most have little educational training.  There aren’t enough instruments, especially things like contrabasses and double reeds.  Yet somehow, we found students very well “set up” on their instruments.  And even more: focused, eager, and learning by leaps and bounds in the hour or so we had with each group. The changes in technique and sound were staggering.

Of course I attribute a lot of this to our fine teaching artists.  Great work, Steve and Katie!

But is there something special about these students and their circumstance?  One wants to say, they have so little; compared to most students in the US, they have less to distract and more incentive to expand their world.  But this sounds glib to me; it presumes more knowledge of their actual mid-set and environment than we could pick up in our brief encounters.  To the contrary, distracting smart phones are surprisingly common among these poor families: turns out they get “myphone” knockoffs for $15.  Seemingly every one of these kids is on Facebook.

One might also want to say that Filipinos are naturally musical.  That may be true, but again, it’s too easy, it avoids examining what’s going on here.

Without getting to know the students better, I can only speculate about their spongelike learning capacity.  But some of it surely has to do with their teachers.  However various their backgrounds, the teachers all really own “the mission” – giving kids the chance they had with music, developing discipline and compassion, creating beauty, opening new doors, improving lives.  Despite difficult teaching situations, lack of instruments and sheet music, uncertainty of attendance, all the challenges of working with impoverished families, these teachers bring a passion to their work that I think inspires the same in their students.

Then there’s a sense of purpose, of a goal: the Orchestra of Filipino Youth.  It may seem a small thing, but I was impressed that at every satellite, students wore a uniform polo or T-shirt with the name of their site, and always in the format “Orchestra of Bata’an Youth,”  “Orchestra of TayTay Youth,” etc.  They may be beginners, but they are in orchestras, and they are on their way up to the Orchestra of Filipino Youth, the flagship.  The goal is clear.  And when satellite students hear the OFY rehearse?  Their admiration is heart-rending.  They are imprinted with ambition to progress.

Finally, compassion.  There is a hefty social work aspect to any program focusing on poor kids.  Jovianney and Tinky Cruz – the husband/wife founders and Artistic Director and General Manager, respectively – make it a point to know every child and every family in every satellite.  When a child isn’t turning up, they find out what’s going on with the family and look for ways to help. No child is left behind –for real.  It isn’t only the kids at the Caloocan satellite, located in a girls’ orphanage, who look to the Cruz’s and Ang Misyon as surrogate parents.

All of which makes me wonder: how can we back in New York so inspire our teachers and teaching artists, that their students all become inspired learners?

Can we set goals, provide a payoff, even in non-skills based esthetic work, that motivate kids to exceed their own expectations?

Can we show so much care and commitment for each student, that they commit themselves as fully to learning?

And we thought we went to Manila to teach.