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Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes, musical excellence is the vehicle, but it’s musical excellence learned from teachers who can form those deep, long-term relationships with kids. That’s what makes a difference.
Anita Walker: Hello. I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Joining us today is Carolyn Mower Burns, President and CEO of Berkshire Children & Families, and welcome to the program.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Thank you, Anita. I’m so happy to be here with you. It’s an honor.
Anita Walker: Carolyn, you know that I couldn’t wait to have you on this program, because of the work you’re doing for families and children through music. But before we talk about that, tell me a little bit about your work and the people you work with.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Well, in the agency in general, we work with families from underserved communities in Pittsfield, throughout Berkshire County, and over into the Pioneer Valley, particularly in Hampshire County.
Anita Walker: You’re a human services agency.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes, we’re a family-and-children’s agency. Everything we do has to do with families and children. We provide early-childhood services and family support and foster care and adoption and we’re a partner in the very innovative Treehouse Inter-Generational Community in Easthampton.
Anita Walker: Which is? Tell about that.
Carolyn Mower Burns: That’s a wonderful program founded by Judy Cockerton, and I mention it in particular, because this was part of my inspiration for our Kids 4 Harmony music program, because Treehouse is all about supporting children who are in the foster-care system or are being adopted or being cared for by relatives and the caretakers who take care of them, whether those are foster parents or adoptive parents or sometimes kinship. But they live in a beautiful community in Easthampton with elders and elders support families and elders are needed and wanted and valued and children are valued and it’s about well-being. It’s about the immediate well-being of people, whatever circumstance they are in their lives. And I think to me, that is– in the child-welfare system, which I come out of, the outcomes that they usually talk about, the federal outcomes are safety, permanency, which is, you know, a permanent living situation, and well-being. And, unfortunately, what happens, if you think of those things in a linear way and you think, well, we have to keep kids safe first, well, that makes total sense, right? Doesn’t it? And we, then we want them in permanent living situations, and then we’ll think about the rest of their lives. And what I’ve come to believe is that if we can always be focusing on the well-being of children and what they need to thrive, then that will support those other outcomes.
Anita Walker: It may even need to come…
Carolyn Mower Burns: That– yes.
Anita Walker: …first.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes. I really do believe that it comes first and it promotes safety and it promotes permanency for children. And I think it’s very similar to the– I’m sure you’ve heard about The Blue Zones, the population-health approach, which has looked at these Blue Zones around the world, where people, you know, live to be 105 and do well, and they look at, you know, what are the qualities of Blue Zones, and how can we duplicate those? How can we create– this is really even before what we would call in my field “primary prevention.” This is saying, what can we do in an environment to really get rid of some of the risk factors that cause people to get sick? That’s from the public-health point of view. So, the work that we’re trying to do now is to say, okay, we do a very good job as an agency in helping people after they have been hurt or after kids are in the foster-care system or after families have led lives where they don’t have enough resources, but how can we move out in front of that?
Anita Walker: Instead of fixing what’s broken.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yeah.
Anita Walker: Prevent things from getting broken in the first place.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yeah, how can we prevent things, how can we get upstream, and how can we really think about, what are the things that all people need, that all children need in order to thrive?
Anita Walker: So, that brings us to music and Kids 4 Harmony.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes, yes.
Anita Walker: So, how did you come upon that?
Carolyn Mower Burns: Well, we came about it on a very strange way. We, about six years ago, the Longwood Symphony from Boston, which is an all-volunteer symphony, as you know, made their debut at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood. They wanted a local community partner to work with them, and their wonderful leader– and I know you know Lisa Wong– Lisa Wong told me about El Sistema, and she said, “You ought to do that. You’re the perfect agency to do it.” So, I looked into it. I started learning about it, what it was, started learning about it from people like Eli and Carolyn Newberger, Mark Churchill, who was then at the New England Conservatory. And we had been thinking as an agency, again, what could we do where we could move more upstream and do something that would really create opportunities for children instead of obstacles?
Anita Walker: And I will interject…
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes.
Anita Walker: …to just tell our listeners, El Sistema is a program that started about 30 years ago in Venezuela with 30 kids in a garage making music together, and now there’s nearly a million children in Venezuela who have gone through that program. It is now a program that is run out of the Ministry of Culture. It is not seen as an arts program. It’s seen as a social-justice program. But it has been transformational in the lives of millions of children in Venezuela.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes, and around the world. It’s blossoming all over the world. I’ve been particularly interested in the work that’s happening in Scotland with Big Noise, which I think is the best name for a program I’ve ever heard. But– and I think in certain respects, our work in this country may be more comparable to what– culturally to what goes on in Scotland. But the thing that has really struck me and really brings the program full circle for us, because people say, “Why is a social-service agency running a classical music program?” And it has its challenges. We’ve had to bring in expertise. We’ve been very fortunate to have Venezuelans Jorge Soto and the– Maria, Mariesther and Marielisa Alvarez come out from Boston every week to work with our kids and our teachers. And they grew up in El Sistema in Venezuela, and that’s been enormously helpful in understanding.
Anita Walker: And before you tell the impact of this, I do have to put in a plug for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which has embraced the El Sistema movement and is supporting probably more than a dozen El Sistema-inspired programs in Massachusetts, and we are very proud that we have attracted and hired Rodrigo Guerrero, who was the Chief of Staff for El Sistema in Venezuela. He could have gone anyplace in the world, and he chose to come to Massachusetts.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes. Yes, he’s just, he’s absolutely fabulous, and he and Erik Holmgren, who’s just about my favorite person in the whole world, have really provided us incredible consultation.
Anita Walker: So, now you have children making music in the Kids 4 Harmony program, and you are interested not just in how well they play the violin. You’re interested in their well-being…
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes.
Anita Walker: …and their family. So, talk about what you’ve discovered.
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes, well, what we’ve discovered– but first, again, we had to achieve musical excellence, because that is the vehicle. You know, that– the discipline and citizenship, etc. that goes into creating musical excellence is what really starts to change brains, develop brains, develop the prefrontal cortex and all the executive functioning, helps kids function better in school. So, we had to get there with the musical excellence. But what we learned along the way is, the musical excellence is not the result. The results are what we see in where these children start to go in their lives and where their families start to go. And as far as I know, we’re the only program that’s really focusing on families. And we have– our programs, we have a site in Pittsfield in Morningside Community School and another site in North Adams at the Brayton School and those are both neighborhoods that are very underserved and have lots of needs. And we have families who themselves did not have great experiences in school. They don’t necessarily always trust schools, etc. But with their children participating in our program after school, we’re able to start to draw them into school. And not just moms. Everybody says, “Oh, well, nobody works with dads.” We have dads. And if you came to one of our Casual Concerts, which we do about once a month at this school, and they’re really designed for families to see how their kids are doing and understand what they’re learning, we have families strolling in, moms, dads, younger siblings, grandmothers, aunts and uncles. We have the Head of the Pittsfield School Committee, who always shows up. But to see families start to feel that this is their school and that their kids are excelling at something starts to really be a restorative experience, because families take pride in their children. They have hopes for their children. Now, of course, what happens is, like all families, they have their struggles. And this is what’s great for us about being a social-service agency, because as they become our partners on behalf of their kids, they also trust us enough to say when they’re having a problem with something. But they’re not coming to us with a problem to start with. They’re coming over our shared hope for their children, and that starts a different kind of relationship. You know, and, again, it comes full circle. As a social worker, it always comes back to relationships. You know, so, even what they– the research in Scotland says, yes, musical excellence is the vehicle, but it’s musical excellence learned from teachers who can form those deep, long-term relationships with kids. That’s what makes the difference. So, all over the place, we’re growing relationships one-on-one, in the ensemble, and with families as a group. In our families, we meet with families as a group once a month. So, we’re growing their social networks, as well.
Anita Walker: You know, Maestro Abreu, who started the El Sistema program, liked to say that there’s nothing more powerful than bringing people together to make something beautiful. And that’s what ensemble musicmaking is all about. There’s a role for everybody. If a child can play one note or the entire piece, everybody is contributing to something wonderful.
Carolyn Mower Burns: It’s true. Everybody is part of that whole, and, you know, there was an article in The World Ensemble online newsletter by Adele Diamond, who has done research on– you know, she’s a neuroscientist and has done research. And, so, she talks about all the ways that El Sistema programs really develop that executive functioning of the brain, all the things we’ve talked about in terms of the ensemble playing, the discipline, etc. But what she also says is for the executive functioning to really work right, you also have to have conditions that relieve stress and relieve loneliness, because those get in the way. And you need to have experiences that give you joy. And so, she says that’s what’s the most wonderful thing about music, is that you can have it all. You can have that direct benefit, and then you get those indirect benefits of relieving stress and loneliness and growing joy.
Anita Walker: So, the next time anyone says, “Well, what’s a social worker doing in the music business,” the answer should be, “Why isn’t every social worker involved with music?” <laughs>
Carolyn Mower Burns: Yes, that’s– I’m a convert. That’s what I’ve come to believe.
Anita Walker: Carolyn Mower Burns, President and CEO of Berkshire Children & Families, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
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