The Story of OpporTUNEity®
Career Aspiration Inspiration
In 2005, as a doctoral student in piano performance at the University of Wisconsin Madison, I participated in a series of concerts in correctional facilities and juvenile detention centers in Milwaukee. At that time, I was convinced that a performing career was what I was destined for and my piano professor received grant funding to present concerts to inmates. While the intention was fundamentally good, I found myself deeply disturbed by the act of bringing classical music to an incarcerated population of adults and children who likely never had access to opportunities to learn how to create music themselves. Attempting to speak the language of Mozart and Rzewski to a group of children who had been imprisoned for adult crimes was especially challenging; trying to convince them, and myself, that it mattered was a struggle. It was equally disheartening to see the racial imbalance amongst them.
This experience jolted me deeply. As I became increasingly sensitive to the lack of diversity in my chosen field, I came face-to-face with the harsh reality that the field I had selected is, more often than not, reserved for the privileged. While I was not prepared to forego my development as a concert artist, I no longer felt purpose in practicing eight hours a day in isolation when I felt so driven to make a much needed adjustment to the status quo. My effort to resolve this internal conflict resulted in a drastic shake-up in my graduate studies: I switched from a D.M.A. in performance to a D.M.A. in performance and pedagogy, and added an M.S. in Special Education. I pursued both degrees simultaneously, often completing cross-disciplinary projects in my special education and pedagogy courses. My final project was a combination of public concerts, pedagogy workshops, and a qualitative dissertation that examined the perceptions piano teachers have of disability and inclusion. Since 2005, my goal has been to break down barriers in the arts and my graduate work at the University of Wisconsin Madison provided the tools I needed to accomplish this.
In 2016, I applied for and was accepted into the Doctor of Education degree program in Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Vanderbilt University. The above two paragraphs were taken from the statement of purpose submitted as part of my application. I followed up with a statement of intention—namely, that my desire to complete a second doctorate at Vanderbilt was driven by my want to improve what I created with OpporTUNEity in 2013 alongside of my vision to scale-up the program into a nonprofit organization.
Origins: Pulaski, TN
The below section has been modified from a paper published by the Piano Pedagogy Forum in January, 2016.
In the fall of 2013, I accepted a teaching position at Martin Methodist College. To be blunt, this was the kind of position that nobody wanted but somebody had to fill. For starters, Martin Methodist is situated in Pulaski, Tennessee, also known as the birthplace of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK). Arts opportunities in this region are scarce as many of the public school music programs have been cut and the poverty rate is high. Since Martin Methodist predominately recruits undergraduate students from the region surrounding Pulaski, many of the music students who had been recruited for the music degree were not necessarily students who were prepared for success in a baccalaureate music program. While many of these students displayed inherent musical gifts, without access to the proper pre-college instruction and training, many of these gifts were either undeveloped or underdeveloped.
Needless to say, accepting a position at an All-Steinway School that had no piano program, inheriting a group of undergraduate students who had not acquired the basic skills needed to be successful professional musicians, and moving to a rural town in the south with a high poverty rate, minimal arts opportunities, and a dark history of racism was a daunting challenge. In an effort to create positivity out of madness, OpporTUNEity® was founded in as a means to addressing three main problems:
How to provide an ethical and meaningful undergraduate experience to college music students who likely would not have been admitted if the institution had more appropriate admission standards.
How to begin inserting music back into a region deprived of art so that the students we recruit in the future are trained in a way that sets them up for success in college and, in turn, strengthens our undergraduate program.
How to help Pulaski’s efforts to move past its past and begin addressing the history of racial tension and segregation in the community by advocating for inclusion in the arts.
The original solution was to form a partnership between the Martin Methodist College music program and the Boys & Girls Club of Pulaski, Tennessee. Through this partnership, it was determined that we would ask our undergraduate music students to provide mentoring and musical opportunities to underserved youth in the region. We started with two college piano students and recruited ten children from the Boys & Girls Club to participate in the first semester of this program. The initial cohort of children were screened to meet low income criteria, were held to high standards of excellence, both in their lessons and academic performance, and were required to perform in a handful of outreach, fundraising, and public recitals during the academic year. After the first formal OpporTUNEity® recital, one of the college instructors, a native of Pulaski, commented on her experience:
After the performance we chatted and took pictures and talked and talked. SO many people came up to me to thank me today. I kept wondering why. I mean, I understand, but then again I don’t. Parents and grandparents of kids talked to me excitedly about how proud and happy they were. Rich people came and told me how I was an asset to the community and thanked me for doing something to help the “poor little children.” People told me I played well and congratulated me. It struck me how diverse the people were. To be blunt, it’s the only time in my life I’ve seen rich white Pulaski interact with poor Pulaski on an even playing field. They were all the same. They were all parents of a piano kid. And it was kind of amazing. Parents congratulated parents, and kids congratulated kids. I know it shouldn’t be a big deal, but I grew up here, and unfortunately it really is. Rich Pulaski doesn’t interact with poor Pulaski as equals. They just don’t. But today they did. An older black woman came up to me and gave me a hug before she ever said anything. She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “You keep doing this. Not for the piano, but for the kids.”
All of our college instructors were required to provide weekly one-on-one lessons one day a week and provide supervised practice an additional day of the week. The daily supervised practice provided the support the children need to be successful without burdening our partnering organizations’ staff by asking them to facilitate practice. The college instructors collaborated regularly, both with me and each other. Weekly meetings were held during which we discussed program challenges and addressed teaching issues. Our teachers and practice supervisor communicated weekly to ensure the children in the program were improving during their daily practice sessions.The children in the program formed community—they supported each other and collaborated in their own special ways. And, finally, the support of the Pulaski community was essential to OpporTUNEity’s success.
It became quickly apparent that the OpporTUNEity® program was having a positive impact while simultaneously tackling three problems listed above. That is, OpporTUNEity® was bringing music education back into the region, providing meaningful experiences to our undergraduate students, and bridging racial gaps in the community by focusing on inclusion in the arts. Halfway through year two, we expanded to provide lessons on guitar and piano to over forty children, effectively engaging fifteen college undergraduate students, and while partnering with the Boys & Girls Club and two local elementary schools in Pulaski. At the onset of year three, we were successful in bringing group violin and fiddle to an additional elementary school in the community. And our fundraising initiatives were equally successful.
Lessons, and Lessons, and Blessings, and Lessons
What made this pilot program so special and impactful was the prioritization of collaboration. At the institutional level, the college president and other executive administrators supported the program through the approval of work-study requests, fund raising initiatives, marketing and promotion. At the program level, regular correspondence between myself, the Boys & Girls Club CEO, and the principals at our partnering schools became essential. We would not have had a successful program if our partnerships were not effective.
What made this pilot program successful, however, became its downfall. I am exceptionally driven—when I see something in my mind, I pursue it and I do not stop until it has been created, often to the point of exhaustion. In Pulaski, every small success snowballed into larger successes. I drove hard, established meaningful relationships with powerful people, and raised money. A lot of money. With that money, my successes became double-edged sword. Powerful people became jealous. And when I was finally driven out, these powerful people latched onto the funds, OpporTUNEity® was absolved, and I walked away with street smarts, legal rights to the OpporTUNEity® brand, and a keener vision for rebirth, sustainability and growth.
OpporTUNEity 2.0: New Vision
My dream for OpporTUNEity® is to build a network of programs at institutions of higher education across the country, leveraging this network to build a pipeline of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds whose musical talents are cultivated through OpporTUNEity programs who then become college undergraduate student instructors in the future. As I see it, by establishing this network and building these supports, this is a most effective way to tackle the inequities that are disturbingly prevalent in the system with the end goal of increasing social mobility while diversifying our undergraduate music programs, in theory and in practice.
Mission Statement: 2017-Present
OpporTUNEity's® mission is to strengthen the ties between post-secondary music programs and their local communities while promoting the use of music as a means to engage undergraduate students in educational programs that emphasize social change, bridge access and equity gaps in the arts, and provide opportunities for enrichment and talent development to individuals residing in our most impoverished communities. We partner with colleges and universities, K-12 institutions, community organizations, and donors to provide underserved youth with high quality music instruction in urban areas across.
As we rapidly expand and our program becomes more and more complex, our mission remains simple: to use college resources to bring musical opportunities to underserved youth in our community, holding them to high standards of behavioral and performance excellence, while simultaneously providing engaging and enriching teaching and learning experiences to our undergraduate students. As we do this, we strengthen our local community, bridge class and racial gaps in our region, and enhance the quality of students we recruit to our undergraduate music program. In the end, everybody wins.
Programs & Objectives
COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES
The primary goal of OpporTUNEity® is to bring music learning opportunities to children in underserved communities, where resources are limited and poverty is high, while engaging undergraduate students in life-changing and potentially career defining teaching experiences. Within the scope of a K-16 framework, this is done by aligning the program with the mission and vision of colleges and universities, utilizing the resources of institutions while engaging college undergraduate music majors with teaching opportunities in the community. To these ends, we measure our impact through targeted music engagement, civic learning, and career readiness outcomes.
In order to best guarantee positive and impactful experience for undergraduate majors, we follow pedagogical best practices for service learning and civic engagement in higher education by implementing research based practices that include a comprehensive assessment and accountability system. Each semester, all college undergraduate students are required to attend an orientation session that focuses on the needs of the children enrolled in the program, legalities and ethics, pedagogical content, and other topics that are particularly relevant at the time.
OBJECTIVE 1: MUSIC ENGAGEMENT. Strengthen engagement and capacities of future music educators, music performers, and music therapists by using innovative, arts-based teaching and learning strategies with elementary, middle and high school students.
OBJECTIVE 2: CIVIC LEARNING. Utilize music as an educational tool for improving and building civic understanding and social justice in the classroom and private lesson settings, and throughout the undergraduate experience.
OBJECTIVE 3: CAREER READINESS. Develop career readiness skills, through community engagement and service, as participants become successful and innovative music professionals.
We team up with institutions of higher education to bring high quality engagement programs to partnering K-12 schools. To accomplish this, we build partnerships, establish training programs, leverage institutional resources, and implement the OpporTUNEity® model in our partnering schools. We hold a zero tolerance policy as we prioritize Academic, Behavioral, and Music Performance outcomes four the youth enrolled in our programs.
All children selected by partnering organizations to participate are expected to maintain a drug and alcohol free lifestyle; maintain at least a C GPA; pledge to stay in school; show a commitment to learning and excelling on their instrument; attend all supervised practice sessions; participate in all end of semester outreach performance events; and participate in their own small service learning projects that will be designed to provide opportunities for them to give back. To these ends, we collect and maintain extensive data related to behavior and academics, attendance and retention, school improvement, coordination and participation, music curriculum and state standards.
OBJECTIVE 1: ACADEMIC. Increase academic achievement by leveraging OpporTUNEity's ® standards and expectations of commitment, attendance, and mentorship.
OBJECTIVE 2: BEHAVIORAL. Improve behavioral outcomes by leveraging OpporTUNEity's ® standards and expectations of commitment, attendance, and mentorship.
OBJECTIVE 3: MUSIC PERFORMANCE. Provide opportunites and access to the field of music through high quality instruction, performance, and outreach opportunities.