Doing the Right Thing
By YOLA at HOLA teaching artist Emily Kubitskey, who has been a clarinetist and keyboardist for over two decades, and is the Wind Ensemble Director and Woodwind Specialist for YOLA at HOLA.
Every day I walk into a classroom or rehearsal — whether it’s with hopeful college students, angsty teenagers, or crazy kindergarteners — I have to remind myself that I am there to build human relationships and provide them with lifelong tools and skills. And the rest? You know, that whole musical excellence part? Well, that’s the byproduct. At least that’s what I’ve come to learn over the last 5 1/2 years while working at Heart of Los Angeles.
My story with Heart of Los Angeles began almost 6 years ago when I graduated with my Masters in Education from Vanderbilt University, and promptly moved to sunny Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. I had my heart set on being a marching band director for the rest of my life, and while I was very passionate about music, I was also (perhaps overly) enthusiastic about making sure my students did the “right thing.” What was the right thing, you ask? Well, of course sitting up straight, being quiet, playing scales perfectly, winning competitions. You know, the important things in life. (Insert sarcasm here). It wasn’t a few months into my teaching position at HOLA that I realized the hard way that these surface things were proving not to be the most important things in a classroom.
As some of you may know, a huge source of inspiration behind what we do at YOLA at HOLA comes from a philosophy and musical structure in Venezuela called El Sistema. El Sistema allows children to become music students, but more importantly, it trains them to become better citizens and human beings, while building relationships with their communities. As this musical and social idea swept the globe, it quickly landed in my lap and challenged me on a daily basis at HOLA. I start questioning myself, and wondering why my students should care about playing scales perfectly if they did not know whether I cared for them. Why should I ask them to engage with the musicians around them if I was not aware of what was happening in their own community? Why should I ask them to grow as musicians if I was not asking myself to grow as a teacher?
To make an extremely long story short, I spent years (and will continue to spend decades more) learning what it means to prioritize the relationships with my students without their instruments in their hands, as opposed to only prioritizing the relationships that the students build with the music. Somedays, I will spend an entire 90-minute “rehearsal” with the students sitting in a circle on the floor learning each other’s names and favorite flavors of ice cream before I will let them start rehearsing Tchaikovsky. Because if the students do not genuinely care for each other and for their community, how can we ask them to care for something so ambiguous and esoteric as music?
To this day, if I start a rehearsal with my younger students by asking them how they are doing and then immediately dive into repertoire, one of them will always interrupt me and say “But, Ms. Emily, how are you doing today? Did you drink water? How was school?” It never ceases to put a smile on my face.
As many teachers can tell you, we learn more from our students than they learn from us. So after almost six years of working with my YOLA at HOLA students, if you were to ask me about “the right thing” for my students, it would be to build human relationships, explore creativity, and always ask questions. Only then can we work on Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and sitting up straight.