Young Artists Explore Their Role As Artists Within The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

On a rainy day in March, six young artists (see bottom) gathered in Boston’s historic Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It was the day before their performance on NPR’s From the Top and, since they had all met each other the previous evening at an ISGM Third Thursdays event, the reunion was brief but full of excitement. Today, they would have the opportunity to get a private tour, learn how to examine a work of art to find its deeper meaning, and how to apply that approach to their own lives to become leaders in their communities.

Before the tour began, the young musicians learned about the concept of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), an approach to arts education that uses student-centered facilitation to encourage inclusive discussions. The group was then led through the museum – not yet open to the public – to take a deep, extended look at several elements of the museum’s history and collection using the three VTS questions:

  1. What’s going on?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

John Singer’s “El Jaleo”

The musicians began by listening and observing in the striking indoor Venetian-style courtyard, then spent a full 15 minutes with the John Singer Sargent masterpiece El Jaleo.

Context for the artwork was withheld to demonstrate how one could foster a conversation unencumbered by the assumptions and knowledge that can influence one’s intuitive responses.

As they continued their tour of the museum, they began slowly opening up, revealing their individual personalities a bit more. They learned about Dame Nellie Melba, a famous Gilded Age soprano and friend of Mrs. Gardner, and listened to a recording of her 1905 performance from the top of the stairs in the Dutch Room into the courtyard below – the same spot where they were standing.

The group then moved on to the 300-seat Calderwood Hall, the “sonic cube’ where they would perform the next day to a sold-out crowd. Alejandra, the shy 14-year-old pianist, was invited to sit at the gleaming Steinway piano and perform a short prepared piece for her peers. After getting over her nerves, she impressively attacked a piece by Chopin that belied her age. The musicians then reflected on the performance using a modified version of VTS, sharing observations ranging from the feeling of longing evoked by the music to the play of shadows across the floor as Alejandra’s finger glided across the keys.


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During lunch the young musicians heard from violist Ashleigh Gordon, founder of Castle of our Skins, a concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music. Using writer, choreographer, and activist Andrew Simonet’s Making Your Life as an Artist, she invited the young musicians to consider their role as artists and how to draw inspiration from themselves and their community.

Due to a last-minute change from the museum administration, originally conceptualized pop-up concerts in the galleries morphed quickly into a VTS approach to audience engagement. This provided a learning opportunity for the musicians on the importance of being able to adapt to changing circumstances – an important lesson for a performing artist. The museum staff opened up the museum’s education room located near the main entrance where the musicians could practice solo pieces they prepared. One musician played and another facilitated the post-performance conversation. As demonstrated earlier in the day, they decided not to share the name of the piece nor the composer until the end of the discussion in order to allow guests to focus on the music and on their interpretations. Over the course of the hour, more than 50 guests wandered in and engaged in the impromptu experiment to varying degrees.

Afterward, the musicians reflected on their experience, sharing what struck them most about both performing and facilitating, including adjustments they made, the role of context, and being comfortable with silence as participants consider answers to the questions being posed. By this time, leaders had emerged in the group, often with the older musicians kindly encouraging the younger, shyer counterparts. Despite their different backgrounds, values, and goals for the future, all of the musicians were comfortable opening up and making themselves more vulnerable in the accepting, supportive atmosphere.

The discussion transitioned to the value of mistakes and the question “Do you have any favorite recordings that include a mistake?” Some could immediately offer an enthusiastic example, others were able to offer anecdotes from teachers. By acknowledging that professional musicians make mistakes, even on a beloved recording, it showed that technical perfection is generally less important for the audience than the quality of a musician’s performance and musicianship. Through this, the young musicians accepted that they, too, have permission to make mistakes and move on from them.

At the end of the day, the group returned to digest Ashleigh’s presentation and how to create a fulfilling life as an artist using the Japanese concept of Ikigai, meaning “a reason for being,” in which one explores the intersection of four areas – what you are good at, what you love, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs. The musicians were asked to consider these questions one at a time and share their responses with the group, culminating in an exploration of what they each hope to contribute to the world and how they can use their strengths and interests to accomplish that. They were then charged with taking these ideas home at the end of the weekend, using From the Top as a resource, and taking steps to make their vision come to life.

When we brainstormed by ourselves in journals what we felt the “world needed” and went around in a circle sharing one-by-one, I felt touched because From The Top had set up our discussion so that everyone’s opinion was important. I think some of us were a bit uncomfortable because we weren’t used to sharing this much, but it still felt like a golden opportunity. You felt that people wanted to hear your grand ideas.

We were there because of our musical talent, but we also were able to speak from our whole experience just as people. It’s not every day that someone asks you what you wish was different in the world and listens to everything you want to say.

– 18-year-old flutist Mai Nguyen

After a long day of art and introspection, the six young musicians prepared for the next day’s performance with a new perspective on how they can use their art to create a better world.


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