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Implementing Program-Wide Curriculum & Teacher Preparation Training: The Case of Esperanza Azteca
Mexico
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ABSTRACT

Esperanza Azteca is a music-for-social-inclusion program designed for underprivileged youth from 7 to 25 years old across a wide network of operational sites in Mexico. Esperanza Azteca has 83 choral-orchestras and serves approximately 16,500 students. This case study considers the need for a program-wide curriculum and teacher preparation training within Esperanza Azteca. Several solutions are proposed, including connecting teaching staff across sites, allowing more instructional time for instrumental sectionals or private lessons, establishing a committee for teacher preparation education, holding monthly professional development at each site, and creating a two-year plan for curriculum development and implementation.

FIELDWORK CONTEXT
15-27 MAY 2017 | MEXICO CITY & TOLUCA

As guest artists with Esperanza Azteca, we held active roles as both teachers and performers, spending four hours per day from Monday through Friday instructing flute and horn students and collaborating with their teachers. This case study is based on our observations of, and participation in, Esperanza Azteca activities, as well as on informal interviews with teachers and administrative staff.

For the first week of our field assignment (May 16–19), we were placed with the Orquesta Sinfónica Esperanza Azteca Ciudad de México. This program is based in Mexico City and consists of five separate orchestral sites. We were based at the facilities of Esperanza Azteca Ciudad de México Norte in Balderas, which runs from 4:30 pm to 8:30 pm, Monday through Friday, with a half-hour break for students and teachers. During our teaching residency, flute and horn students (and their teachers) from every Esperanza Azteca orchestra in Mexico City—Orchestra Esperanza Azteca Tepito, Orchestra Esperanza Azteca Miguel Hidalgo, Orchestra Esperanza Azteca Indios Verdes, and Orchestra Esperanza Azteca Ciudad de México Tlalpan—suspended all regularly scheduled rehearsals and sectionals and came to the Balderas site to attend our seminars and master classes.

For the second week of our field assignment (May 22–26), we were placed with the Orquesta Sinfónica Esperanza Azteca Bicentenario in Toluca, the only site of the program in that city. While we worked primarily with flute and horn students (and their teachers) at this site, we also taught the entire woodwind and brass sections. This program runs from 4 pm to 8 pm, Monday to Friday, also with a half-hour break for students and teachers. Several teachers were members of the Orchestra of the State of Mexico.

At both sites, we had expected to teach sectionals on just our primary instrument (flute or horn), focusing on orchestral repertoire, technique, sound and intonation, breath development, improvisation, and music theory. After speaking with teachers and students at each site, however, we decided to focus on fundamentals and did not work on orchestral repertoire, improvisation, or music theory. We used flute choir or horn choir music to apply these fundamentals and concluded each week with a recital at each host site.

At both the Mexico City and Toluca sites, we observed dedicated instrumental teachers who care deeply about their students and work very hard to serve their students as best they can. This contributes to a warm learning environment where students are consistently eager to learn, care for and help each other, and care very much for their teachers. More experienced students consistently mentor beginning students without any prompting from their teachers, older students show affection for younger students, and students speak to their teachers with respect and show their desire to learn through their behavior and effort. The teachers’ dedication and the learning environment are significant strengths of the program. In addition, most teachers eat and socialize during breaks with their students. Teachers took notes during our masterclasses, just as the students did, and, in general, sought to gain as many resources and techniques as they could while we were there.

SUBJECT BACKGROUND
ESPERANZA AZTECA

Inspired by the youth orchestra movement in Venezuela known as El Sistema, Orquestas Sinfónicas Esperanza Azteca is a national network of symphonic orchestras whose stated mission is to provide underprivileged children in Mexico with a better quality of life through the power of music. This program provides musical instruction through instrumental lessons and enrollment in orchestras and choirs. Currently, Esperanza Azteca has 83 orchestras, serves approximately 16,500 students, and employs more than 1,200 teachers throughout Mexico. 

Fundación Azteca, the parent organization of Esperanza Azteca, is a non-profit dedicated to serving Mexicans through projects focused on environmental development, education, and culture, with the goal of promoting social change and environmental awareness through social responsibility and action. Fundación Azteca is owned by Grupo Salinas, a corporate conglomerate formed in 1906 by several Mexican companies and led by Ricardo B. Salinas Pliego. Fundación Azteca (and thus Esperanza Azteca) receives its primary funding from this private corporate group, alliances with Federal and State governments, and civil organizations, solidifying its sustainability and longevity and protecting the organization from changes in the political climate. Grupo Salinas consists of many different businesses and enterprises worldwide, including TV Azteca, one of the largest television broadcasting networks in Mexico and Latin America. Fundación Azteca has been in operation since 1997, and functions in Mexico, the United States, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Perú. It has nineteen social programs, most notably Orquestas Sinfónicas Esperanza Azteca, Limpiemos Nuestro México, Plantel Azteca, ¡Que Viva la Selva Lacandona!, Movimiento Azteca, and Red Social Azteca.

Esperanza Azteca originated as a small musical outreach initiative in Puebla, Mexico led by violinist Julio Saldaña, current Artistic Director of the program. Mr. Salinas Pliego was introduced to Mr. Saldaña in 2009, and they built Esperanza Azteca with El Sistema as a model. The program performed its orchestral debut on November 30, 2009, only nine months after the organization was established. Under the leadership of Executive President of Fundación Azteca, Esteban Moctezuma, the program has built 83 orchestras throughout Mexico in less than a decade. According to the Esperanza Azteca website, its mission is “forging better human beings through music” and “empowering success for underserved youth through a strong commitment to music education and the pursuit of artistic excellence,” and its core values are “teamwork, discipline, loyalty, honesty, excellence, and respect.” The goal of this program is to “empower children and youth to inspire other members of the community to get involved in the project and break away from bad habits.”

The rapid growth and sustainability of Esperanza Azteca has been fueled by the work of several key individuals. Mr. Esteban Moctezuma, Mr. Saldaña, and Mr. Salinas Pliego continue to guide the organization. Grupo Salinas contributes 60% of the program’s funding, the Mexican Ministry of Culture and Congress contribute 30%, and 10% comes from private sponsors and state or local government sponsors. Other core individuals in Esperanza Azteca are Ricardo Cerrillo, Director of Finances; Cecile Prieto, coordinator of all 83 orchestras; and Juan Antonio Cuéllar, Committee Advisor.

Esperanza Azteca’s stated methodology includes the following essential components at every site:

  • Talented Children: Youth from 7 to 25 years old from underprivileged backgrounds;
  • Daily Practice: 4 hours of instruction or rehearsal per day, Monday through Friday;
  • Professional Musicians as Teachers: Excellent and warm musical education under the guidance of a professional orchestra director, professional musicians representing each instrument in the orchestra, and a choral conductor;
  • Premiere Debut: After 9 months of lessons and rehearsals, students debut their first performance.

Each site hosts a full symphony orchestra and choir and has an average of fifteen teachers, a local coordinator, and an administrative staff. The program is offered at no cost to participants and includes musical instruction, musical instruments, and concert uniforms. Before committing to the program and selecting an instrument, incoming students have the option of a three-month trial period. The program does not require that students have prior musical knowledge; rather, teachers emphasize the time commitment and adaptation to Esperanza Azteca’s values.

CASE ISSUE
IMPLEMENTING PROGRAM-WIDE CURRICULUM & TEACHER PREPARATION TRAINING

Many of the strengths and weaknesses of Orquesta Sinfónicas Esperanza Azteca are site-specific, mostly likely due to the fact that each site runs its four-hour program as its staff sees fit. Curriculum is usually at the discretion of the site orchestra director, with the supervision of the National Artistic Director. However, non-musician administrative staff have contributed to what and how the students are learning as well. 

As the result of the program’s underlying focus on measurable growth, the Esperanza Azteca sites we visited sometimes emphasize product over process. Instrumental teachers and students must spend much of their time on orchestral repertoire in order to have it ready for multiple performances. To keep up with this demand, some of the Mexico City Esperanza Azteca orchestras use their four hours per day on orchestral rehearsals only. This takes away precious time from the instrumental teachers and leaves students with little time to develop fundamentals on their instruments, including posture, tone, embouchure, tonguing, and breathing, or to learn the basics of music theory. In addition, new students in the Cuidad de México Norte site must join the orchestra after only two months of instruction. As a result, a number of students get discouraged and leave the program.

“As the result of the program’s underlying focus on measurable growth, Esperanza Azteca sites we visited sometimes emphasize product over process.”

Some of these weaknesses were observed at the Toluca site as well; however, the Toluca schedule allows for consistent sectionals and splits the students into a beginner orchestra and an advanced orchestra, allowing beginning instrumentalists to learn at their own pace. There is also a notable disparity between site facilities and instrument quality. For example, Esperanza Azteca Ciudad de México Norte in Balderas shares their site with a functioning school, while Orquesta Sinfónica Esperanza Azteca Bicentenario in Toluca has its own building. Several horn students from the five orchestras in Mexico City and in Toluca had instruments that were falling apart and held together with string and tape. Flute students from the five orchestras in Mexico City fared similarly, while flute students in Toluca had expensive, high-quality instruments. In addition, it is important to note that students are not allowed to take the instruments outside of the facilities during weekdays except for concerts.

There is no curriculum uniting all national Orquestas Sinfónicas Esperanza Azteca and while the teachers we observed are dedicated and caring, some lack training in teaching and educational practice. In addition, Fundación Azteca does not support instrumental teachers with professional development activities. The Esperanza Azteca Board holds standards for program growth and musical development, but our observations lead us to believe that these expectations do not reach the individual teachers at each site. Therefore, curriculum development and teacher preparation are of paramount importance for the improvement of the program.

ANALYSIS

Esperanza Azteca teachers are dedicated to, and care for, their students. While these are essential factors in good teaching, teachers also need to know how and what to teach, and the goals toward which they are striving. For instance, Esperanza Azteca students need to develop basic fundamentals on their instruments. In fact, the flute and horn teachers almost unanimously requested that we work on these fundamentals with their students, and students in all of the orchestras that we observed and worked with agreed that individual instrumental technique needed improvement. The teachers also asked for advice on method books and were extremely interested in any resources we could give them while we were there. 

Although the five Esperanza Azteca orchestras in Mexico City are all part of one unit, the teachers rarely know their peers or have regular contact with each other. The teachers and students we worked with met for the first time during our residency. In addition, the orchestras have not shared resources or developed unifying elements between themselves.

These observations suggest the following:

  1. Teachers do not have time to teach essential fundamentals on their main instruments due to pressure for product versus process, and therefore have not adequately developed the necessary pedagogical expertise to perform this task to their highest abilities;
  2. Teachers of the same instrument are poorly connected across Esperanza Azteca, contributing to the lack of emphasis on curriculum development; and
  3. If there are goals or standards in place for what is being taught and how it is being taught at Esperanza Azteca, it is not clear to teachers or students.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Teacher preparation and curriculum development are essential elements for any teacher or educational program. However, changes of magnitude cannot happen all at once. This study recognizes the challenges of implementing structural changes and recommends that the following solutions be implemented over time in order to achieve the ultimate goal: sufficient teacher preparation and program-wide curriculum.

The following two suggestions could be implemented immediately and without much effort or cost:

  • Connect instrumental teachers from multiple sites: Connecting teachers and allowing them to communicate teaching strategies and discuss content for sectionals would increase teacher competence and confidence, thereby increasing student success. While an informal solution, this could start a dialogue among teachers that would contribute to formal curriculum development in the future. This could occur via regular meetings, with teachers compensated for their time, or via social media.
  • Allow more time during the week for sectionals or private lessons: Sites should be discouraged from spending the entire four-hour rehearsal every day of the week in full orchestra. Students need to have time with their instrumental teacher in sectionals or private lessons to learn the fundamentals of their instruments. This would also create time for teachers to implement the strategies and practices they discuss with teachers from other sites, as suggested above.

Connecting teachers and allowing them to communicate teaching strategies and discuss content for sectionals would increase teacher competence and confidence, thereby increasing student success.”

The following suggestions will be more challenging to implement, but will formally move the organization to reach the goals of sufficient teacher preparation and program-wide curriculum in approximately two years:

  • Create a committee for teacher preparation education: A committee consisting of current teachers, administrators, and outside education specialists should meet to discuss, plan, and implement professional development activities for instrumental teachers at Esperanza Azteca. With the input of an education specialist (ideally a music education professor from a university), the committee could plan regular, continuous professional development sessions to help teachers choose appropriate content for their classes and determine how to implement that content. The committee could meet regularly in the summer and begin implementing professional development in the fall, or meet through the fall and begin implementing professional development in the spring.
  • Implement monthly teacher preparation education at each site: Based on the planning of the committee for teacher preparation education, each site should give professional development sessions to its teachers once per month. These sessions could include both full-group lectures and small-group work: teachers could break off to discuss the content of the meeting and work together to create solutions. This monthly professional development meeting should happen during the week—regular classes could be cancelled that day or students released early—though a site could also decide to hold professional development outside of regularly scheduled hours. In either case, every teacher from the site should be present. Ideally, monthly teacher preparation education/professional development sessions would be implemented within the next year.
  • Create implementation plan for site-wide curriculum in two years: Within the next two years, each site should create curriculum standards for each instrument, the orchestra, the choir, and any other ensemble. The site should then implement these standards in the third year. Beforehand, all site administrators should meet with a curriculum specialist to learn how to guide their sites through the curriculum development process. Teachers from multiple sites should be in contact with one another (as mentioned earlier) to share ideas in shaping their curriculum. With the guidance of the site administrators and the support of their peers, teachers could create benchmarks for learning, hone in on the methods and techniques they will use, and prepare the repertoire they will use to implement those methods and techniques. 

CONCLUSION

Orquestas Sinfónicas Esperanza Azteca has experienced growth and success since its foundation, and has all the elements needed to make this program a worldwide reference. With a mission of educating better human beings through music and using music education for social inclusion and strengthening positive social values, the program has served approximately 30,000 at-risk youth throughout Mexico since its foundation. A 10-year longitudinal study of the impact of the program on these students will be released in late 2018. According to Ms. Prieto, the program has recently decided to halt further site expansion in order to strengthen and consolidate the current sites and emphasize artistic and teaching excellence. These new goals align with this study, which recommends that Esperanza Azteca implement a more efficient program-wide curriculum and support teacher preparation. This will lead to a more cohesive and connected program nationwide.


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