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What Is That ‘YAMA Feeling’?

YAMA Program

Hi, I’m Jen (or Mrs. Moultine, as my students call me) and I have been one of the YAMA Teaching Artists since January of 2014. I think all of us who teach at YAMA have varied and big reasons for why we do what we do. By its very nature, this job requires a certain buy-in of the heart. As with any start up, there are limited resources, many obstacles to overcome, and few guarantees. So why do we do this? I can’t answer for my colleagues, but I can at least try to rub up against why I am a part of this thing.

First, though, I have a question for you: Do you believe in magic? Or, if it is easier on your sensibilities to rephrase the word ‘magic’, do you believe in the power of intention?

Okay, I am aware of the fact that there may be many eyes rolling right now, which is just fine. But before I get into that, I have a confession:

I don’t work at YAMA because of altruism alone, though, of course, there is a certain satisfaction in doing work that makes a difference.

I don’t work at YAMA because I love teaching music so much that I can’t imagine doing anything else. In fact, I never wanted to teach music; it always seemed like such a huge and impossible task, to turn a hoard of young, squirrely, usually hormonal non-musicians into skilled participants of an ensemble while somehow surviving all of that horrible intonation. Frankly, I never thought I was up to the task.

I don’t work at YAMA because of the oodles of cash that I bring home every pay period. Okay, you’re right, this is sarcasm. Music teachers do not make oodles of cash. Neither do non-profit employees, generally speaking.

I am a part of YAMA because I love YAMA itself – the students, my colleagues, the community that supports the program, the creative energy it carries, the way it asks me to grow and stretch every day, and the fact that I get to show up with all of me to do this job.

Two elated cellists after their first solo recital:

Daniela, left, Heidi, right.

                                            When was the last time you got to see smiles like these?


All of the Teaching Artists at YAMA come from varied backgrounds, giving us a collective wealth of abilities and knowledge to draw from. We have been a small team with a big dream and a whole heap of integrity, and I think we have begun to create something really unique and incredible, something that feeds not only the vision we hold for the students we are fortunate enough to work with, but that also feeds us. Daily.

Some of us started out on our career paths knowing we wanted to teach music. Others of us, like I said, not so much. My path to YAMA has been a winding one, and I really never would have guessed, had you asked me 10, or even 5, or even 3 years ago, that this is where I would be right now. Yet it doesn’t feel accidental. (If you were paying attention at the beginning then this might be where you are asking yourself, “Is this where the magic comes in?” The answer is yes. In a roundabout kind of way.)

When did you first learn about El Sistema? Maybe you heard about it from a friend, or maybe you did some research after watching the Super Bowl halftime show last month. Maybe you just know about it because of YAMA, or maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, in which case I really recommend you check out this short talk by Jose Antonio Abreu, one of the founders of El Sistema. (It’s only 16 minutes long. Just watch it – you won’t regret it, even if you’ve seen it before.)

I learned about El Sistema right after spending a few months living and studying in Ecuador. I went down there to learn, to push myself, and to re-organize my brain and heal some personal stuff. I was fresh from the jungle when I first watched Tocar y Luchar, translated as ‘To Play and To Fight’, a documentary about El Sistema in Venezuela. I connected deeply and immediately to this film for many reasons.

On the surface, I think I was really missing the culture of warmth, physical closeness, noise, and color that I had just come home from.

(If you’ve spent time in Latin America, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, allow me to paint you a little picture: On one of the many long, crowded bus trips I took across Ecuador, I had a 4 year old leaning against my right arm while she held her baby brother in her lap and an old woman sleeping on my left shoulder (all total strangers to me), a woman behind me holding three chickens by their feet so they slept, a man in the back of the bus chasing down his chickens that he had accidently let wake up, Reggaeton blasting from the magenta and gold tasseled speakers just over the head of a young boy sitting on a sack full of corn on his way to market, and at every stop swarms of children and adults alike boarding the bus to sell anything from chicle to helados to bracelets to t-shirts. Surrounded by all of this for hours, I felt comfortable, grounded, at ease. Not right away, mind you, but eventually you find your center amidst so much . . . er . . . so much. It was like I was being held my all this life around me. And then there was the incredible natural beauty everywhere, which in and of itself is nourishing to a person, and the whole living in the jungle thing, which is another story altogether.

Coto, the baby howler monkey, who I was “mom” to a few days a week while I volunteered atamaZoonico

A little deeper down, though, there was this thing tugging at my insides – this sense that this life I had come home to wasn’t quite right. The music degree I was trying to finish seemed cold and remote compared to the vibrant groundedness of where I had just been. This institution of classical music education felt so controlled, so sterile, so confined, and, most depressing of all, elitist and exclusive. In an attempt to be honest, my own baggage was absolutely tied to this assessment, particularly the first 3 items on the list. But it is hard to deny the tradition of the last two. (If this isn’t obvious to you, then watch that Abreu talk.)

Deeply affected by my time in Ecuador, I felt like I wanted to participate in something that could help break cycles of privilege and inequity, and I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how playing classical cello could do that. This doubt, added to my recurring playing injuries and performance anxiety, gave shape to a balloon of grief that began to inflate in my chest.

Jungle transportation/simple life. Photo credit:

I was disoriented and depressed. Yet this growing grief and uncertainty was carving space for something to come in, making room for a seed to be planted. This is why I don’t think that the timing of when I was first introduced to El Sistema was accidental. (There it is again…)

It was love at first sight. A hopeless, tearful, seemingly unrequited, this-is-impossible-for-me-in-reality kind of love. But I loved everything about it – the message, the promise, the results that seemed so clear, the combination of vibrancy and discipline, and the bold social justice of it. 

And yet I was raw, young, and deeply insecure. So what did I do with this big love? I pushed it out of my mind while I tried to figure out what I should do with my life. I tried to be practical, realistic. Makes sense, right? Try to follow your heart while denying a big part of it. Totally reasonable.

Have you ever done that? Have you loved something so much and felt so unworthy of it that you pushed it away? Do you still have a little kernel of something wedged inside you, maybe between your ribs or just under your clavicle, just waiting to be plucked out and brought into the light to grow? If so, I encourage you not to give up on the idea that it might yet come to materialize – this whisper of a dream, this fragment of a vision.

There was a decade of time between when I was in Ecuador, resetting my insides, and when I first started working at YAMA. I went to the jungle because I listened to a whisper from my childhood – the desire to live with monkeys in the Amazon – which I had convinced myself in my practical mind would never come to pass. Until, suddenly, there the opportunity was, right in front of me.

And after years of dreaming big dreams of an integrated and accessible music education program (which seemed so out of reach for me to be a part of, let alone contribute to) and working in seemingly disparate disciplines, I suddenly found El Sistema in my back yard and myself ready to bring all these bits and pieces of my experience together to help create something new, along with a team full of people doing the same.

Accident? Coincidence? I don’t know about you, but that feels kind of magical to me. 

So what do we do at YAMA? And why is it so special?  


Well, friends, I invite you to come visit us to see for yourself.

And in the meantime, stay tuned to our blog for more stories about what we do, how we do it, what questions we are asking, both big and small, and how we are seeking out the answers.