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Daniel Levin

Mike Lawson • Features • October 21, 2006

Many teachers talk about dedication to their students, to their career – and many genuinely mean it – but right off the bat it’s was clear that Amistad Academy’s Daniel Levin truly walks the walk.

Arranging a conversation with Levin was, initially, somewhat of an exercise in frustration. After a couple of false starts, Daniel and I were able to sit down and he apologized for the difficulty in scheduling: “I’m sorry I’ve been so hard to get a hold of,” he said. “It’s been really busy for me the past couple weeks. I would’ve been able to get the days off, because – well it’s my honeymoon right now- but I know all the things I need to do everyday to keep things running. I don’t want to encounter the loss of morale or momentum. It wouldn’t have been acceptable to me, personally, to leave for a long time.”

Such commitment and passion have surely found a fitting home at New Haven’s Amistad Academy, flagship school for Achievement First – a three-school (soon to be four – August 2006) enterprise which aims to help urban students achieve academic and personal excellence. Since coming on board in 2002, Levin has fully immersed himself in the lives and academic futures of his young scholars. An accomplished performer in his own right, Daniel draws upon his own musical abilities and his knowledge of contemporary music technology to truly connect with his students in ways that could serve as a template to any educator.

SBO: How did you first get involved in teaching music?

DL: Well, originally I was strictly a performer. The type of music I was working on was mostly free jazz, classical – it wasn’t necessarily a moneymaker.

 SBO: Where had you gone to school?

DL: I took Cello Studies for one year at Mannes School of Music with Paul Tobias, who had been a pupil of Gregor Piatigorsky, and then I went to NEC, where I received a BM in Jazz Studies in May of 2001.

That year, I got a job at Discovery Charter School, in Newark, New Jersey and in August of 2002, I took the position of Orchestra director at Amistad. I was relocating to New Haven, anyway, and I sent out over 100 letters to prospective employers. Amistad didn’t even have an ad placed for a teacher; they contacted me. I immediately really liked what they were talking about, but initially I thought teaching would be sort of a “day job,” really.

SBO: I’m guessing that perception changed?

DL: No question. It just sort of hit me, eventually, that this is really part of who I am, instead of merely being something I was doing. I realized that it was really part of what I feel I’m here for. I see a lot of what I do at Amistad as “social work,” if you will, in that I try and give the kids what they need emotionally, as far as helping them with their self-esteem and confidence. The goal isn’t necessarily to make lifetime-musicians out of each and every student, but to enhance their lives, overall.

SBO: How many students do you have at Amistad, overall?

DL: I teach 20-25 kids per grade, in 6th through 8th grades. The 5th graders see me four days a week for a 35-minute class. 6th and 7th graders have the same schedule, but they’re also part of a program called “Encore!” 8th graders only see me twice a week. They’re working really hard on skills to get to good high schools – usually private high schools.

SBO: What’s the Encore! program?

DL: The Encore! program allows students to gain in-depth exposure to theater, dance, Web design, and other arts and athletics disciplines. Encore Orchestra is hooked up directly to the classes. We have two afternoon rehearsals a day with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. There’s also a voluntary breakfast rehearsal. Lots of kids will come in we’ll do a jam session or a serious rehearsal. They’re coming because they want to, they’re enjoying themselves, and they have a little more say in what’s going on in that setting. I think that really helps them to internalize their musicianship and makes the whole process a little more organic.

 SBO: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

DL: The look on the kids faces, definitely. It sounds corny, I know, but when we’re at a concert and they’re all looking up and ready to go, it’s a great feeling. You can tell that they genuinely love what they’re doing and they’re truly committed. They are the music at that point.

SBO: What, then, would be the biggest downside?

DL: The culture that I’m trying to create in this classroom is oftentimes not really being understood or valued in the way that it could be, at home. My students are not kids whose parents started them on private lessons at the age of six, so they have this freshness and aren’t jaded at all – which is great – but getting through to the parents is a challenge. Trying to impress upon the parents that they have to support this process and take care of the instruments and provide rides to recital and performances can be very difficult.

SBO: I know that you have nonetheless overcome a lot of these types of issues to create a strong “band culture.” How did you go about that?

DL: Well, for example, I give every kid my cell phone number to call for any reason. Whenever they do call I thank them for calling. It keeps them thinking about the orchestra and feeling connected.

Another thing is, certain parents do not have a car and cannot drive their children or pick them up. In those situations, I’ll try to work it out where I’ll go to the student’s house and drop off their instrument and pick it up for the weekend. I think the parents really appreciate that effort and they can tell that I’m committed to their kids.

SBO: Obviously, teaching students from lower-income families brings with it a whole set of obstacles that many other educators don’t have to deal with.

DL: This is very much a low-income, minority-population school, with students from mostly black and Latino families. These are the same kids that go to Jackie Robinson [School], which scores about 17 percent of the national average on test scores. A lot of these kids are poverty-level or below, a lot are section 8, receiving free or discounted lunch. Our whole mission is to close the achievement gap between minority students and white students.

SBO: Do these kids generally rent or purchase their instruments or do you provide them?

DL: The school owns the instruments, so we can lend them out and not have that added cost for the families.

SBO: How have you modified your teaching approach to fit the situation at Amistad?

DL: Well, traditionally, you learn the instrument, but you also learn a set of repertoire. You’re working your way up this set of graded pieces and there’s all this “cultural stuff,” which is kind of invisible unless you recognize it.

SBO: What do you mean, specifically?

DL: Oh, the whole “soccer mom” thing: the kid who does violin and lacrosse, parents pushing the kids, the notion that studying violin means playing Suzuki and playing correctly. This [at Amistad] is different. I give my students a violin and, yes, they still have to hold it right and play correctly and in tune and they have to follow the conductor like nobody’s business, but they do all that in order to play “Billie Jean,” for example. They can play along with disco classics and funk and popular music of today. We play more contemporary repertoire, but the kids get into really challenging, complicated syncopated stuff.

SBO: So you feel the “current” repertoire connects with the children more effectively in this case?

DL: It’s just a different way to identify yourself as a musician. I like that and think it’s important for music education. You can’t continue to sort of foist the old-school thing and expect all people to be into it. I understand the attachment to that [classical] music, but if we want the instruments to live on and be vital we need to change the context in which they’re understood.

SBO: How much time do you spend preparing and choosing repertoire for the students?

DL: I arrange all the music, so I’ll spend 10 or 12 hours on transcribing a piece. I get to really know the thing inside and out and I feel as if I’m doing something substantial. It’s another way for me to be a musician.

SBO: In addition to more contemporary, popular tunes do you also include classical music in your repertoire?

DL: We do not, right now. Part of it is, I guess, that I have priorities and I don’t see or acknowledge a hierarchy within music. I grew up on chamber music and I love it, but I don’t feel I need to impose some hierarchy based on white European men upon my students. The classical material is very important for music history, but I don’t think it’s entirely relevant for my kids. For them to have, for example, the experience of being a violist and know what it means to be a good violist – you play your part, you’re in tune, you’re a leader – gives them a valuable set of skills that apply anywhere.

SBO: You’re a critically celebrated performer – do you feel you’re able to use that background to make a stronger impression on the students?

DL: It’s important because I can reference my experience as an actual gigging and performing musician and it validates what I say to the kids – it adds legitimacy.

SBO: Do you have tryouts for children to join the orchestra?

DL: There’s no audition, which can lead to challenges as a teacher. What I try to do is work on arrangements that fit ability levels.

SBO: What’s your curriculum?

DL: My curriculum is my arrangements. We also just started using String Builder (Samuel Applebaum). I’m not against method books, at all. I use String Builder as the primary method for teaching kids how to read and play on a basic level.

I also make use of the Suzuki material, for string players who want to learn material above and beyond the Orchestra repertoire. The kids love having the Suzuki tunes to play, and I really like the way they progress in difficulty, both within each book and from book to book. Most of what’s covered, though, is my own arrangements of songs, of which give the kids CDs I’ve created, as well as sheet-music, to study.

SBO: That leads into my next question pretty nicely: I know you make copious use of the advantages music technology provides – what’s your background in that area and how did you first apply those skills to teaching?

DL: Well, I took a “computer music” course at NEC and that’s how I got my first experience with ProTools. I used it to make compositions with synthesizers, samplers, and material I sampled off of old cassette tapes. I also learned how to record and edit myself and groups I played with, and to produce CDs of the finished product. In 2001, at Discovery Charter School, I used a Mac and ProTools to design music education tools. I created CD-based lessons on motive and melody, using excerpts of Beethoven string quartets and Brahms’ 4th symphony that I fed into ProTools via CD. I then took very brief sections, usually one-to-five seconds long, and interspersed recordings of my voice explaining what has just been played. Then I would put longer sections together.

SBO: And you’ve continued along those lines at Amistad?

DL: When I came to Amistad Academy, I used ProTools in the following way: I had a Korg Triton LE workstation, which I would use to compose the basic training pieces for the orchestra, using four- or eight-bar loops with the Triton’s sequencer. I would punch the sections in and out like a DJ, and feed the output into ProTools. In this way, I created mock-ups of the repertoire we were playing, and produced CDs to give to the students as reference. I also used ProTools to record the students so that they could hear what they sounded like.

Eventually, in my second year, I got a copy of Sibelius 2 (which I upgraded this year to Sibelius 3 – a big improvement in sound quality among other things) and the whole program opened up. I was then able to write rich, detailed arrangements using a laptop, and I had a lot of control over how to play back the material.

I began to produce CDs that covered our complete repertoire, along with the sheet music that went along with it. So a kid would have a binder and a CD for their instrument and part that they could bring home. So for a viola part, on “I Will Survive,” for example, I would set Sibelius to play the viola part and the bass and drums, though with the viola out front in the mix.

I would set it to maybe half tempo, 3/4 tempo, and then full speed, then I would do a tutti version. For each arrangement I had written, I would go through this process for each instrument’s corresponding CD. I would play all of this in to ProTools and make .AIF files out of it. Also I would do A, D, G, and C tuning notes. Finally, I burn it all to CD, and use a 3-bay Telex duplicator to churn out as many copies as I need. The CDs are inexpensive, and now each kid has a practice disc of every piece we play which sounds exactly like it looks on their sheet music (since the audio and notation come from the same source), along with tuning notes.

SBO: It seems you’re really getting a lot out of technology.

DL: It really helps because I have group classes, not a private instruction model. Technology helps me hold the kids accountable for learning their parts, because they have all of the resources they need, once I have fingered the parts, and so on. I also use Sibelius during class when we are learning a new part. I hook my computer up to a keyboard amp and play the arrangement and the kids play along with the computer. I can do it lots of ways, such as under tempo, over tempo, et cetera. I try turning the computer down as the students are playing, like how a parent takes their hand off a bike seat when teaching their daughter or son to ride by themselves; they start with the computer, then I wean them off of it.

Additionally, I use Sibelius for testing the kids. I either set up a beat for them and for strings and keyboards to do scale testing on, or simply test them on a section of the music, with the harmony playing in the background. I am still finding new ways to use Sibelius.

Now I have an Apple PowerBook G4 with 1gig memory. I use iTunes to play CDs and then switch in to Sibelius as I am transcribing sections, which I often transpose later to make my arrangements. Now, Sibelius 3 has better sounds with Kontakt Player Gold, and the most exciting thing about Kontakt Player Gold, besides the great sounds, is that you can save anything in Sibelius directly as an .AIF file, which really saves time and energy. I don’t need to go through ProTools anymore to make practice CDs. I just use the mixer in Sibelius 3 to select the parts I want and the tempo and save as an .AIF, then burn the CD with Roxio Toast Titanium or the burner in iTunes.

SBO: Have you taken your students on any trips to see professional orchestral performances?

DL: I bring the kids to symphony concerts when I can and I’ll play Bach for them on my cello. I’m not teaching a music appreciation class, though; I’m teaching how to be a member of a successful and working orchestra.

The program is changing now in that this is my third year and the orchestra’s third year. The focus on the first part of the program is to work on creating a culture that has to do with having fun and playing shows and being excellent. 5th grade is a “training year” and the kids don’t have to perform; they can focus on learning everything really thoroughly. I’m trying to teach them skills that will translate later on.

SBO: How many performances do your kids put on, per year?

DL: We did three concerts last October, but on average, maybe once a month.

SBO: Do you usually perform at the school or elsewhere?

DL: Well, we did the grand opening for our sister school, Elm City College Prep. and we also play at community centers, retirement communities – it’s pretty varied.

SBO: So there is some degree of travel?

DL: We’ve gone to different cities in the local area, but nothing extensive yet. We will be going out of state next summer [2006] and I’m very excited about getting the kids touring. It will be the final year [8th grade] for those 5th graders who were the founding members of the Orchestra back in 2002. We haven’t finalized destinations or venues, yet. In the meantime, we continue to play around Connecticut at various community functions and the like. This year, we performed with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and Dionne Warwick at Woolsey Hall in new Haven, as well as in recital at Yale’s Battell Chapel.

SBO: What is it about touring that you consider so beneficial to young music students?

DL: I think I just remember my own experiences of traveling with the band in high school – going to Spain and the like: the feeling of being a musician, where you wake up in the hotel and then you have to get ready to perform and you see different places and you’re exposed to different people. The team-building and bonding where the kids can really feel solid about that experience of being an orchestra. I’d hope that it’d cement something in them that they could use later on. I’d want it to be a reference point for them.

SBO: What do you think makes a good music student?

DL: Self-control. It’s really a management thing. If a student is having a bad day, they need to know that that can’t come out in fidgeting or talking. They have to get outside of themselves to a certain extent and think about the group. It the kid isn’t prepared to do what’s necessary to be in orchestra, they’re not going to be prepared to practice or be a good musician.

SBO: What do you consider to be the key to improvement as a student musician?

DL: Practice techniques. I tell my students to imagine that they’re recording a CD every time they practice. Every note needs to be a gem. I also introduce the “three-times perfect” rule. If they “get” something, they should repeat it three times to make sure they really got it. When a student practices, they should break things down to the lowest common denominator. Don’t practice by just playing through – analyze and isolate problem areas.

SBO: It’s clear you truly care about your students.

DL: I really love my job and I have a lot invested in it. A lot of it has to do with my relationship with the kids.

Just the other day, we were working on “I Will Survive” and there’s this one student who has a lot of problems with anger, problems with her life, who’s dealing with all of these obstacles and I let her take the mic to sing and it was seriously like a movie. She gave it everything she had, all the violinists stood up and played along with her, and she became bigger than life. I could tell it made her day. Having these sorts of things happen, on a weekly basis, is just amazing. The kids know I’m there for them and I really care for them and enjoy their sense of humor and personality. What we’re all working towards at Amistad is so much bigger than simply “education.” Music is just the avenue I’ve found to genuinely impact these kids’ lives for the better.

Amistad Academy At a Glance

Student Demographics:
50% Boys, 50% Girls
84% Qualify for free or reduced lunch
64% African-American
34% Latino
2% White
10% Special Education
100% Students selected by blind lottery

Grades served: 5th to 8th
Number of students in 2004-2005: 270
Chartering organization: Connecticut State Board of Education
Facility: Renovated office/warehouse; the school owns the building
Web site: www.achievementfirst.org
E-mail: amistad@achievementfirst.org

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