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Learning with Passion

Artists and educators explore the questions that inspire, with help from Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad, and a global musical ensemble.

 Jason Jong“Works of art are designed to take us as quickly as possible to our most important questions,” Senior Lecturer Steven Seidel told an audience of artists and educators gathered in Harvard’s Farkas Hall on Monday night. It was the start of the 2015 Arts and Passion-Driven Learning institute, three days of workshops, performances, and conversations hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Silkroad, the cultural organization founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

By now, in its fourth-annual iteration, the institute has acquired the air of a soiree — or a barn-raising. A celebratory buzz filled the hall, fueled by the particular energy of nearly 100 creative people coming together from around the world to trace connections between passion, inspiration, and learning.

Those powerful questions that Seidel evoked were asked, answered, then asked again — both in his opening conversation with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and in the exhilarating performance that followed, as the Silk Road Ensemble seemed to enact the notion of passion-driven learning right there on stage. As professional conferences go, there’s none with a better soundtrack.

“One of the things I think a lot about is, What does the imagination consist of?” said Ma, when Seidel asked about particular works that had inspired him. As the institute’s faculty director, who also directs HGSE’s Arts in Education master’s program, Seidel had framed the gathering as an open-ended exploration of art’s power to disrupt — to vanquish pat certainties and conventional explanations.

 Jason Jong

When confronted with a work as challenging as the one he’d perform later that evening — a new piece for cello and tabla called “Tom and Huck,” commissioned from MIT-based composer Evan Ziporyn — Ma said he enters the imaginative space of the piece, then brings it alive again in his own imagination. “It’s about layering and layering real experiences and senses and memories,” he says, describing his process of understanding the nature of the friendship that the piece depicts.

As performers, Ma and his real-life friend and musical partner, percussionist Sandeep Das, ultimately decided they had to get away from trying to render the piece in an objectively correct way. “We had to forego the idea of impressing anybody, pleasing the composer, doing what’s written — which is basically impossible. We’re going to make it up!” The resulting performance of this complex piece — a dialogue, filled with the joys and frustrations of friendship, and with all manner of noises (which Ma created by tapping every part of his cello, including the peg) — was stunning, and felt simple.

Seidel’s framing questions — about what art reveals, and about how those revelations can inspire us — resounded through the rest of the institute. During his plenary the next morning in Longfellow Hall, he quoted Anna Deveare Smith, from her book Letters to a Young Artist. After interviewing the painter Brice Marden, Smith wrote of her conviction that “questions and uncertainty are the stuff of artists.”

“And I would add,” Seidel said, “they’re also the stuff of educators.” From those questions and uncertainties — from the artist’s “insatiable curiosity and desire to make sense of the world,” Seidel said — come new connections and new theories. For Seidel, the distinction between his role as artist and his role as educator faded long ago; in both roles, he said, his job is to navigate the questions and never take the standard answers for granted. Rose Lincoln

An afternoon plenary in Longfellow Hall offered first-hand experience with how it feels to live in and with the questions — to “just make it up,” as Ma put it. The session — a series of playful exercises that raised pulses and awakened a capacity for risk-taking — was led by Kevin Coleman, director of education for Shakespeare and Company.

He wanted to give participants a sense of the freedom that waits just beyond the fear of failure, he said. As the room echoed with laughter, he ran them through some warm-ups, then called on the large group to enact various scenes. (Quick! Spontaneously form yourselves into a circle within a square … into a Happy Meal … into Picasso’s Guernica!). Slowly, participants began to invite one another to share each other’s space and creative vision. Finally, they acted out (or “played,” as Coleman wanted it) some lines from Shakespeare.

“Turn off the switch in your head that nags at you and scolds you,” Coleman said — and participants managed to comply, shedding inhibitions at a rapid clip. “It’s not about getting it right, it’s about bringing it alive,” he said. “There is another model than getting it right.”

Top two photos by Jason Jong; bottom photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer