THE BLOG
07/05/2012 02:38 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2012

Improvisation: U.S. State Department Sponsors Innovative MIMA Programs Abroad

Following in the footsteps of the original jazz ambassadors Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and David Brubeck, dozens of American musicians travel abroad each year on behalf of the U.S. Department of State as "Arts Envoys." Far from stadiums and amphitheaters with adoring fans, many Arts Envoys host workshops and residency programs for groups of at-risk youth who face violence, drug abuse and social exclusion. 

Over the last five years, I have traveled abroad with the U.S. Department of State to South America and Europe through joint programs administered by the American nonprofit organization that I founded, MIMA Music, and local embassy posts. We host weeklong songwriting workshops for teenagers and adults called "MIMA Weeks." Our mission is to use music improvisation to engage and enrich communities. 

In June 2012, I served as an Arts Envoy with my colleagues Caleb Dance and Kevin Wenzel in England, Germany and Spain. We offered youth songwriting, adult teacher training and social media workshops. At the end of 21 days, we produced 21 videos, appeared on the BBC and TeleMadrid and inspired over 75 different students with a MIMA Music Curriculum that is pegged to National American music teaching standards. The three-minute video below shows highlights from our European Tour.

Every Arts Envoy trip includes a set of challenges and rewards that I have summarized in a "Top 10" list.

10 REASONS WHY ARTS ENVOYS ARE EDUCATIONAL ROCK STARS

1. WELCOME PACKETS

Embassy staff provide Arts Envoys with folders that have Embassy seals and include personalized letters. Each welcome packet includes information about local restaurants, public transportation and entertainment, in addition to emergency contact numbers. Traveling has never felt so safe.

2. INSTRUMENTS

Envoys gain free access to empty auditoriums with professional lights, grand pianos and instruments arranged ahead of time by the embassy and local partners because we are invited as special guests. Roadies, however, are not included.

3. BULLET PROOF VANS

It may feel like an ice box on wheels with zero suspension, but a bullet-proof van in dangerous places like El Salvador adds gravitas to each "mission." The embassy posts in England and Spain did not provide us with bullet-proof vans.

4. MEDIA EXPOSURE

Each local embassy arranges for national media coverage during programs. We appeared on the BBC and on Spanish national television. I learned that news crews need explicit instructions about where and when they can and can't film in an educational setting; they won't know that education is about the "process," not the "product," if nobody tells them.

5. ESCORTS

Arts envoys do not travel with body guards, but a cultural specialist from the embassy acts as a liaison to local community leaders. Embassy staff love coming to our MIMA workshops because we have a 100% participation rule -- every adult jumps around and sings along with the youth that we're trying to engage.

6. IMMUNITY

No, Arts Envoys do not receive diplomatic immunity.

7. EARLY BED TIME

Educational rock stars get eight hours of sleep and wake up sober. We also don't have groupies.

8. MORNING SHOWTIME

Each morning starts with a debriefing session with our team over breakfast. Class starts at 8:00 a.m., so by 10:00 a.m., our students are singing, dancing and sweating in a tribe-like circle; just another day in the office.

9. THANK YOU GIFTS

We realize the impact we make as Envoys when students bring us thank you gifts and farewell cards at the end of each visit. Even if modern teenagers are addicted to cell phones and social media, they certainly remember how to write hand-written thank you cards and present them at the most emotional moments of departure. 

10. INNOVATION

Our teaching method includes a series interactive exercises to unlock the creative potential of students -- we write songs in circles, play musical games in circles and perform live music in circles. Our method is so effective that we can write songs with any age group and skill level in less than three hours. We ensure the success of each program when languages and cultures change because we can teach without using words or instruments. Our goal is to create a non-hierarchical, democratic learning environment through the music improvisation process.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of State, we have refined our innovative teaching method far away from home. In the spirit of true cultural exchange, we will share the new ideas that we learned abroad with teachers and musicians back at home in the United States.