The Arts in Practice: Grammy-Award Winning Silkroad Ensemble Joins Holy Cross Students to Teach in Worcester High School

The student and Silkroad-led workshops engaged Burncoat High School's fine arts magnet students in cross-disciplinary thinking and practice

Listening to an improvised musical piece by a Grammy Award-winning musician on a variety of percussion instruments might not seem like a typical Monday morning for a college student. Illustrating that music with pencil and paper alongside 15 high school students is even more atypical.

But that's exactly what Elena Wang '20, a music and mathematics double major, was doing at Burncoat High School in Worcester. Wang, a lifelong pianist, teamed up with Shane Shanahan and Kaoru Watanabe, artists from the Silkroad Ensemble, a group dedicated to sparking radical cultural collaboration, to co-teach an interactive workshop to visual arts students in Burncoat High School's Fine Arts Magnet Program.

Wang sat side-by-side with Shanahan and Watanabe — who, with the other Silkroad artists, are in their third year as artists-in-residence at the College, hosted by Arts Transcending Borders — and worked with the young students to blend music with visual arts. As Wang, Shanahan and Watanabe played their respective musical parts, they asked students to draw what they were feeling during each piece.

"Together with the Silkroad Ensemble artists, I decided the focus of the course would be communication, because arts are a way of communicating without using actual languages," says Wang. "We wanted students to see how communication includes both differences and similarities. When listening to the same musical pieces, the students all had different reactions, and they could talk about what made their reactions different. To me, that is a way of bonding — a way of building community."

The student and Silkroad-led workshops at Burncoat High served as follow up to the Third Annual Festival of the Arts, where over 200 Worcester high schoolers came to campus to participate in workshops and celebrate the arts. Many of those same students then participated in the workshops led by teams of Silkroad artists and Holy Cross students a few days later.

Wang wasn't alone in her teaching efforts — four other Holy Cross students paired with Silkroad artists to engage with Burncoat High School students. Carley Stebbins '20, a mathematics major in the teacher education program, paired up with Shanahan and Preeti Vasudevan to combine her love of dance with her studies in math.

The juxtaposition of, say, modern dance and geometry took a literal leap of faith from the high schoolers.

"We had the students take part in many dance activities that encouraged movement and rhythm related to mathematical shapes, angles, and dimensions," Stebbins says. "We then encouraged them to think about how they see these shapes, angles, dimensions, and rhythms in their everyday routines. I was blown away by their enthusiasm, attention and energy."

As they've shown throughout their three years at Holy Cross — through campus concerts, countless workshops and community collaborations — Silkroad aims to make the arts both dynamic and relatable.

"We've had a remarkable experience partnering with Holy Cross students and faculty over the last three years," says Shanahan, Silkroad Co-Artistic Director and percussionist. "Listening, curiosity, and collaboration are fundamental to our approach, and it's been wonderful to see those same skills and values embraced and modeled by Holy Cross students in community workshops and activities, like the ones at Burncoat."