Sunday, October 25, 2009

Week 2: The Sum of Our Parts

When Roberto Zambrano, director of the Acarigua-Araure Youth Orchestra, returns to Venezuela this week, he will organize the students in his núcleo to perform 40 concerts before December 5th.

The plan is Abreu's; he presented núcleo leaders across Venezuela with his newest idea to raise national awareness about El Sistema only three weeks ago. Roberto, however, is unfazed. He, his staff and his students will get it done, not only because Abreu said so, but because they will have the freedom to do it in their own way.

The concerts overflowing from Venezuela's núcleos in November will illustrate one of the major tensions that defines--and balances--El Sistema: the independence of the individual núcleos and the unity of vision that holds them together. Simply put, leadership vs. partnership.

Of course, that "versus" holds a different meaning in Venezuela (like "competition"). The push and pull of these two seemingly opposite forces creates a positive energy that carries El Sistema forward.

Similarly, the second week of the Abreu Fellows Program fused togetherness and independence. On Monday afternoon, we enjoyed a leadership seminar with Michael Melcher, an internationally-renowned career coach. He spoke to us about our individual leadership brands. The term is absolutely terrifying. What kind of leaders are we? Or, what are the leader-like characteristics we want to embody when we go to work? Michael, however, guided us through the concept wonderfully. Each of us made a commitment to the group to keep one of our core strengths and requested that everyone help them overcome a weakness or develop a particular ability.

A few days later, in the middle of a riveting (and depressing) talk about the state of the arts in the US today, Ben Cameron asked us to rank twenty values according to their importance to us. They ranged from Emotional Health to Achievement to Spirituality to Meaningful Work. Though daunting, like "branding" ourselves, the exercise carved a reflective space for us in which we can prepare for founding organizations and starting music programs. After all, Abreu is not confused about what his values are and what kind of a leader he is!

Mixed in with these moments of intense personal examination were seminars on partnership and community building with Tayna Maggi and Daphne Griffin. Tayna, director of NEC's Community Performances and Partnerships Program, is incredibly plugged in to Boston's communities and generously offered herself as a resource to us for the rest of the year. Under her guidance, we imagined our future relationships with symphony orchestras, schools and foundations and how they could succeed or fail. We examined good communication habits and troubleshooted partnerships gone sour.

With Daphne, we got a real look into Boston's long-term problems and the history of its many community outreach and after-school initiatives. As the executive director of Boston Centers for Youth and Families, Daphne has years of experience confronting the city's gang problem. She encouraged us to involve organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and to consider our cities as "communities of learners."

Tayna and Daphne appeared to be talking about something very different than the issues Michael and Ben addressed. In their models of partnerships and communities, the self seemed to melt away completely. Luckily for us, however, we had guests throughout the week who tied everything together with the very work they do. Along with Roberto Zambrano, we welcomed Dan Trahey and Nick Skinner of OrchKids.

OrchKids works in a double partnership. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is the project's champion and "mother." The program, however, operates out of a Baltimore public school. The orchestra's support means money, publicity and access to Baltimore's best concerts and venues. The school's involvement gives the program its kids, space and larger community. Furthermore, that cooperation allows Dan and Nick to schedule the younger students' musicianship classes during the school day and to coordinate behavioral work with the kids' homeroom teachers.

Despite these inter-organizational relationships, OrchKids enjoys its independence. When a student makes the French horn sound for the first time, or a teacher needs guidance, or a parent forgets to pick up their child at the end of the day, Dan and Nick are the ones who congratulate, advise and solve problems. Under their guidance, OrchKids has grown from 30 1st graders in its first year to 180 kids (pre-K through 2nd grade) in its second. Some key elements they incorporate include:
- Bucket Band: This is what it sounds like! A cheap way to form a rhythm ensemble and a means to teaching the students the beginnings of instrument care.
- Exploratory Music class: The students rotate through instruments over the course of the year. Then, they choose one!
- Enrichment Coordinators, who help with everything from homework to social skills
- Young mentors from the community
- Of course, they base everything on core El Sistema values: "Every kid is an asset" and has FUN while playing complex music as an ensemble member.

Dan and Nick encouraged us to imagine and outline our ideal núcleos. They talked us through our visions and have been a huge inspiration to us already. We can't wait to visit OrchKids next month!

Speaking of being several things at once, we teachers became the students, as week 2 marked the beginning of our instrumental instruction. Katie taught us to play the Venezuelan National Anthem on the violin, and after only 45 minutes, we (I) sounded like this:
This week, on to the viola!

Finally, I want to acknowledge how incredible it is to be a member of the New England Conservatory community. Dantes' mentor is Don Jones, Vice President for Institutional Advancement and our new best friend. He got us in free to Saturday night's sold-out Wayne Shorter Quartet concert, where our minds were blown. At the cocktail party afterwards, we chatted to board members and met the incredible Vic Firth! Note the free drumsticks in our hands!

Thank you for reading!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Week 1: Striving Together

And we're off!

I don't think my eyes have ever been so wide, my ears so open, or my brain so active as in these first four days of the Abreu Fellowship.

This is due, in large part, to the fellows themselves. I have been overwhelmed by how the real-life embodiments of these people are so much better than their virtual selves. Not only have my 9 fellow fellows (I'll never get tired of saying that) accomplished incredible feats and performed music at the highest levels, they are kind, generous and open people. They inspire personally as well as professionally. Our collective enthusiasm has spilled over into many late-night conversations about music education... until we wonder, "Wait, haven't we been talking about this since 8 am? Shouldn't we move on to something else?"

Of course, this happens because music and social justice are organically connected to who we are as people. And this is why the fellowship is a gift, and why we will effect change!

I am so impressed by and grateful for the leadership of Mark Churchill and the vast contributions of Stephanie Scherpf, the managing director of El Sistema USA.

On our first morning, Tuesday, we were greeted by Eli Epstein, illustrious horn player and an incredibly sweet, humble person. We learned about each other and spoke about what music means to us. Included in our conversation were Tricia Tunstall, a pianist and author who is writing the first book ever on El Sistema, and Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard and narrator of classical concerts who is making a documentary film about El Sistema. Jamie's film crew were around to film and interview us all week and were very supportive and cool with our jokes about creating fake drama for the camera.

We didn't just keep to ourselves, however. NEC has welcomed us with open arms, as quasi-celebrities. As we walked around the campus on Tuesday afternoon, led by Albert, an enthusiastic grad student, everyone peered at us curiously, checking out the cameras and whispering, "Those are the Abreu Fellows!"
The following morning, NEC President Tony Woodcock hosted a welcome breakfast for us, during which we met our staff and faculty mentors. Tony himself is one of mine, and violinist Lucy Chapman is the other. I feel so lucky (this may be a theme) to have the opportunity to get to know these two extraordinary individuals.

The rest of Wednesday was spent with the wonderful Anne Fitzgibbon, founder and director of the Harmony Program in Brooklyn. Anne spent a full year in Venezuela and taught clarinet at the Los Chorros núcleo. Although she had already started the Harmony Program, her time within El Sistema revolutionized her thinking. She shifted the music classes from Saturdays to five afternoons a week, trained her teachers to use the positive reinforcement essential to Venezuelan núcleos, and structured the program around ensemble playing. Her work has been daring and smart, as she has sought to form partnerships with local universities and city government. The Harmony Program now has a Manhattan branch and is working on an incredible project: composing and arranging its own repertoire.
Our conversation with Anne was invaluable, as we were able to talk through our worries and questions regarding carving a space for after-school programs in the schedules of already over-committed public school students.

Thursday brought us the charming, inspiring Eric Booth, educator and author of The Music Teaching Artist's Bible. He had us dancing and bumping elbows at 9:30 am... and endeared himself to us immediately. We spent a lot of time talking about strong teaching techniques and identifying which of those are used by El Sistema educators. One of the key elements of the El Sistema environment is true competition, which is not cutthroat but rather about "striving together." As Eric pointed out, the original Olympian ideal was that, if people run together, everyone runs faster. Similarly, the El Sistema orchestras are not about seating auditions or winners; the incentive to practice is that the group will improve as a whole.

As we identified the key elements of El Sistema Venezuela, we facilitated our conversation about El Sistema USA and what it might look like. Eric really helped us focus our first week's efforts and think about the shape of the year to come.

On Friday morning, we confronted the technological reality in which El Sistema USA resides: our website!

In the afternoon, we met Ben Zander. A musician, educator, inspirational speaker and co-author of The Art of Possibility, Ben is a force of life. We will be taking his class on interpretation. I love his holistic approach to music; it was incredible to watch him coach other students in the class and help them connect to what they were playing. He is one of our most essential allies and I am sure will be one of our best friends.

We spent a few hours after his class speaking with graduates of El Sistema, young Venezuelan musicians who now study and play in the Boston area. What a wonderful conversation! Their input was and will continue to be essential for the success of El Sistema USA.

In the evening, 30-strong, we went to have dinner at Ben Zander's house. There, we finally got to meet Amy Novogratz and Anna Verghese, who run the TED Prize and are a big part of the reason the fellowship went ahead. We ate, drank, made merry and enjoyed a wonderful talk by Ben, which included listening to a 1929 recording of Gaspar Cassadó, Ben's teacher, playing Chopin on a gut string cello.

The evening was magical and confirmed what I have been feeling all week, that we are part of something truly special and unique.

Thank you for reading!

Photos below...

With Dantes and Stan, my housemates!

With Stan and David

With Katie at the welcome breakfast

Lorrie with some of the El Sistema grads

Jamie Bernstein after narrating a concert with the Sinfonica Juvenil de Caracas in July
(photo credit: Jeffrey Stock)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ya empezamos!

For those of you who do not know me, I am a traveler. I have wandered through cities and lived on mountaintops. I have taught and learned from children. I have questioned everything I thought I knew. I have been educated and re-educated more times than I can count, by people who cannot pronounce each others' names.

As I moved through unfamiliar landscapes, I found common ground by returning to what I have been doing my whole life: playing music. In the Peruvian Andes, each mountain is an apu, a spirit. I think they are musicians, too. They inspire us to pick up a pan pipe and breathe into it, creating a space of personal reflection but also a means of communication.

Maestro Abreu has talked about the "spheres" affected by music: the personal, the familial and the communal. He points to the unique power of music to be both private and public, to resonate inside and out.
Furthermore, music travels. From living rooms to concert halls to street corners, it can go anywhere, but it is our responsibility to make sure that it does, that everyone has the opportunity to feel the spheres vibrating.
If we do this, we can grow: as individuals, families and communities.

When I found musicians who had given words to our shared experience, who had dared to call it a movement, I finally rejoiced at being back at sea level. Mark Churchill is building a community, a means to effect change in a country that has only recently remembered that change is possible.

I feel so fortunate to be a part of the movement, to belong to a group of musicians whose talents and energy are already obvious. (Though I haven't met them yet!)

I hope this blog will be a space both for me and for you. I will update it as the Abreu Fellows Program and my own musical experience progress.

Thank you for reading!