Friday, November 27, 2009

Hello, NEC!

Fellas in Baltimore

Below, an article I wrote for New England Conservatory's student newspaper, The Penguin. Link to the PDF coming soon...

Now that we’ve been on campus seven weeks, we, the Abreu Fellows, feel that it’s time to introduce ourselves. And we hope that you, dear Penguin reader, will approach us in the halls, or in Zander’s Interpretation class, and tell us about yourself.

Like NEC’s student body, we are a diverse bunch. Our hometowns stretch across the Americas, and we have lived below the Equator and over seas. We span a 22-year age gap and support rival sports teams. But we share a desire to integrate music into every aspect of our lives. We all started with practicing our instruments, but our experiences have pushed us to grow beyond that. Now, we strive to live as Artists, Teachers, Scholars[1] and Citizens of the World.

Of course, there is no better opportunity for growth than our current project: bringing El Sistema to the USA. El Sistema is Venezuela’s musical network, 180 “núcleos” that bring 350,000 youth together to play and sing. This exemplary musical education uplifts and empowers students, families and entire communities.

NEC’s Mark Churchill has had a long working relationship with El Sistema’s visionary founder, José Antonio Abreu. So, when Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema grad par excellence, became the Music Director of the LA Philharmonic, and when the TED Organization gave Abreu a 2009 Prize, Mark was ready. The Abreu Fellows Program is the training component of El Sistema USA, a developing network of music educators who follow El Sistema’s core values. As fellows, we study the translation of El Sistema into English, considering the points of view of educators, neuroscientists, community organizers and economists. We spend two months in Venezuela and visit musical initiatives across the USA. Next year, we will run our own núcleos and be leaders in the El Sistema global movement.

Since October, we have continued to develop as Artists, Teachers, Scholars and Citizens, so I asked the fellows about key past moments in these journeys. What does it feel like to expand your relationship to music in this way?

Lorrie Heagy, Alaska dweller and Seinfeld enthusiast, has fused Artist with Teacher:

“When I began working at an arts integrated school, I experienced teaching as an art form. In this open environment, I applied the skills that I had learned as a musician to my teaching. This creative, dynamic and informative process has pushed me to constantly take classes and better my work as an artist.”

We have seen NEC students plunge into teaching[2], and their enthusiasm and willingness to learn has inspired us. Surely this has enriched their artistry, too.

It is not always easy, however, to shift the focus from performance. Katie Wyatt, a violist with a Southern twang, remembers her first foray into orchestral management:

“I wrote my teacher a tearful message of apology. I felt like if I wasn’t auditioning anymore, I was failing him. He replied: ‘Katie, you’re being ridiculous. I’ve trained you to be focused, motivated, inspired and passionate. I used the viola to teach you these skills for LIFE. Go do whatever you like. Apology not accepted. Good luck!’ ”

Thus, the very act of playing music triggers personal growth and cultivates community-building skills. Dan Berkowitz, trombonist and devoted Phillies fan, developed as a Global Citizen when performing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth with the Xiamen Philharmonic:

“As the final trombone chorale faded, we collectively exhaled, sharing an emotional musical moment.  Through patient teamwork, we had transcended cultural barriers to deliver a gift to the audience.  In the process, we had gained new perspectives on learning, communication and life.”

Lorrie, Katie and Dan all suggest: if we follow our artistic impulses and open ourselves to new experiences, we will grow as Artists, Teachers, Scholars and Citizens. Indeed, David Malek, clarinetist and ’80s music lover, believes that these identities are inextricable.

“Each is a vital component to a fully realized human being and flows naturally to the next. Being a citizen implies a duty to better the community. For me, this means engaging my sensibilities in order to make something beautiful and honest. When, through this process, I discover something new about my world, my first inclination is to share, to teach. Finally, reflection and study enable us to communicate with people on the fringes of art.”

For all of us, music is central to our morality, the way we balance the world. So we feel not only inclined but ethically compelled to share. Dantes Rameau, a bassoonist and samba drummer-in-training, elaborates: “I don’t think I could be satisfied or find enough meaning by just playing music. I want to pass on the rush I feel to many different kinds of people and make what I have accessible to everybody.”

So we should share our music with the world. But why do it together? Why El Sistema USA? Or, why orchestras? Why not perform as millions of soloists? Abreu sees orchestras as models for society, in which everyone works together towards a common goal. Alvaro Rodas, percussionist and marathon runner, has experienced this vision firsthand. In 1997, ten Venezuelans led a hundred young, inexperienced Guatemalan musicians in a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. “The energy that the Venezuelans brought out in us and the way they pushed us to solve technical problems convinced me that we could become important agents of change in our country.” The group experience transcended individual abilities and thus empowered the young musicians.

This is not just about El Sistema USA. We know the sad state of the arts in this country. We know how many orchestra positions are available each year and how old an average symphony concertgoer is. But here, in our ensembles, in our teaching, in our groups of friends, we can find inspiration to become “agents of change.” As Artists, Teachers, Scholars and Citizens, we can transform orchestras into more relevant, sustainable institutions. It is up to us to make this country a place where we want to make music!

[1] The concept of the Artist-Teacher-Scholar was taken from Larry Scripp, as expressed in the Journal for Music-In-Education

[2] Thanks to Tanya Maggi’s Community Performances and Partnerships Program

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