Monday, January 4, 2016

Las Posadas in Price Hill

The first big event I helped plan in my new position at Price Hill Will as Director of Creative Placemaking and Community Arts Initiatives was a Posada. It was based off of the traditional Mexican Christmas celebration called Las Posadas. The event featured homemade Mexican food, a performance by MYCincinnati, Salsa music by a live band, and lots and lots of piñatas. Groups from all around Price Hill got together throughout the month of December to make and decorate piñatas. Here are a few photos from some of our piñata-making parties:

Here are photos of all the piñatas hanging from the ceiling of the Firehouse, where the event was held: 

As you can see, it was a packed house! Throughout the event, everyone voted for their favorite piñata, and prizes were given out. Here are just a few of the spectacular piñatas made by community members:

Near the end of the event, after a lot of eating and dancing, we broke open the piñatas – here are some photos: Zhiarah helping her little brother hit one of the piñatas, sharing candy, and an action shot.

Next year I hope we can expand this event to include an educational component about the tradition of Las Posadas, and an even more competitive edge to the piñata competition. There will also be more community involvement in the planning, and a committee will start planning next year's event in September. My favorite part of our first Posada was working with community members to make and decorate the piñatas - a reminder that everyone is an artist!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Creative Placemaking

It’s been a while since my last blog post. While I was in the Sistema Fellows program at New England Conservatory (2010-2011), I posted about my experiences in Venezuela. Since then, I moved to Cincinnati, where I founded an El Sistema-inspired program called MYCincinnati. I was Director of the program for four years, during which time it grew from 11 to 80 students. I am thrilled with the success the program as had, thanks in large part to a huge amount of support from the Cincinnati community. In September, Eddy Kwon, an inspiring musician, teacher, and person, took over as Director of MYCincinnati. We had been working together at MYCincinnati since the program was founded, and under his able guidance, MYCincinnati is thriving. 

So what am I up to now that I am not running MYCincinnati? First, a little more background. MYCincinnati is a program of a non-profit community development corporation called Price Hill Will. As an organization, their focus is on neighborhood revitalization through physical redevelopment (mostly housing rehab), economic development (business district improvement), and a variety of community engagement initiatives, including MYCincinnati. In June, Price Hill Will received two-year funding from the Kresge Foundation through LISC to do “Creative Placemaking,” which they used to form a new position at Price Hill Will – Director of Creative Placemaking – the position that I took on in September. 

So now that I am doing Creative Placemaking, you may be wondering:  what is creative placemaking? This is something that I am still figuring out, and I hope through this blog you will be able to take that journey with me over the next year and a half. LISC defines creativeplacemaking as “residents coming together to make social, physical, andeconomic changes in their neighborhood through the arts and culture.” So arts and culture become a strategy for redevelopment work. It’s something that Price Hill Will had already been doing through MYCincinnati, and other initiatives, but this new position gives the organization a greater capacity to experiment with new ways to engage Price Hill residents in making their neighborhood a better place.

An exciting aspect of this position is that learning and experimentation are encouraged, and that is just what I have been doing. In my next post, I will write about some things I’ve been working on since September, and also a little more about the term “creative placemaking.” More soon. In the meantime, check out these photos from our Las Posadas celebration on December 18th!

MYCincinnati Performs at the Posada
Getting Ready to smash the piñata

More photos from the event can be found here.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Venezuela: Estado Lara

We spent our third week of our trip in the city of Barquisimeto, in the state of Lara. The núcleo, which has nine orchestras, is always full of activity. The second day I got to work with the talented cellists in the regional state orchestra on “The Planets” by Holst. Sectionals here usually last a couple hours with no break – no one wants to take a break. I also got to play in the orchestra during a few of their rehearsals. Liz, another member of my group, had fun playing in a seven-person bassoon section.

While in Lara, we traveled to 3 núcleos. Carora and Sarare were about an hour away, and Santa Rosa was only a few minutes away from the main núcleo in Barquisimeto.


Our first trip was to Sarare, which was outside Barquisimeto. Once we got to town, our taxi driver started leaning out the window and asking people on the street to point him in the direction of the music school, but no one knew where it was. Then we started asking, “Where is the orchestra?” and people began to point us in the right direction. As we got closer, we continued to ask people on the street, and they all knew where the orchestra was. This happened when we visited Carora as well. The orchestra is a source of pride for all the residents.

In this case, the orchestra was a group of about 20 young students under the age of 16 playing very basic repertoire, and rehearsing in an empty discotec. They gave us a short performance, and then we decided to hold an impromptu “seminario,” or workshop. We would work in small groups for 45 minutes and then get back together for a full orchestra rehearsal. We split off for sectionals: David with the brass, Liz with the winds, Graciela with violins and violas, and me with the cellos. The three cellos and I squeezed into one of the offices to rehearse. Two of the cellists were missing an “A” string, and had taught themselves to shift up to fourth position in order to play the piece they were working on. In the middle of the sectional the electricity went off and it was pitch black in the office. Luckily, the cellists had the piece memorized, so this wasn’t a problem. Things like missing strings and lack of light do not deter people here. No matter what you have to keep making music.


Carora is a beautiful colonial town with a huge núcleo of about 700 kids. The most striking thing we saw there was the choir program. They have four levels of choir: Baby Choir which is for ages 3-5, the Pre-infantil Choir for ages 6-9, the Infantil Choir for ages 9-15, and the Juvenil choir for age 15 and older. In the youngest choir there were some children with special needs. The Infantil Choir is often conducted by one of their members - a twelve year old. The oldest group was very advanced and they were singing a gorgeous piece by Palestrina. We were shocked to find out that the choir program was only two years old. All the groups (except the youngest) were singing in multiple part harmony with spotless intonation, and had a large repertoire. The oldest choir was currently working on Mahler 2. I’m sure this is due in large part to the wonderful choir director who has been working with them every day.

Santa Rosa

Just a few minutes away from the enormous núcleo in Barquisimeto is the neighborhood of Santa Rosa. The núcleo here is comprised of a couple buildings located right in the central plaza. The plaza is a bustling place, filled with kids playing music. There weren’t many rooms in the núcleo building, so students gathered together outside for lessons or group practice sessions. Everywhere you looked – in the plaza, on park benches, under awnings, in outdoor cafes – there were students with instruments. The núcleo is only seven months old, but the activities there demonstrated how much can be accomplished in a short amount of time. I think that one of the reasons they are able to move so quickly is their proximity to the main núcleo in Barquisimeto. Unlike many of the smaller and more remote núcleos, Santa Rosa has no problem getting consistent teachers. Many of the teachers are themselves students in Barquisimeto.

There are two orchestras at Santa Rosa. Each orchestra rehearses twice a week for two hours. Students have sectionals for two hours once a week, and each student has a private lesson for one hour once a week.

Back in Caracas I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, when an ad for coca-cola came on the TV. It said “There are more orchestras in Venezuela than in Germany and Austria together.” From ads on TV to residents of small towns, Venezuela is a country that is proud of its orchestras – and with good reason. Our last day in Venezuela we heard the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, one of the top children’s orchestra in the country, play Beethoven 9 together with a massive chorus. The combination of passion and extremely high-level playing made this concert both moving and unforgettable.

The importance of the orchestra in Venezuela extends from the Teresa Carreño all the way down to the small orchestra of beginners in Sarare. I was shocked again and again at some of the smaller núcleos, when I would give a cello lesson to a student who was working on a very basic piece and then see them later in the afternoon sitting in an orchestra and playing Beethoven’s third symphony. For me, the “magic” of El Sistema happens in the orchestra. The children who are more advanced raise the level of everyone when they sit together in the orchestra with beginners, and the beginners can play things they never could play on their own. When you work together you can achieve more than you can achieve alone.

Here are some observations about the orchestra from my time in Venezuela. These are meant as generalizations, not as absolute truths about El Sistema:

Students use lots of bow and start at the frog. This produces lots of sound!

Using the same bowings seems to be a high priority in most núcleos.

In rehearsals, students are asked to play stand-by-stand to make sure everyone can play a passage.

There is no impatience or frustration at others who may not be able to play a passage.

There is a mix of ages and levels in the ensemble in order to motivate less advanced students.

They rehearse A LOT.

Put instruments in children’s hands and let them play – don’t limit children and they will always surprise us with what they can do!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Venezuela: Estado Mérida

I’m writing from Barquisimeto, after another amazing week in Venezuela. So far we’ve spent a week in Guárico and a week in Mérida, two vastly different regions.
In the state of Mérida, there are about 4,000 students studying music, 900 of them at the central núcleo in the city of Mérida. We spent a great deal of time at the main núcleo, and we also got to travel to four other núcleos.

In Guárico we traveled around and saw many wonderful things. Although I spent some time teaching, it was mostly a time to observe and get to know El Sistema up close. In Mérida we were put right to work when we arrived! I had a fantastic time playing and teaching. I was lucky to be able to work with the Mérida cellists, and I miss all of them already. I was impressed not only by the very high level of playing I heard there, but also by the motivation, attitude and determination of the students.

Upon arriving, we were greeted warmly by Jesús Pérez and his family. Jésus is the regional director of núcleos in Mérida, and the work he has done is amazing. There’s no mystery to how he achieves results, “We work Monday to Monday.” We saw so many programs at the main núcleo: pre-K and Kindergarten programs, recorder classes, beginning violin classes, choirs, orchestras (from the Mozart orchestra comprised of beginners, up to the 120-piece regional youth orchestra), an extensive Special Education program, many levels of solfege and music literacy classes, private lessons, and a variety of other ensembles (including two cello ensembles). One of the highlights of the trip was coaching the cello ensemble comprised of nine of the advanced cellists at the núcleo. They are preparing Bachianas Brasileiras by Villa Lobos for a concert in a few weeks.

Another highlight was attending a concert put on by the students in the Special Education program. We heard performances by singers, pianists, violin ensemble, chime ensemble, choir, recorder ensemble and percussion ensemble. The percussion ensemble ended the concert by accompanying a beautiful and moving rendition of the song “Venezuela,” sung by one of the older students. Some of the students we heard performing had severe disabilities, but nothing was treated as a barrier to making music. Although this particular performance was a demonstration of all the students and ensembles that make up the Special Education program, many of the students participate in other classes and ensembles at the núcleo, and some also become teachers.

While in Mérida, we were able to visit four nearby núcleos: El Vigía, Fe y Alegría, Santa Cruz de Mora, and Mucuchíes.

El Vigía

Our first trip was to El Vigía, a núcleo about an hour south of Mérida. 200 students attend this núcleo, and between 15 and 20 of them also travel a few times a week to Mérida to play with the regional youth orchestra. In the morning we taught private lessons. Students were working mostly on their orchestra music, and there was not a large emphasis on learning solo repertoire. In the afternoon we got to see a special presentation of the choir, both the orchestras, and the programs for younger students (recorder and violin group classes). After the advanced orchestras performed for us, we got to join them to play Handel’s Halleluiah. The atmosphere here was incredibly friendly. Our hosts brought us special snacks throughout the visit, and gave us gifts of typical food from the region to take home. The students hung around in small groups, practicing and playing together. Everyone seemed to be laughing and having a good time.

Fe y Alegría

After getting back from our visit to El Vigía, we left immediately for Fe y Alegría, a boarding school outside of Mérida. It was a strange trip. We drove higher and higher into the mountains. It was getting dark, and a thick fog suddenly surrounded us. The terrain grew wilder. We passed through a gate, which was the entrance to the school, and continued to drive through the wilderness. To our left was the vague outline of a large lake. After continuing up the road for a while, we arrived at a large campus engulfed in fog.

Fe y Alegría is a boarding school of 600 students who, apart from their regular classes, study other things such agriculture, mechanics. The núcleo in Mérida started sending teachers about a year ago to give music lessons. The lessons take place every evening, during students’ free time. Since this is a high school, the students are older. Their attendance at music class is irregular, but the location has a lot of potential to develop. The night we were there we watched a group violin class. There were about ten boys playing together. The teacher worked them hard, and they all seemed determined and serious.

There were no rooms available, so lessons took place outside under the overhang of the building. Next to the lessons there was a competitive ping-pong tournament going on (which I got to join for a few minutes) and the ball occasionally went flying towards the violins. Far off to the side was a machine to make popcorn, which one of the students was handing out in small brown paper bags. Despite many distractions, the other students looked on at the lessons with interest, and I hope that in the future this program can grow into a large and well-developed núcleo.

Santa Cruz de Mora

We spent an afternoon at the núcleo in Santa Cruz de Mora. Classes took place is a large, octagonal building which had one large room in the middle, and smaller rooms off to the side. Directly in the center of the roof was a small stained-glass window, which reflected beautiful colors onto the floor of the núcleo.

This is the first núcleo where we met a teacher who was a foreigner from a non-Spanish speaking country (in Calabozo there was a teacher from Cuba). The piano teacher was a Japanese woman who is part of a program that sends volunteers with various specialties to Venezuela. She had been there a year, and will be there for one more.

Many students studying at the núcleo are from the hillsides and smaller villages surrounding the city of Santa Cruz de Mora. Because of the rain, many roads were impassable (we barely made it ourselves), and some students had been having difficulty getting to the núcleo. The more advanced orchestra was playing the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, and because of the roads, many parts were missing. Also, the piece was very challenging for many of the players. What surprises me again and again as I travel to núcleos is the ability of the orchestra to play very difficult pieces at a high level despite so many obstacles. Neither the difficulty of the piece nor missing parts deterred anyone for a moment. Students played their heart out, and a huge sound came out of the small orchestra.


Mucuchíes is a very special place. From Mérida, a road winds higher and higher through the Andes Mountains. We stopped in a small town perched on the side of the mountains. The air was thinner up at 3000 meters, and the town felt quiet and unhurried. When we arrived, the núcleo director told us a little about the program in Mucuchíes. There are 488 children studying music, and 38 of them in the orchestra. Music classes start at 2pm every day, and orchestra and choir rehearsals are from 4:30-6:30pm. When they are not in school or studying music, most of the children spend their time farming.

The director had prepared a special performance for us. First we heard the choir. There were about 30 children between the ages of 7 and 15. The songs were combined with movement and the children sang enthusiastically.

Next we heard the orchestra and I was blown away. The núcleo is only three years old, and no child sitting in the orchestra had been holding an instrument longer than two and a half years. They were playing advanced pieces, but the difficulty didn’t stop them from playing with all their heart. Everyone played with the same bowing and used their entire bow. During the concert the room was filled with passion and energy.

After the concert we were standing outside talking to the orchestra members. A 10-year-old girl walked over and asked if she could sing for us. We gathered around and she sang two Venezuelan songs. Her voice was absolutely beautiful, clear and expressive. Apparently she will be starting the cello soon. I would have loved to spend a week at Mucuchíes, and I had to force myself to get in the car to leave. I hope to be able to go back someday.


We spent our last full day in Mérida at the main núcleo. David, an Abreu Fellow who is traveling in my group conducted the regional youth orchestra during their rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. I had been playing with the orchestra that week, and it had been a wonderful experience. This was the last rehearsal we’d be at before leaving for Barquisimeto. David got up to conduct the first movement at the symphony, which he had spent the week studying. After, Jesús (the director of the núcleo and conductor of the orchestra) told him to go on to the fourth movement. David told him that he hadn’t looked at that movement, and hadn’t conducted it previously, but Jesús insisted. The reading went forward with enthusiasm, but near the end of the piece, something happened. We arrived at the final “Moderato assai” and the tempo David took was very fast. I’m not quite sure what happened, but it was like a shock wave went through the orchestra. Suddenly, everyone was looking at each other, smiling, laughing, and playing like their life depended on it. It was like an air-born virus of excitement that spread to every player in a few seconds. It may have been the fast tempo that triggered it, or something else, but whatever it was, playing in that orchestra of over 100 people during the last few minutes of the piece was like no other orchestral experience I have ever had. I was part of an unstoppable wave of musical intensity and energy.

After the wonderful rehearsal, David and I went our to have pizza with a few violinist and cellists in the orchestra. They talked to us about the joy they felt when playing in orchestra. They said that everyone was there because they wanted to be; it wasn’t an obligation, but something they loved and looked forward to. The orchestral experience for them was about coming together to make music. No matter what, the most important thing is to never stop making music with joy and passion.