Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Odds and Ends

What does it take to start something from scratch? Entrepreneur, teacher and arts consultant Greg Kandel, who has been working with us on our strategic plans, offered us some advice. If you are going to embark on the exciting journey of founding an organization, you should have:

People who believe in you

Risk tolerance

Willingness to fail

A sense of adventure

Something driving you, a strong reason for doing it

Tenacity, the ability to hold onto something you believe in

Self-confidence, either by nature and/or because of past success

A great idea about what you want to do and how you're going to accomplish it


A healthy dose of humility, the ability to seek and value the advice and opinions of others


Recently, we have been talking about how to achieve musical excellence in our nucleos, without sacrificing accessibility and inclusion. Here is a short list that the Fellows came up during one of our discussions (this is not an exhaustive list):

How to Achieve Musical Excellence

1. Collaboration
2. Expectations
3. Affirmation
4. Unified musical values


I can't resist putting up a little more about Baltimore. Here is a slideshow of pictures from the trip:

OrchKids Slideshow

Friday, November 26, 2010

OrchKids as an El Sistema-Inspired Program: Accessibility, Intensity and Flexibility

At OrchKids, Andrea and I worked with a group of 17 brass players in preparation for our concert last Friday. What an outstanding group of kids! I saw so much talent, so much enthusiasm, and a strong desire to excel and to be praised. After only five days with them, I felt a strong attachment and it was difficult to leave. Music is giving these kids another way to think about themselves and about the world, and a framework through which they can make and achieve long-term goals. I learned so much, and was inspired in many ways by what I saw. My experience at OrchKids will influence me greatly as I make plans to build my own nucleo.

Two things that I respect about OrchKids: 1. they reach the kids with the greatest need for resources, and 2. they never turns away any kids for any other reason than the program being at capacity. OrchKids truly embodies accessibility.

OrchKids has achieved something miraculous. Kids play their instruments hours a day, Monday through Friday but it is never a chore. Playing their instruments is a privilege, and therefore kids aspire to do it as often as they can. This is the best and most natural way to create musical intensity within a nucleo.

Many OrchKids participants are confronted with unique obstacles in their life outside OrchKids. Emotional and behavior issues can sometimes make a child's participation in OrchKids difficult. Despite these challenging, no one is ever asked to leave the program permanently. An arrangement is worked out, always with the child's well-being in mind. This is commendable, because those who may be most likely to "cause trouble" or get kicked out, are often those who could most benefit from what OrchKids has to offer. This approach demonstrates complete flexibility in dealing with each child and their individual needs.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Last week the Abreu Fellows visited the OrchKids program in Baltimore. It was absolutely amazing! We worked with over 100 kids to prepare for a successful concert on Friday. Here are some things that stuck with me:

I have never seen such excitement over music.

When you ask a question, every hand shoots up in the air.

When behavior becomes a problem in the room, engage the kids in a musical activity and there will be complete focus.

The walls of Lockerman Bundy Elementary school are covered with colorful, beautiful murals.

Kids who have been in the program longer are role models for the younger kids.

Everyone is proud to be an OrchKid.

Across the street from the school is the abrupt end of the Highway to Nowhere, a short section of elevated highway. In the late 1970's this segment of highway was built as part of a project to connect I-70 with I-95, but was never finished. Houses were uprooted to build it, and the neighborhood was divided. Inside the school, laughter and music echo through the colorfully painted walls. Outside, the unfinished highway is a brutal reminder that this is a forgotten neighborhood. The OrchKids program is fighting against this powerful symbol of futility and neglect. Meeting these incredible kids, and seeing their connection to music, was an affirmation of the power of music as a vehicle for social change.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ideas about my Future Nucleo

As I start to move beyond dreaming about my perfect nucleo, and take practical steps toward planning it, I'm forced to think about what are actually reasonable goals. If I had unlimited resources, my nucleo would "have it all," but as that is not something that is likely to happen in my first year, I've started thinking about what would be truly important characteristics of my future nucleo, and what could possibly be expendable (without forgetting, of course, what I would do if I miraculously did have unlimited resources). There are two pieces of advice that I've heard many times over the past few weeks that I believe will help me in deciding how to realistically structure my nucleo. They are:

1. Start Small

2. Identify your Core Values

With that in mind, here are some preliminary thoughts about what my nucleo could possibly look like next year and in the future. These are ideas that will continue to evolve over the next few months.

In its pilot year, my program serves 25 underprivileged children who are living in the neighborhood surrounding the community center where we hold classes. There are classes Monday through Friday after school until 6pm, and the community center is seen as a safe and fun place where children are constantly engaged, learning and building relationships. Our teachers are our greatest strength. They are completely committed to the students. Working here is not a “job” for them, but a way of life. They take both their role as an artist and as a teacher very seriously, with the well-being and growth of their students as the first priority. Each student receives individual attention on his or her instrument, as well as a strong base in music literacy, taught in a fun but practical way. By playing in a string orchestra, instrument choir, and chamber music groups, students learn the importance of collaboration with others. There are frequent concerts given by the teachers, which are community events, attended by families, students and others in the neighborhood. The children also perform often, both formally and informally.

Ten years after the launch of our program, we have become a positive force for social change within our community, serving over 100 children. In our new location we have a beautiful performance space with frequent concerts given by our teachers, as well as visits from many guest artist who give masterclasses and performances. Our first “class” of students are just beginning to graduate high school, having been part of our organization for the past ten years, and all are starting some form of higher education or career. These students have become role models to the younger students, and the pride of their families and communities. We currently have a retention rate of over 90% for our students, even as we continue to target families with great need for support and resources. We have a very long waiting list. We are known throughout the city and hope to open two more locations next fall. Our students perform frequently throughout the city and surrounding areas. There are also frequent field trips with the students to see concerts.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bridging the Gap Between Dreaming and Doing

Uh oh, wake up call, it's time to start drafting a curriculum and a strategic plan for my future nucleo! Brainstorming and dreaming are easy, but I need to start thinking about how in the world I'm going to turn what's in my imagination into reality. Yes, my nucleo will be a real place, with real kids and real people working there. Yikes!

It's time to start thinking about the serious stuff: Is my nucleo going to be part of a university? Part of a charter school? Public school? Will it be a separate after-school program? Will there be a partnership with an orchestra? A chamber music group? How will I fund my nucleo? Who will I hire? What type of community will it be in? Who will the students be? Will they come to me or will I have to recruit? How old will they be? What resources can I offer? What instruments will be taught? Will there be chorus? Music literacy classes? How many hours a day? How many days a week? How many students? So many decisions to make!

I feel like I'm hanging out on one side of a chasm. On this side are all my dreams, wishes, hopes and aspirations for what I want to accomplish. On the other side is my nucleo and all the concrete steps I have to take in order to create it. I'm feeling pretty comfortable over here on this side, but I know that in order to start the planning process, I'm going to have to force myself to take one REALLY big step over to the other side.

Here I go.....

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Musician of the 21st Century

Last week the other Abreu Fellows and I attended a panel discussion at Harvard University entitled Discerning New Visions For Music Conservatories: Lessons From El Sistema. Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard, gave some opening remarks. One thing he mentioned was the "ethical dilemma" that conservatories face in training "too many musicians." There are so many of us, and so few jobs. A handful will win orchestra jobs, many will start private teaching studios, some will get a DMA with the hope of joining the faculty of a university, a few will form successful chamber music groups or tour as a soloist. What is out there for us as conservatory-trained musicians? Will we get our dream job, something that is musically fulfilling after the thousands of hours we have all spent in the practice room? How many more hours will it take? How many more years?

The title of the panel discussion is pertinent, because it acknowledges that there are lessons conservatories can learn from El Sistema. What does it mean to be a musician in the 21st century, and how can conservatories prepare their students to become those musicians? We need to look to the El Sistema model for the answer.

One program based on the El Sistema model is Community Music Works in Providence, Rhode Island. A professional string quartet has woven its way into an urban community through frequent performing and teaching. Students receive free or low-cost music instruction while at the same time being exposed to live, high-quality classical music. This quartet is creating beautiful music and providing a public service. Does that mean that creating beautiful music is no longer enough? Are we sacrificing our ideals? No. We are elevating them. Classical music should be for everyone. On top of that, professional musicians are benefitting in two ways. First, using the El Sistema model, a quartet (following the Community Music Works model) can create a niche for themselves, rather than wait for a position to open up. There are many quartets out there trying to get noticed. Every group must ask, "why us?" when there are many groups playing at a very high level. El Sistema offers a way for every group to be relevant. The second benefit is that by reaching out to more communities in a deep and meaningful way, we are making an investment in creating a bigger, younger audience who will love and appreciate classical music.

With that in mind, back to the original question: What does it mean to be a 21st century musician, and how can conservatories prepare their students to become those musicians? The 21st century musician should take into account both artistic and social considerations. They should be ambitious in believing that art can transform them, their communities and even society as a whole. They should strive toward the ideal that art is for everyone. They should aim towards the highest level of human and musical excellence, and expect it in others.

How can conservatories train musicians who, in the words of Jose Antonio Abreu, "are passionate about their art and social justice?" The first step is to break down the wall that has been built between music educators and music performers. 21st century musicians should see themselves as CATS (a term coined by El Sistema USA): Citizens, Artists, Teachers, and Scholars. We can no longer afford not to fill all four of those roles. So together, tocamos y luchamos to keep our art alive and relevant in our quickly changing world.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Remedy for a Passion Hangover

This morning in class, our wonderful mentor/teacher Erik remarked that the 10 of us looked like we had "passion hangovers." In my case at least, he was right. From the moment I found out that I would be an Abreu Fellow, I could barely wait to get to Boston and meet the other fellows so we could begin our not-too-modest quest to learn how to develop El Sistema programs in the US. We all arrived bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm, full of ideas, questions, and expectations.

Then, half-way into the third week, the immensity and reality of our task hit me. How in the world are we going to do all of this with only one year of preparation? We had already heard from nine speakers, each of whom brought with them a wealth of new ideas and great advice, leaving me with even more questions. I knew I didn't want to have a passion hangover, but how could I sustain the same level of passion for El Sistema, while having to focus on the nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts details of how to start a nucleo? I decided to look to El Sistema for an answer.

I am amazed, according to what I've learned about El Sistema so far, at how seemingly contradictory elements are incorporated with ease into each nucleo. There is a huge focus on ensembles, yet each child's individual needs are treated with care and sensitivity. The highest standards of musical excellence are always the goal, but every child is made to feel like an asset, regardless of their ability. There are set schedules and curriculums within each nucleo, but also the flexibility to change them at a moment's notice if there is a concert opportunity or a guest artist in town.

How can I stay passionate about El Sistema while at the same time trying to learning everything I need to know about how to start my own nucleo? The answer can be found in El Sistema's synthesis of what appear to be opposing elements. Just as sensitivity towards each child strengthens the ensemble, an enthusiastic and accomplished ensemble aids in the musical development of each child. Similarly, it is my passion that will give me the energy to make sense of the endless information I'll need to absorb this year, and the information itself which will allow me to follow through with what I am passionate about.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

On the Bus

After an intense week of classes, presentations, introductions, long conversations and meetings, I found myself stuck in Friday-before-long-weekend traffic on the bus to New York. Only one hour out of Boston and barely moving, I knew it would be a long trip. I lay back and took a deep breath. It felt like the first one I had taken since Monday morning, my first day of the Abreu Fellows Program at New England Conservatory. As the bus inched forward it seemed that time had suddenly slowed down, giving me a chance to try to wrap my mind around everything that had happened and everything I had learned in the past five days.

What is El Sistema? Why do we believe so passionately in it? What will its role be in the United States? These questions and many others were spinning through my head in an incomprehensible jumble along with everything I had learned that week. In order to begin to sort out my thoughts, I decided to look back in time to when I first became aware of El Sistema. Why it had drawn me in so quickly and completely?

While teaching cello at a small, family-run music school in Cuenca, Ecuador, I had begun to think about the impact that classical music can have on the lives of the children who study instruments. When the director of the music school showed me the film “Tocar y Luchar” I was in disbelief. Here was the very idea that I had just barely begun to grasp, developed and thriving in Venezuela. Classical music was transforming the lives of children, their families, and their communities. This music program, called “El Sistema” was better than anything I could have imagined. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s most underprivileged children, many growing up in unthinkable poverty, were given free music lessons six days a week from a very young age, and it was having an affect not only on school attendance and crime rates, but on people’s enthusiasm for classical music.

At the core of el Sistema is a symbiotic relationship between classical music and social justice. This relationship fascinates me. In the US, classical music is often assumed to be something for the elite. In Venezuela, there are over 200 orchestras, and classical music is heard everywhere by everyone. El Sistema holds the key of how to reach out to a larger public through classical music. Going into a community that might not have had much exposure to classical music and giving outreach concerts only works to a certain point. Classical music needs to stem from within these communities, thereby allowing them to take ownership of it.

As the bus was pulling into New York, I realized that I had barely made any progress in distilling my thoughts about El Sistema. I was looking forward to a short vacation, but knew that I wouldn’t be sad when it was time to go back to Boston and continue classes…. as long as there was no traffic.

Friday, September 10, 2010

I'm very excited to be part of the 2010/2011 Abreu Fellows Program at New England Conservatory. This program, now in its second year, is dedicated to the development of El Sistema in the United States. I'll be sharing experiences, which will include a two-month trip to Venezuela in the spring, through this blog. To find out more about El Sistema and the Abreu Fellows Program, please check out the El Sistema USA website: