Sunday, December 20, 2009

Looking Ahead


What is a vision?

“One day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

“Hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.” –Barack Obama, Iowa Caucus, January 3, 2008

    Perhaps José Antonio Abreu did not see 350,000 Venezuelan children making music together, when he started what would become El Sistema 33 years ago. Perhaps he made it up as he went along. This does not change the fact that, in Venezuela, there exists an overarching vision, shared and owned by every individual who contributes to El Sistema. This is a program of social rescue and cultural enrichment that will eventually reach every Venezuelan child and thus affect every Venezuelan person.

    Abreu has found a productive tension between framework and flexibility, so that everyone knows what the “essence” of El Sistema is, but can express it in their own unique way.

How do you make your vision concrete?

    Hubie Jones, founder and president of the Boston Children’s Chorus, is committed to the social integration of his diverse group. He believes: “At the end of the day, it's all about strategy. With anything new, we must prove how it will help bring us to our vision.” Where is the strategy in Venezuela? Does Abreu share that, too?

How do you get people on board? How do you “teach” your vision?

    Let’s say our vision is musical literacy, in other words, the ability to speak, read, write and understand music.

    For many classically trained musicians, speaking and writing music (improvisation and composition) present the biggest problems. How can we encourage our students to develop confidently in those areas?

    Larry Bell, composition professor at NEC, quotes Stravinsky:

“My freedom will be so much greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles…The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” (Poetics of Music)

With this in mind, he gives his composition students assignments such as to write a piece using only one interval. This restriction frees the students to experiment with rhythm and gives them the opportunity to experience success: they will have written a piece of music.

    Gabriela Montero, world-renowned pianist and classical improviser, sees it quite differently. She believes that a music teacher must be an inspiration to his or her students and create an open environment in which the students will be free to express themselves without any constraints at all. In her experience, improvisation is a direct expression of the soul and thus cannot be limited. Though not everyone has such a visceral relationship with the piano (or such natural talent), her comment strikes a chord. I feel that a teacher should model behaviors and skills, thus encouraging learning in his or her very being. The more we love music, enjoy sharing it with others and care about our communities, the more frequently our students will become creative, passionate, empathetic citizens.

    Hubie Jones certainly agrees with this. He believes in living your vision, in practicing what you preach. In Hubie’s case, this means making your organization—from the facilities staff to the board—as diverse as you want your student body to be.

    But back to the apparent disagreement between Larry and Gabriela—First, it seems to me that they are embodying the very tension between framework and flexibility that exists in El Sistema. (That tension also exists in Flow Theory, in which one strives to keep the students both challenged and successful.) Second, there are many wonderful ways to approach musical literacy that lie between these two poles. To name just two:

1.    Giving Students Tools. Simply conquering the very vocabulary of composition makes it much less scary. Like with any language, it is not enough to simply experience it; you need to understand what you are experiencing. Matti Kovler, who teaches improvisation at NEC’s Preparatory School, introduced us to a wonderful student of his, Rachel, who is nine years old. For the past three years, Matti has guided Rachel through an understanding of intervals, chords and modes and has played improvisatory and compositional games with her. As a result, Rachel is extremely adept at identifying what she hears and is developing as a composer, in the midst of writing an opera.

2.   Multiple representations. Larry Scripp has done extensive work with children and has shown that, if you allow the children not only to hear the music, but also to see, feel and experience it, they develop a greater understanding of the material. For example, Larry uses cups as visual aids for rhythm patterns and asks the students to draw pictures of the music they hear. NB: Larry’s a smart cookie, because these pictures serve a double purpose—over time, to document the progress of the child and thus of the music program.

    Musical literacy is only a piece of our ideal future, but perhaps we should approach vision as a topic we want to teach. Thus, we must not only present it, but allow others to witness it, experience it, respond to it and feel ownership over it.

    Thank you for reading.


A vision of fellow love!

Monday, November 30, 2009

On Children


Over the past few weeks, the Abreu Fellows have been on the road, visiting numerous music programs. This has afforded us the opportunity to see the day-to-day practices of artistic directors and music educators... and to interact with kids! In addition, we each have selected a research topic on which to concentrate for the rest of the year. I will be investigating the ways in which El Sistema music instruction addresses key child developmental issues. I wonder: How can we maximize the positive effects of music on children in the El Sistema USA classroom, considering different socio-economic groups, ages and abilities?

OrchKids (Baltimore)
For four days, we immersed ourselves in this after school music program, inspired by El Sistema and run by Dan Trahey, in partnership with the Baltimore Symphony and Lockerman Bundy Elementary School. To get a feel for our visit down there, you should check out these great videos by: Lorrie, Dantes, Stan and Jonathan.
During our time in Baltimore, I was particularly impressed by Eric Rasmussen, OrchKids' Early Childhood specialist. Eric teaches musicianship classes to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, introducing complex rhythmic patterns and melodic concepts with grace and Ella Fitzgerald recordings. He lead an interactive class without being waylaid by discipline issues, and he accomplished this feat because:
1. He uses positive reinforcement and gives the children multiple opportunities to succeed (e.g. by singing easy melodic patterns back to him).
2. He keeps the lesson moving forward and the work challenging. The kids do not have time to misbehave.
 3. He gives the students choices of activities throughout the lesson, so that they may control their own learning.
4. He does not pay undue attention to the unresponsive or disruptive children, thus avoiding potentially explosive situations.
5. He speaks with the voice of calm authority. His leadership could never be questioned, but he's no autocrat.
Thus, Eric creates an environment that is safe and structured, but that allows room for the students to be actively involved in their music education. In this way, he plants the seeds for the children to grow into responsible adults.

A LaGuardia-like high school for the arts (music, theater, dance and visual arts) that is aching for a "feeder" middle school music program. To work towards this goal, BAA runs a Suzuki strings program that does outreach work in four middle schools.
I enjoyed seeing a winds and brass ensemble play "When the Saints Go Marching In." The young teacher had each of the students improvise on a verse, and when some looked daunted at the task, he engaged them in a call-and-response. This allowed all the students, regardless of ability, to experience success, which is crucial in building self-esteem at this difficult age.

YOFES' music program, OAMEC (Open Access to Music Education for Children), may be small, but YOFES has been doing great work for Boston's Haitian community for years. With a social worker on staff, YOFES is able to support the whole child and address key issues in the family. They even facilitate parent-child communication through interactive group sessions. Their music students, of course, enjoy these same services, and Program Director Geralde Gabeau has recently started a music leadership course for teenagers, so that they can act as mentors to the younger string students.

Boston City Singers (Dorchester)
Jane Money's choral program feels like a family. Jane creates an atmosphere of excellence, while at the same time encouraging the students to help each other. Their pilot strings program is a nurturing environment in which the teacher uses singing to strengthen instrumental concepts.

Here's Dantes explaining his crazy instrument...


...and Katie helping a young violinist


We taught a song! And then I tried out iMovie!

video

Artistic Director Anthony Trecek-King spent three days with us, talking about choral conducting and welcoming us into the BCC family. He avoids discipline problems by setting the bar high... and it is high! When we visited the evening rehearsals, the students' abilities blew me away. The young chorus sang with beautiful tone and energy, and the high school ensemble sight read advanced music with ease. These high schoolers spoke about BCC's familial environment and how the chorus brings together students from Boston's disparate neighborhoods, thus encouraging the mixing of different socio-economic groups.

Thanks for reading!
Rebecca

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

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Weeks 3 and 4: Shaping the World


The Kid: Pedagogy and Child Development

During the third week of the Abreu Fellowship, we were lucky enough to meet with experts in four music education philosophies: Dalcroze, Suzuki, Orff and Kodály, or Lisa Parker, Linda Fiore, Ruth Debrot and Jonathan Rappaport. Our own lovely Lorrie did such an excellent job summarizing what the different pedagogies represent, that I won't go into too much detail. I will, however, list some of the key underlying themes that particularly relate to El Sistema and that have been a catalyst for my own thinking...

1. Joy: All four philosophies are founded on fun and games. Dudamel cites this aspect as one of the two core tenets of El Sistema.
2. Active or kinesthetic listening: Even when observing, students should not be passive. By moving and interacting with the music, they are able to absorb and understand it. Look at the members of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra dance even when they are not playing!
3. Student ownership and participation: Part of what makes the El Sistema orchestras' performances of Tchaikovsky and Bernstein so moving is that they play as if they had composed these pieces themselves. Excellent music pedagogy is predicated on giving the students the power to be artists immediately. See the New York Philharmonic's excellent effort in this respect.
4. Begin early. In Venezuela, children start coming to the núcleos at 2 years old and dive into musicianship classes and choirs that prepare them to eventually pick up an instrument. Similarly, Dalcrozian movement, Orff vocal improvisation and Kodály solfège provide excellent support to young musicians. In training the ear and developing skills such as concentration, memory and coordination, these pedagogies train students to be wonderful instrumentalists.
5. Suzuki believed that all children have talent; in Venezuela, anyone can participate in El Sistema. Linda Fiore also presented us with a list of non-musical benefits that Suzuki learning brings. I never knew that Suzuki was so socially-minded! One has to imagine that Abreu drew some of his inspiration from him.

Delving deeper into the world of Suzuki, I saw its emphasis on parent participation as problematic. What about the children who come from abusive home environments? What about parents whose substance abuse precludes them taking an active role in their child's musical learning? We posited: the núcleo becomes the family. After all, our Venezuelan friends have been describing their fellow El Sistema grads as brothers and sisters.

As I continued to ponder the implications for teaching children with backgrounds of abuse, I appreciated that all four pedagogies, but especially Suzuki, place great emphasis on routine. One of the most important lessons I learned in Peru was that all children need boundaries in order to feel safe. In an abusive or unhealthy home environment, we often see that parents have not placed appropriate limits and act inconsistently, thus creating confusion for the child. One of the kids at Mosoq Runa, who came to us at 5 years old, started walking the 3 kilometers into town by himself from the age of 3. He used to accompany his mother both to work and to the bars. In this limitless world, anything was possible, and that meant that the worst was probable. As a result, he had terrible nightmares. One of our main tasks was to create order in his confusing life. When we were at the table, play time was over; when he was playing, we let him be. Bath time was at 7pm and bed time at 8pm. In this way, he began to feel safe, and the nightmares faded. Similarly, picking up the violin in the same, precise way every day can create order and a feeling of security for a child from a chaotic home.

As all of these pedagogies are developed for the child's sake (rather than the music's), it was wonderful to meet with a few musicians whose day jobs are in the fields of neurology, psychology and child development.
Eli Newberger and Lyle Davidson provided us with a roadmap to the brain, emphasizing the neurological differences between men and women. As a pediatrician, Eli's knowledge of child development is vast, so he presented us with a short but very useful list:
The 5 Most Important Things that Children Need to Develop Sound Characters and Make Admirable Decisions in the Face of Moral Conflict
1. At least one adult in their life who is crazy about them, will always be there for them, assure them of their worth and advocate for them.
2. Emotional literacy. Boys in particular need words with which to characterize and express emotions.
3. Protection from exposure to violence. Did you know that between the ages of 5 and 13, the average American child will have seen over 13,000 people die on television? Venezuela's núcleos are safe havens, and ours must be too.
4. Inductive discipline, which means agreeing upon the standards of behavior (rather than deductive discipline, which is predicated on punishment).
5. To give back. Catholic activist Dorothy Day, when describing the spiritual transformation that occurs in missionary work, said, "The helpless help the helpers more than the helpers help the helpless."

A wonderful example of this final statement is teaching music to children with special needs. My friend, Markku Kaikkonen, runs the Resonaari Music Center in Helsinki, where he educates cognitively disabled children and adults in the art of making music. My visit to the center this September was awe-inspiring. I was amazed by the atmosphere of fun and learning in the ensembles and by the never-ending patience of the teachers.
Because of this incredibly positive experience, I was thrilled to spend Thursday afternoon with Kathleen Howland, music therapist and speech pathologist. When I mentioned how difficult it is to communicate directly with those with special needs, she reminded us all that behaviors are a communication. These actions can be difficult to understand, however, so music bridges these communicative gaps. Kathleen also pointed out that every human wants to make their own choices and be self-directed. Again, music can give them that sense of empowerment. She listed many strategies for strong teaching, including:
* Preview and review every new topic.
* Use peer learning.
* Consider the child as a whole (research their backgrounds, their family life, their special needs)
* Do not just rely on spoken cues; rather, fold in visual and musical ones, too.
* Explore a single topic deeply, rather than passing quickly on to new elements. When working with children with special needs, this is particularly important, because they will not be able to progress rapidly. But, as Kathleen says, if the ceiling is low, go lateral and repeat things creatively.

This made us think... In Kodály, they use the same song over and over again to show different musical principles. In Venezuela, they look at the whole child and love peer-to-peer mentoring. These strategies that work for children with special needs work for everybody. The principles are universal. Differently-abled children force you to look at them before the subject matter, because their needs can be so challenging. But, really, you should always see the child before the music.


The Adult: Triangles, Spirals and Spiderwebs
Conversations with Yo-Yo Ma, Larry Scripp and Sebastian Ruth
Larry Scripp, in charting the progression of music in education, has described the newest incarnation of the music educator as the
Artist

Teacher Scholar
The artist's desires are to learn and to join a community. The teacher's, to share and to communicate. The scholar's, to research and to analyze. These roles flow into each other in a constantly evolving relationship that results in a greater ability to interact effectively with music, students and society at large.
Yo-Yo Ma also works within a triangular framework, one that he describes as a circuit that must be complete for the lightbulb to turn on.
Content

Communication           Reception
We are often strong in two poles and weak in the third. Perhaps we explain something very interesting very well, but we have not asked our listeners what they thought. Perhaps we have not looked them in the eyes to read their reaction. But when we do, and the lightbulb becomes illuminated, we can 1. provide a memorable experience 2. cause our listeners, students and children to become curious and passionate, and 3. allow them to develop a disciplined imagination and embark upon the path to empathy.

These triangles have clear similarities; indeed, the elements seem interchangeable. What a wonderful idea, that such simple geometry can provide so many opportunities for self-evaluation. But the danger in a triangle is its inertia. Where can it possibly go?
In Yo-Yo Ma's mind, it can spiral up a vector, towards progress, towards empathy. Our ultimate goal is to become better citizens of the world.

Sebastian Ruth, who, like Yo-Yo, has preserved his identity as a performing artist within his educational project, sees himself as part of a vast spiderweb. His institutional links and musical relationships are reciprocal and interwoven. There is something so beautiful about the spiderweb and its potential for growth. In a web, the vectors are multiple, making the possibility of progress greater than in a single spiral. Our El Sistema may look something like an intricate spiderweb, with reciprocal relationships stretching across the nation, whose strength will inspire the world to act with more empathy.

Thank you for reading.
Rebecca


"Los Puntitos del Amor" Paper Orchestra
Mosoq Runa, Urubamba, Peru, November 2008

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:
video
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!
Rebecca

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!
Rebecca

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!
Rebecca