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)

1 comment:

  1. Hey!

    Think I've just worked out how to do a comment!! haha

    Just wanted you to know I was thinking of you and glad you're having a great time! Lots of love Bev xx