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:
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!