Saturday, October 17, 2009

Welcome to the Real World Boston: Abreu Fellows Program

Nine Months. Ten Strangers. One house. 24/7. This is the Real World: Boston!

Clearly I've spent too much time watching MTV. But that's what it felt like the morning I walked into the New England Conservatory for the first day of the Abreu Fellows Program. My roommates (Abreu Fellows as well) and I (below)

were greeted in the lobby by Jamie Bernstein, daughter of the famous conductor Leonard Bernstein. Turns out Jamie is producing a documentary about El Sistema USA and so a camera crew followed us around for the entire week. Here's the producers, camera crew and Alvaro, one of the fellows:

I thought, good thing I didn't wear my favorite ensemble: baggy jeans and a college sweatshirt.

This opening week was pretty exciting. Finally meeting everyone involved with the project in person was great. The fact that everyone, from the fellows all the way up to the President of the New England Conservatory is so committed to the cause makes it feel like I've known all these people for much longer than one week.

For example author Tricia Tunstall (above) who will be with us for much of the year to collect research for her upcoming book. She is writing one of the first English books on El Sistema and its growing popularity across the world. No pressure. Oh, and Tricia also happens to teach a mere 40 piano students...

On Wednesday our guest lecturer was Anne Fitzgibbon (above), the executive director of the Harmony Program in Brooklyn, New York. Anne spent a whole year in Venezuela teaching and working with El Sistema. With her hands-on experience she was able to provide us with the history, philosophy and organization of El Sistema. She then spoke about her own program which trains college and graduate level music students as music teachers for economically disadvantaged children. We will be visiting the Harmony Program in Brooklyn in November so I'll be sure to write about it here.

On Wednesday I also met my mentors. Each fellow has a musician mentor and a more business-like mentor to guide and advise us throughout the year. Mine are Martha Katz, viola teacher at the New England Conservatory and Don Jones, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at the New England Conservatory. Don, like me, is an avid sports fan and believes he will convert me from an Ottawa Senators fan to a Boston Bruins fan and from a Pittsburgh Steelers fan to a New England Patriots fan. While that won't be happening, Don, I'll probably be pledging my allegiance to the Boston Celtics pretty soon.

For myself the highlight of the week was the roundtable discussion with El Sistema graduates. These young musicians grew up in Venezuela participating in El Sistema and are now pursuing post-secondary education in music here in Boston. We bombarded them with questions for almost three hours and they patiently and graciously answered all our queries. A couple of things about the "El Sistema ways" from the roundtable stand out for me.

The first is how often the theme of friendship and bonding came up. The graduates mentioned that they had spent so much time together at El Sistema programs that it made the orchestras play better. Yes, they wanted to go to orchestra because it was fun and their friends were there. But it was also this closeness, this obligation to one another that motivated them to practice, which in turn made the orchestra better. No one wanted to let down their friends. One graduate, when we asked what were some of the elements that had to be part of a successful El Sistema inspired program replied that it was all about friendships. He said put your kids on a bus, drive them around for two hours, bring them back to rehearsal and watch them play better. The notion that the entire orchestra is a family and each member has a responsability to the group is a great way of teaching youngsters how to be functioning members of any society. A great example of orchestra skills translating into real life skills.

Another thing that stood out is a little more technical, but it has to do with how the solo parts are handed out in El Sistema Orchestras. If you watch some videos of the El Sistema orchestras you'll notice how big each instrument section is. I wondered how they divide the parts to decide who plays solos? Well it turns out that everyone gets a chance to play the solo parts in rehearsals, and then whoever plays it best or is most comfortable on it gets to play it in concert. Why is this important? For one, there's no need to explain to a ten year old why he/she isn't playing the solo in the concert because the child has gotten the chance to play it at rehearsal and also can see that someone is doing it better. And second and most important, since every player has had the chance to prepare the solos to play them in rehearsal, everyone feels like an asset. This is key to El Sistema: every child must feel like an asset. As Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu says (but he attributes the quote to Mother Teresa) in his TEDPrize speech:

"The most miserable and tragic thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no one".

So, of course the El Sistema orchestras are competitve, but everyone is expected to perform to the best of their abilities, leaving no one to feel like they aren't an essential part of the puzzle. Here I am with with three of the El Sistema graduates Alfredo, Jorge and Mariester.

One of our faculty members Maestro Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and teaches at the New England Conservatory. He is also a well-known author and speaker. His book The Art of Possibility has sold close to a million copies and is translated into 17 languages. During class last Friday Maestro Zander revealed to us that he's been invited to the White House next Friday where he has been granted a few moments to speak with President Obama privately. I don't know what he will talk to the President about but when and if he tells us, I'll tell you!

This next week's curriculum focuses on early childhood music, strategic planning and monitoring and evaluation. These are all big words to me, as my training is primarily in playing the bassoon. But we have great lecturers coming to speak to us and I look foward to sharing with you how it goes.

And lastly, Jose Antonio Abreu, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra will be in Toronto the week of October 26, 2009. Abreu will be receiving one of Canada's most prestigious music prizes, the Glenn Gould prize. I'll blog more about it soon but for now please check out the website for this weeklong event.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

What are you doing in Boston?!!!

So that is the question I have had trouble answering in under 10 minutes all summer long! Here then is how I ended up in Beantown and what I'm doing here.

In May 2009 I was still considering pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts in bassoon performance at a couple of schools in the USA. I just wasn't sure if I could get enough funds to do it. So I waited.

I was hanging out in my hometown (Ottawa) doing...well...nothing, when I got an email from Sue Heineman, the principal bassoonist of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. It was about the Abreu Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory. I had been looking for this kind of program for a while. In fact, in all my doctorate application essays I had mentioned the Venezuelan youth education program El Sistema, saying it would be great to have something similar in the USA and Canada (I am Canadian). So here I was, looking at a brand new program that did exactly that. I couldn't believe my luck. From the El Sistema USA website:

"… the first initiative of el Sistema USA — a one-year postgraduate certificate program for accomplished young musicians who desire to become ambassadors of El Sistema and who are committed to developing it outside of Venezuela. Housed at New England Conservatory, Abreu Fellows will spend a year studying between Boston and Caracas, and leave with the tools to return to their communities to teach the El Sistema model."

That was good enough for me. And so, here I am in Boston.

What is El Sistema? Started in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, it is the common name given to the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela. Government funded and using the symphony orchestra as their vehicle, they provide music education to kids of all backgrounds all over the country.

Watch this great video explaining how El Sistema got to Boston:

And now the why. Why I am I doing this program? I lock myself in a room for hours on end to be a bassoonist right? Well yes, that's true...but

Two reasons in particular made this program worth it for me: under-served youths and symphony orchestras. I've seen many concerts in North America with great orchestras, conductors and soloists but unfortunately there are often empty seats. It's become obvious to me, as I'm sure it has to many others, that more could be done to draw a more diverse and younger audience. How to do that?

Well how about we invest in our youth. Let's make music education accesible to all youths no matter where they're from. Let's make music education a right, not a privilege. This way youths can reap the benefits of music and hopefully when they're older they will become concert-goers, musicians, stage-hands, arts administrators, patrons and aficionados.

Through this program I was offered the chance to hopefully make a positive difference for under-served youths and symphony orchestras. It was difficult to turn down.

Now it's not all doom and gloom for the orchestra world! Besides the fact that symphony orchestras deliver a fantastic product, the El Sistema phenomenon has caught on all over the world and youth orchestra programs often targeting under-served communities are already up and running in Los Angeles, Miami, Baltimore, New York City, Ottawa and more. I simply hope to help continue the trend.

To see the possibilities watch the top youth orchestra in Venezuela perform Leonard Bernstein's Mambo, led by Gustavo Dudamel, an El Sistema graduate and the new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

Not too shabby eh/huh?

I'll be blogging about my experiences all year, so please come back and feel free to participate by leaving comments and/or questions. I feel that this type of project benefits us all, so don't be shy!

Imagine a world with millions of kids playing music...

Thanks for reading.