Monday, November 30, 2009


El Sistema Venezuela is garnering a lot of attention these days, in part due to its most famous graduate, Gustavo Dudamel, being the hottest young conductor in the world right now. The spotlight on El Sistema Venezuela can also be attributed to the sheer magnitude of the program: more than 2.5 million youths have gone through the program and it currently serves more than than 300,000 kids. But one thing that is less often mentioned is that El Sistema has been around 35 years and it didn't always look the way it does today. Indeed, when the founder of El Sistema, Jose Antonio Abreu, conducted the first rehearsal in 1975 there were only 11 kids, in a garage!

Here in North America programs meant to enrich youths' lives have been around for even longer. Of course not all of them have been music programs, but there are some. The past two weeks saw us tour six such sites in Boston: The Boston Arts Academy, Youth and Family Enrichment Services, The Boston City Singers, The Conservatory Lab Charter School, The YMCA and the Boston Children's Chorus. Some aspects of these programs resemble some El Sistema Venezuela aspects and others less so. While visiting these sites and working with their students, I tried to keep in mind how important it will be (when I'm working next year) to combine the best aspects of not only El Sistema Venezuela, but also the best aspects of these North American community programs that have been around for many years. Doing this, I believe, will be key in taking a system that works in one part of the globe and adapting it in a different culture and part of the globe.

The Boston Arts Academy, located just across the street from Fenway Park, is a public high school charged with the mission of being a beacon for artistic and academic innovation. It reminded me of my high school "Ecole Secondaire De La Salle" in Ottawa because of all the arts programs it has: music, dance, theatre and visual arts. I chose the video below because it shows peer-to-peer mentorship happening within the classroom.

In El Sistema programs there is more of an emphasis on group lessons than on private lessons so the students have to help each other in order to advance. There is a sense of playing and striving together that enhances the social aspect of being in the orchestra.

Youth and Family Enrichment Services Inc. (YOFES) is a non-profit organization with the intention of "attacking the root causes of poverty, health and social disparities". The music wing of the organization is called Open Access to Music Education for Children (OAMEC). YOFES serves mostly the Haitian community in greater Boston but is open to anybody. I asked Geralde Gabeau their Director how she balances teaching Haitian students their own music as well as classical music.

She responded that doing both was key to getting the families and community involved. They use the Suzuki string method, a classical method, but they always play other kinds of music as well: church music, Christmas music and especially Haitian folk music. They often have the audience sing along to the Haitian music, which the parents and families love.

Above: the fellows, with our YOFES host, Geralde Gabeau, in the centre.

In this video below, the kids are playing a popular Haitian song called "Haiti Cherie".

An orchestra is simply one large instrument and is therefore capable of playing any kind of music. In El Sistema Venezuela, the repetoire they play includes Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler, but they also play lots of world music including plenty of Latin music. An El Sistema program will always have diversity in its members so there should also be diversity and flexibility in its repertoire and presentation. The community must feel the orchestra belongs to them and vice-versa.
In this video above of El Sistema's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra you will see: an orchestra playing a mambo, their conductor Gustavo Dudamel who is just as adept doing Beethoven or Latin music, a young, diverse and participatory audience and musicians having a blast. Imagine what the young kids in OAMEC might be doing in 15 years! To help bring more awareness to YOFES, the fellows have agreed to participate in their monthly parent meeting in January 2010. Pictures and videos to come. The Boston City Singers (BCS), founded in 1995, "unites children and families from all neighbourhoods, ethnic and socio-economic groups through the power of music". All these organizations' missions sound very El Sistema-like to me...The BCS is a choir program serving about 300 youths ages 5 to 18. They also have a group string lessons. At this visit we participated in their rehearsal and spent some time teaching and demonstrating our instruments.

In this photo one of our fellows, Katie Wyatt, teaches three BCS students a song on their violins:

The string program at BCS differs somewhat from an El Sistema approach in that the progression is slower and incremental, whereas in El Sistema they wouldn't hesitate to throw a new player into orchestra and hope for the best. I think the BCS way is effective in building a solid base from more advanced playing, but then again to pick up a violin and be playing, the next week, in a symphony orchestra can be very exciting and motivating, but not as beneficial for individual advancement.

Looking ahead to next year, the key for me would be figuring out some kind of balance, so any kid can play in an ensemble as soon as possible while still getting the proper individual instruction to have a solid base upon which to advance. I would like to avoid the process of a student taking private lessons for a number of years, then auditioning for one of the few spots in the local youth orchestra and not getting accepted. Can we really afford to deny a kid who wants to play in a youth orchestra because "there's not enough space"? In my hometown of Ottawa I could have tried out for one of six basketball teams and each had several different levels of competition. Surely in the youth music world we can make things more accessible.

The Greater Boston YMCA is located right next to the New England Conservatory. It has been around since 1913. Now for a little trivia: where was North America's first YMCA? Answer at the end of the blog.

Our visit to the Y brought back many memories for me. I grew up at the Y in Ottawa, taking swimming lessons from a young age, playing basketball, working as a camp counsellor and finally lifeguarding and teaching swimming.

At this particular Y we visited, there wasn't a music program so as a group the fellows went into the after-school program and led the kids in our own arrangement of When the Saints Go Marching In. The point of this visit was to initiate some kids to music, practice group teaching and learn about the YMCA's after-school programs. The YMCA has partnerships with all kinds of community organizations so as far as potential partnerships with a music program go, the Y could be a good fit.

Here, fellow Dan Berkowitz (on trombone) leads the fellows in teaching The Saints. We then performed it with the kids for their parents in the lobby of the Y. Performing as much as possible, for anyone who will listen, including your own colleagues is a key trait of El Sistema so I'm glad we had a chance to do that at the Y, especially since most of the kids we worked with had no musical training at all. They all happily participated and when it came time to try the instruments they went nuts!

It was a great visit and I hope that if they enjoyed their time with us, they will go home to their parents and demand music lessons. I don't think it's enough to just play for young kids. As musicians I think we should be doing everything we can to actually get them playing the instruments and playing in ensembles.

Every kid wants to be a bassoonist:

The Boston Children's Chorus (BCC), led by Anthony Trecek-King, was founded in 2003. Their annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Concert was broadcast nationally on ABC in 2009. Three things stood out to me with this program. The first was the diversity of their students. This is by design. Although they do target youths from lower-income communities, they want their program to be include all races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds. Of those three, it's usually hardest for kids of diverse socio-economic backgrounds to mingle with each other, so the BCC strives to bridge this gap. Their accessibility also stood out to me. They will take pretty much any kid ages 7 to 18 who wants to sing. This belief that any child has the ability to sing is very important as it turns their choir into a more inclusive organization. And the last thing that struck me: they are high-achieving. Anthony emphasizes musical literacy and sight-reading, the students often learn their music at home with nothing but a pitch fork and their performance standards are high. They perform up to 45 concerts a year, including world tours! During our seminar Anthony said that music programs for social change must be high achieving to actually affect change. I think that is absolutely true and will keep it in mind next year.
In this video, Anthony leads the advanced BCC choir (there are nine choirs in all) in a sight-singing exercise where they must sing a given note based on his hand signals. They use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale and therefore must be able to sing any interval in any direction. At the end of the video you will see that Anthony checks their last sung note with the piano to make sure finished where they started and they're right on. This really is quite impressive. Watch:
I also had the chance to do one extra unofficial site visit. Last weekend, which was American Thanksgiving weekend, I was back home in Ottawa. I dropped in on a rehearsal at Ottawa's own El Sistema-inspired program The Leading Note Foundation, which has been around since September 2007. There was a camera crew filming the rehearsal as part of a documentary which will be out at a later date. Back in September when I volunteered at the Leading Note Foundation I registered some of the kids that were already playing in orchestra. OK, so they weren't playing everything perfectly, but that's kind of just how it works in El Sistema; they throw you in the deep end and you have to try to swim. When you say I can't, they simply tell you yes, you can. Of course that's where peer mentorship, group lessons and the fun and social aspects come in handy. Hanging out with Tina Fideski, Executive Director of The Leading Note Foundation:

In this video the orchestra plays an arrangement of Pachelbel's Canon conducted by Margaret Munro Tobolowska, who plays cello in the National Arts Centre Orchestra. You don't see it in the video but before they start playing Margaret encouraged the students to move when they play and love the instrument. In short, you gotta feel it! If you've been reading my blog, you already know: El Sistema means passion. If not, where's the fun? The Leading Note Foundation is in good hands with their Executive Director Tina Fideski and will be getting bigger and bigger with time. I'm glad El Sistema's arrived in my hometown. So if all of these social change music programs in Boston and around the world already exist, what makes El Sistema any different? Our trip to Venezuela is in February but as for right now, besides the sheer magnitude of it, I personally see three things being key to El Sistema. One, Intensity: kids attend El Sistema as many as six days a week. Two: High Standards, I think that chasing excellence all the time will give most youth tools to do whatever he or she wants in life. And three: Fun. The El Sistema graduates that came to speak with us in October emphasized this. You might have to push a child to go play music at first but if the child's having a good time they'll never want to leave. There certainly is more to the success of El Sistema and I'm looking forward to the Venezuela residency to learn everything I can't be taught in a classroom, but I believe that having intensity, high standards and fun all at the same time is a big part of it. Do you agree or disagree with what I'm saying? Do I make any sense at all? Do you have a question? I'd love to know. Please post comments below. Thanks for reading. Trivia Answer: Montreal, on November 25, 1851.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Week with the Baltimore Symphony OrchKids Program: DAYS 3 and 4

Welcome back to my second blog on our residency in Baltimore with OrchKids Program. We continued to prepare our side-by-side concert in the afternoons with the OrchKids and spent the mornings and evenings in various meetings and discussion groups.

Highlights for me included participating in a speaking event with Katie Wyatt and Lorrie Heagy (two other fellows) organized by Dan Trahey, the OrchKids director. It was a low-key event, just speaking to a group of hotel guests about El Sistema and the Abreu Fellows Program. It was a chance for me to work on my public speaking and answer some questions. I have to say, being in roundtable discussions everyday during class helps with this kind of event. I felt comfortable and I'd like to think we peaked the interest of our guests.

On Thursday night we had a short discussion with Marin Alsop, the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Even though it was just a half hour before her concert she seemed very relaxed and personable. Regarding the programs we'll be starting ourselves next year, she encouraged us to find a community we know, some friends we trust and "just do it!".

I asked her about how to get other symphony orchestras involved. She responded that it was probably more important to start these instrumental programs for youth as soon as possible, with or without orchestras, since big orchestra management tends to move and evolve slowly. She added that parterning with smaller orchestras, where the players may have more time to teach, is a great way to involve an orchestra in El Sistema-like programs. I agree. El Sistema in Venezuela exists in the big cities and in the mountains. It's not good enough if it's only accesible to some.

And now here's another inside look at the real highlight of the week, the OrchKids.

In this video, David Malek (another fellow) and I chat with two bright students in the program.

Remember the "Tocar Y Luchar" medallions from El Sistema Venezuela that Roberto Zambrano gave us? Well the OrchKids receive a similar one, that they wear when they play concerts. They are blue and white, the colors of Unicef. In ceremonial fashion each fellow was presented with our own OrchKids medallion by one of the kids. On the back of the medal it says "Planting Seeds for a Bright Future". Here's a video of me receiving my mine.

The Baltimore Symphony is doing great things to get involved in their community. The OrchKids have had the chance to not only attend the symphony but to also sit on stage during rehearsals AND conduct the orchestra. Most of us will never get this opportunity. Kudos to the Balitmore Symphony. In this picture, Marin Alsop is conducting the OrchKids at our concert on Friday. Mark Churchill the El Sistema USA's director is also playing with the kids in the background. Students from the Baltimore School for the Arts joined us as well.

The picture below is me participating in Bucket Band. For the kids this class is fun and challenging. They have to be able to play piano (softly), forte (loudly), on different parts of the bucket, recognize the different sounds the bucket can make, play with the drumsticks together or alternating, speak and play at the same time...all together as a group. It's hard. I have to admit, I messed up a few times. But this is the standard to which the teachers hold their students. OrchKids is fun, but the bar is set high, as it should be.

Here's a video of the last portion of Friday's concert. In it the OrchKids are being led in a Samba Percussion number, by Jo Wills of World in Motion, an educational percussion group based in London. You can see some of the fellows drumming as well. Mentoring and peer-to-peer is always happening. After the concert Dan Trahey addressed the kids in the audience and told them that if they want to be in OrchKids to simply ask their teachers. He added that "all of you can do what these kids are doing, you can all play music". Hopefully they've recruited a few new members.

OrchKids jamming out in their T-shirts and medallions:

Hanging out post-concert with OrchKids, Christine, Raffi and Dan:

Fellows back at Logan Airport waiting for the bus:

This week we're back in Boston for more seminars and discussion. In addition we will be doing some site tours here in Boston, including playing a concert at a local YMCA. There are rumors of another residency later on this year in Los Angeles with the LA Philharmonic's Youth Orchestra LA program. I'll keep you posted.

For more pics and videos on our week in Baltimore please visit the other fellows' blogs.

Questions and comments on my blog are always welcome.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Week With The Baltimore Symphony OrchKids Program: DAYS 1 and 2

This week is our first residency of the Abreu Fellows program. To go along with the stuff we learn everyday in class, these residencies are a chance for us to see El Sistema-inspired programs up close. Come check out life inside the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra OrchKids program.

OrchKids is the Baltimore's Symphony's program but it takes place at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary school in West Baltimore, about ten minutes by car from the Josesph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall where the Baltimore Symphony performs. The program is open to any child who goes to Lockerman-Bundy Elementary from pre-K to 2nd grade. They plan to add a grade to the program each year. There is no audition process, rather just a comittment from the child to show up. The program is free of charge for all the kids. It runs Monday to Thursday for 3 hours a day after school and on Saturdays field trips are organized.

Curriculum includes musicianship classes, group lessons, ensembles and "bucket band". The instruments offered are violin, cello, bass, clarinet, flute, trumpet, french horn, trombone, euphonium and percussion. As the program expands and the kids improve they will add more instruments in order to have enough to form a complete symphony orchestra, wind ensemble and string ensemble.

Our residency consists of teaching, observing and documentation. The week will culminate in a performance this Friday. To my horror, I've been asked to play saxophone (after a 10 year hiatus) in this concert.

Pictures and videos can explain much better than I can, so here's a more visual look at what's been going on after our first two days at OrchKids.

The school where OrchKids takes place:

Across the street from the school:

Unfortunately this is a familiar site in West Baltimore. About half the houses on any given street are boarded up. On Tuesday as we pulled up to the school for the first time a drug deal went down at the end of the block. For many of the kids in the program, this is their neighbourhood, but they cannot play outside after school because it's too dangerous. OrchKids gives them a safe place to hang out after school. And on top of that, they are there learning how to play music.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet some of the OrchKids:

Their comfort interacting with each other and adults is something that the teachers work on everyday. Being respectful, confident and social is impressed upon these kids daily. At the end of the video you'll see Nick, the site coordinator making sure things stay calm and orderly. I have to say this all pays off. Every one of these kids are thrilled to come up to you all smiles, introduce themselves, shake your hand and look at you in the eyes as they do it all.

The kids in their bucket band class:

This sort of class is essential since hitting a bucket with drumsticks is easily done and produces a sound right away. Because of this the kids can start playing as a group very quickly while honing their rhythmic skills, memory skills and musicianship. Ensemble playing starts as soon as possible in El Sistema as they want the kids to have that community feel as soon as they start the program.

Here's an interview I did with Mr. Roosevelt Grandy whose son is in OrchKids. You can see how much the program means to him. In fact, Mr. Grandy, who is a professional drummer will join us on Friday to play our concert alongside his son. Thank you to you Mr. Grandy for speaking with me.

Fun is a big part of OrchKids but music demands a lot of focus, discipline and concentration so recess is sometimes part of the daily activities . They are pre-k to second grade, after all. In this video below they've been given a few minutes to run around in the playground and now Dan, the OrchKids director is preparing them to return to rehearsal. Notice how he instills in them a sense of respect for their instrument and a sense that what they're doing at OrchKids is something really special. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, making kids feel like they are special is at the core of El Sistema.

In rehearsal for our concert this Friday:

The instruments are provided for free, but the kids can't take them home just yet.

Also in rehearsal:
You'll notice that the fellows are sitting in the sections with the kids just as if we were in the program too. This peer-to-peer mentorship is also a strong component of El Sistema. The more advanced students help the less advanced ones which teaches them responsability and teamwork. And the younger ones look up to the older kids as examples of what they can become, in this way the younger kids have role models in front of them everyday not just on television or in magazines.

Between the end of the regular school day and the start of OrchKids the kids have a snack in the school cafeteria. Lockerman-Bundy is a Title 1 School which means they have enough students whose families qualify as low-income to receive government funds. These funds often go towards breakfast, lunch and snacks. Here they are hanging out with me and Jonathan, the other Canadian in the Abreu Fellows Program:

Our stay in Baltimore continues for the next two days. We will be meeting with Marin Alsop, the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She is a big part of OrchKids and in fact donated 100,000$ of her own money to the program. We will also attend the BSO concert on Thursday night. The week will end with a marching band/percussion concert on Friday with the Fellows, Orchkids kids and teachers. I continue to look foward to working with these students who show nothing but the greatest potential.

As always if you have other questions or comments about our time in Baltimore please feel free to express yourself in the comment section at the bottom of this blog.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next blog which should be out by this weekend.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Leadership, Front Page News and...Socialism?

Leaders, leaders and more leaders.

Everyday in this program we have seminars led by fabulous people who are experts in their respective fields. While they inspire with their credentials, what I especially admire about them is that they are leaders. They support what the Abreu Fellows Program is about and I believe they have come to speak to us in part because they have taken it upon themselves to see that this whole thing succeeds. Let me tell you about some of these guys.

One of our first seminars was on leadership, with Michael Melcher, who is a leader in the field of human talent development as well as a speaker and author. He helped us to define what kind of leaders we are and what our leadership style is. He then challenged us with a final assignment that is to guide us throughout the year as our leadership brand develops.

Mr. Melcher and I:

If you haven't heard of the Baltimore Symphony ORCHkids program you must know about it. It is directed by Dan Trahey with Nick Skinner as the site co-ordinator. These guys are leaders. With support from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Maestra Marin Alsop, they have established a stellar music education program for pre-K to third graders at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School, in a city where 33% of residents don't finish high school. These guys are tireless workers. In an effort to get their program to where it is today they've done everything from boardroom presentations to re-painting the name of the school themselves. I highly recommend you check out this short video about ORCHkids. We will be visiting their site in two weeks and I am slated to do some playing and speaking while I'm there. More on my visit to Baltimore soon.

During seminar from left to right: Garett, Dan Trahey, Roberto Zambrano and Abreu Fellow Alvaro Rodas:

Roberto Zambrano is a leader. A member of the first generation of musicians in El Sistema, Maestro Zambrano is now Music Director of the Acarigua-Araure Youth Symphony Orchestra and Regional Coordinator of El Sistema in Venezuela. He was with us during all of week two as a mentor and resource for basically everything we were studying. He started off the week by giving each fellow the medal that kids in El Sistema receive after playing their first concert. Folks, this medal is a big deal in Venezuela, so I'm honored to have received one. On the back of the medal is engraved "Tocar y Luchar" which means "to play and to struggle". You can imagine how a kid feels receiving it for the first time...

Mr. Zambrano and I, "Tocar y Luchar"

Ben Cameron and Greg Kandel were also with us. Ben, who is Program Director for the Arts for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation gave us a sobering talk on the state of the arts in the USA, but then also gave us some of the tools needed to help art regain a more prominent role in society. Greg Kandel is a partner in the consulting firm Management Consultants for the Arts and instructed us on strategic planning and dynamics on founding an organization. The assignment he gave us is not an easy one, but I feel it will benefit it me in the long run because it will be applicable in the real world.

On the musical side of things we've explored four music education methods for young children: Dalcroze Eurythmics, Kodaly Method, Orff and Suzuki. These classes were all important because next year when working in our programs we may have to decide what our curriculum will look like. For young children this is very delicate and important. I went through Suzuki growing up so I knew about it already. The other three were somewhat newer to me. The Kodaly Method videos of 1st graders sight-singing better than I can was definitely food for thought...

We're also learning a little about all the other instruments. Here's me (photo only ;)) playing Don Juan on viola on my first day of lessons:

Since we're going to Venezuela for two months next semester I've been learning as much as possible about the culture while in Boston. This includes Spanish lessons at ridiculous hours of the morning, learning salsa and eating arepas, a staple of Venezuelan cuisine.

Week two was capped off with the Boston Globe featuring the Abreu Fellows Program on their front page. Here's the article. The article is very nice and I was happy that we were front page news; my roommate Stan "The Man" was in the front page picture! I did find some of the readers' comments a little interesting, although the vast majority were positive. I find it puzzling that one would politicize a program that encourages kids to play music by calling it socialism or affirmative action. But that's just me. I think it's simply an investment in youth through music. In Texas the law says (click on Resource Center then Legislative Updates then "What the Law Says") fine arts must be offered in all public schools from kindergarten to grade 12. They believe it should be that way in order for a child to receive a "well-balanced and meaningful education."

Well duh. What's the big deal?

Calling all leaders, let's get on with this movement.