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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.