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.

1 comment:

  1. Dantes,

    You have to take into cosideration a huge difference between Venezuela and North America. Venezuelans are driven by affiliation whereas here, people are driven by achievement. That's why Jose Antonio Abreu emphasizes the feeling of community, belonging and entitlement to achieve excellence.