Sunday, November 21, 2010

Luck, In Launching The Atlanta Music Project

The Atlanta Music Project Logo
After the Abreu Fellows graduated, my plan was to continue blogging as the Atlanta Music Project started coming together. I thought it'd be interesting for people to come along for the ride of the developments and ups-and-downs of launching an El Sistema program outside of Venezuela. Well obviously, those blogs never happened and I'd like to blame it on the fact that I was just too busy trying to start the program.

By now you may know that the Atlanta Music Project, the El Sistema-inspired program that I co-founded with our board chair Al Meyers, was successfully launched on October 4, 2010 in Southwest Atlanta, in partnership with the City Of Atlanta Office Of Cultural Affairs. I don't want to bore you with the all the details involved with starting a non-profit. Obviously it's a lot of work and requires a great team, which we have. But what I feel really helped us - and I'd be kidding myself if I didn't admit it - was quite simply, luck. A lot of it. Here's just a few examples from many.

As the new Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, started his term in January 2010, he announced plans to re-open all the recreation centers so kids would have somewhere to hang out after school. In July 2010, I got a phone call from Camille Love, the Director of the City Of Atlanta's Office Of Cultural Affairs. She wanted the Atlanta Music Project to be one of the after-school programs taking place at the Mayor's recreation centers, starting in September 2010. The Atlanta Music Project now runs out of the Office Of Cultural Affairs' Gilbert House, where we're given the space, administration staff and infrastructure to run our classes. It's a great partnership, that partly comes down to luck and great timing, because if it wasn't for the Mayor and Ms. Love's vision, the Atlanta Music Project may not have launched this quickly.
Me, Camille Love (Director of Cultural Affairs), Al Meyers (Co-Founder and Board Chair of AMP) at a press conference where Mayor Kasim Reed announced the launch of the "Culture Club: An After-School Experience".
The Atlanta Music Project is the provider of music classes in this after-school program.


Here's another one. In April of 2010, the 2010 Abreu Fellows left Caracas to go back to the United States. The first leg of the trip was from Caracas to Atlanta, so I opted to spend our spring break in Atlanta, where I would keep trying to get things going with the Atlanta Music Project. Showered, but unshaven and in need of a haircut, I rented a car at the airport and drove straight to the Woodruff Arts Center, home of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where students of the Talent Development Program were performing.

Students of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony's Talent Development Program at the Gilbert House, giving a performance and demonstration of string instruments to the students of the
Atlanta Music Project.


At the reception for this concert, Melanie Darby, who is on our board of advisors, introduced me to Dr. Stanley Romanstein, the new President of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I asked Dr. Romanstein if we could meet so I could talk to him about my plans for El Sistema in Atlanta. The meeting went great and at the end he asked "So, what do you need?" On the advice of my Abreu Fellows Program mentor, Don Jones, I was prepared for this question. I asked Dr. Romanstein for office space within the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra offices (I was tired of spending my days at coffees shops for their wifi and my evenings going to FedEx to print documents, spending money I didn't have). His exact response was "done." I was actually kind of confused for a second because I had prepared a bunch of reasons why I the office space was needed, but I never had to explain. I believe we were lucky that Dr. Romanstein, who is a former Executive Director of the Baltimore School For The Arts and a champion of music education, joined the Atlanta Symphony literally a few weeks before I arrived in Atlanta from Venezuela. Dr. Romanstein and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have been strong supporters of our program from the beginning and I couldn't be more grateful for their support. The timing couldn't have been better.

 In February 2010, I went to TED2010 with some of the 2010 Abreu Fellows. I blogged about performing on stage, meeting Will Smith and Sheryl Crow etc. What I didn't tell you then, because I didn't know where it would lead, is that on the last night I walked into the elevator at our hotel and met two TEDsters who happened to work for Coca Cola in Atlanta. They had just seen me perform with the Abreu Fellows on the TED Stage and so they knew all about El Sistema, El Sistema USA and the Abreu Fellows Program. I told them I was planning El Sistema in Atlanta and asked if there was a Coca Cola Foundation I could apply to for funds. They put me in touch with the Coca-Cola Foundation and I met with them later in April. The foundation folks said it sounds like a good idea, but please come back when you have more traction. Fair enough, but not the answer you want to hear when what you need to get traction is, funding. But with the City Of Atlanta partnership developing, we were finally able to secure funding from Coca-Cola that essentially enabled us to launch the program. The Coca-Cola company is still our biggest sponsor to date and I'm thankful for them having taken a leap of faith to support our music for social change initiative. To see all our sponsors and collaborators, please visit this page and this page on the Atlanta Music Project website.

The Abreu Fellows performing at TED2010. 


The City Of Atlanta Office Of Cultural Affairs, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Coca-Cola Company are three of our partners, without whom, the Atlanta Music Project couldn't have launched. When I talk about us being lucky, people often tell me it's not luck but the result of hard work. I certainly believe that is true. We have a board, volunteers and enthusiasts who work tirelessly on our behalf. But I think the two biggest factors in our successful launch are that we have a good mission and we've been lucky. So far, no one has told me (at least not to my face!), that what we're doing here is not both needed and positive. I believe that what El Sistema has done in Venezuela and what the Abreu Fellows Program has become in the United States, is extremely credible, and we at the Atlanta Music Project are just a small part of a huge movement to save lives with music. With all these elements supporting us, time and time again, my planning team and I found ourselves in the right place at the right time, with good fortune that helped advance our launch.

AMP students in a trombone group lesson with AMP teaching artist Ed Nicholson.


In the end it is most important that our luck as a planning team has found its way to the community. Our students now have the opportunity to learn an instrument, sing in a choir, learn musicianship and play in orchestra, right in their own neighbourhood everyday of the week. They're great kids and I'll tell you a little bit about them in my next blog. Comments, concerns and questions about my blog or the Atlanta Music Project are always appreciated. Thank you for reading!

Check us out at www.atlantamusicproject.org.


Monday, June 28, 2010

THE ABREU FELLOWS GRADUATE! WHAT NEXT?!!

Graduation Pic

Graduation Day. Just like that, a whole school year has flown by and my Abreu Fellowship colleagues and I have graduated. And we're now on to the reality of leading El Sistema programs outside of Venezuela.

For our graduation the New England Conservatory arranged a great little ceremony and reception for us. In attendance were many of the seminar leaders we had had over the year as well as NEC board members, faculty and staff. I enjoyed seeing both of my mentors in the audience: NEC viola faculty Martha Katz and NEC Vice-President for Institutional Development, Don Jones. The superb Marcus Santos, who led our Samba percussion workshop in January also showed up. And Martha, our spanish teacher was present with her new 3-week old baby boy. Oh, and how could I forget Anna Verghese and Amy Novogratz from the TED Prize! It feels like only yesterday they were interviewing me for the fellowship.

With the Amy Novogratz and Anna Verghese of the TED Prize production team

The ceremony opened with  Katie Wyatt and I playing a couple of movements from Bach's First Suite for Cello, and Katie encored with a beautiful rendition of a song we heard many, many, many, many times in Venezuela, aptly titled "Venezuela". I didn't do nearly enough concertizing this year so when we were offered the chance to perform at the graduation I jumped at it.

The two Abreu Fellows doing El Sistema in the South. Katie Wyatt in Durham and myself in Atlanta.

As this was my fourth post-secondary graduation, I selfishly decided I had earned the right to dress the way I wanted. I wore khakis, a collared shirt and on top of that a t-shirt that was hand-made and given to me by one of the mothers of a child from the nucleo in Acarigua. It read: "YO SOY100% FESNOJIV" (I am 100% El Sistema), and below that were the Venzuelan flag and Canadian flag side-by-side. I thought it was appropriate attire and nobody complained (to my face).

Following the music we began our group presentation, very similar to the one we did in Los Angeles, basically reflecting on our time in Venezuela through anecdotes, stories, pictures and videos. I again told the story of 10-year old Carlos in Acarigua, who, nine days after I gave him his first bassoon lesson, was thrown into the nucleo orchestra to play Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture in concert. It's a great story that represents what El Sistema is about in so many ways. I discuss this in more detail in my blog post on our time in Acarigua, Venezuela.

I have to say, after doing this presentation for Dr. Abreu in Caracas, in Los Angeles for 200 professional music educators, administrators and musicians, we had it down pretty good. I am particularly happy with having had so many opportunities to do public speaking throughout the year as I know it will come in very handy during the coming years doing this work. I'm still more comfortable playing the bassoon in public but compared to last October when just starting the fellowship, speaking in public is now a lot easier. In fact  I quite enjoy it and would be lying if I said it wasn't fun. It doesn't hurt to have something so inspiring as El Sistema to talk about. It practically pitches itself!

Our presentation was followed by the presentation of the Abreu Fellows Program certificates, a reception in the office of NEC President, Tony Woodcock and tons of pictures.

At the post-graduation reception with El Sistema USA Director Mark Churchill and El Sistema USA Managing Director, Stephanie Scherpf.

AND NOW FOR NEXT YEAR...

This year of training went by very fast and has come to an end for us, the first class of Abreu Fellows, but the journey of playing our part as ambassadors of El Sistema has really just begun.

I should mention that I'm thrilled to learn that 10 new Abreu Fellows have been selected to form the second class. We've met quite a few of them already and read their biographies. As you will see soon when they are officially announced, they are a stellar group and I look forward to getting to know them better and working alongside them in the future. Remember, Abreu's TED Prize wish was to train 50 fellows, so this program will be around for at least the next four years and hopefully more. If you're thinking of applying, don't wait until the fifth year because it's going to get harder and harder to get accepted as more and more people apply for the fellowship.


Abreu Fellow and my "El Sistema in the South" partner in crime, Katie Wyatt, performs at the Abreu Fellows graduation ceremony.

As for the the first class of Fellows, we're taking our training and experiences to the real world. After spending the year searching for job opportunities, being recruited, doing interviews and tons  of travelling, we'll be playing leading roles in El Sistema program all over the United States. Here's how it's breaking out:

Lorrie Heagy is returning  to Juneau, Alaska to initiate Juneau Music Matters, Dan Berkowitz is Manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's YOLA, Christine Witkowski is leading YOLA's second site called YOLA at HOLA (Heart of Los Angeles), Alvaro Rodas is founding the Corona Youth Music Project in Queens, NY, David Malek and Rebecca Levi are co-directing a program in Boston at the Conservatory Lab Charter School, my main man Stanford Thompson is director of Tune-Up Philly, a program of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, and Katie Wyatt is executive director of KidzNotes in Durham, NC. As for me, I will head to down to Atlanta as executive director of the Atlanta Music Project.

The Atlanta Music Project will launch its pilot year in late 2010 in an underserved community in Atlanta.  I have a great team in Atlanta and we've been working hard all year to get this program off the ground. It was hard to balance learning a bunch of new skills in the fellowship while applying them literally at the same time to a real world project.  Several times I found myself in Venezuela working late into the night on the Atlanta Music Project. Balancing the fellowship curriculum, the Venezuelan residency and working on next year's project was a handful  but at the same time it was exhilarating to be able to watch something spectacular in Venezuela during the day and then go back to the hotel at night and immediately apply what I had seen to a real-life project. I can assure you that all the other fellows were doing the same routine as me this year in order to have their programs launch on time too. El Sistema is very nice and all but no one ever said it was easy. A few times I asked myself what the hell I had signed up for. This year was a steep learning curve and sometimes I feel like we're all crazy to be jumping into this. But then again everyone thought Dr. Abreu was crazy too...

You can read all about the Atlanta Music Project on our website and you visit our page on http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1833375224/the-atlanta-music-project-music-for-social-change-0 to learn how you can represent the Atlanta Music Project by buying t-shirts, medallions, DVDs etc. We're also on Twitter and Facebook where you can follow our developments daily.

The Abreu Fellows back at the beginning of the fellowship in October 2009.

For me, the best thing about the Abreu Fellows Program is that it has given me the opportunity to engage in something that I felt was in me all along but was going to be hard to manifest itself from me simply playing the bassoon. I've always been sort of impatient and had low tolerance for injustice and inequality but I felt I couldn't do much about that by simply playing in orchestra, and this always bothered me. But thanks to the Abreu Fellowship, I now have a way to use music as a vehicle for something even greater.

Towards the end of our first meeting with Dr. Abreu in Caracas, he began to thank everyone for helping make the Abreu Fellows Program come true. Then, he sort of jokingly thanked himself for thinking of the idea of the Abreu Fellows Program. Later that day, one of Dr. Abreu's aids mentioned to us that that was the first time he'd ever heard Dr. Abreu give himself credit for any of the work he has done. I think he's right to thank himself, and I thank him too. Nobel Peace Prize for Dr. Abreu?

As I said, the real fun is only just beginning for my colleagues and I. Of course I will continue blogging about all things Atlanta Music Project, El Sistema and Abreu Fellows for (hopefully) many more years to come. Thank you for following my blog this year and please stay tuned for more!

Back the Atlanta Music Project on Kickstarter!




div>

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

El Sistema in the USA: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra OrchKids Program





Back in May 2010 each Abreu Fellow interned at an El Sistema-inspired program somewhere outside of Venezuela. The idea was to experience how a program took its understanding of El Sistema concepts and applied them to their own community. The fellows interned at programs in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Scotland and myself in Baltimore with the OrchKids program.

I arrived on the scene on May 16th, the night 60 Minutes aired their segment on Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil's Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program. I watched the segment with Dan Trahey, program director and Eli Worth, program conductor. Dan was pacing beforehand but I think he was quite thrilled with the outcome. I  also thought it was a good segment. But since they were focusing on the spread of El Sistema in the USA I just wished they would had mentioned El Sistema USA or the Abreu Fellows. They did have a short clip of Mark Churchill (El Sistema USA/Abreu Fellows Program Director) speaking but only referred to him as "the head of El Sistema in the USA."  It's a curious omission but I can understand this somewhat after spending the year trying to explain the complex links between Jose Antonio Abreu and the Abreu Fellows Program. It's not easy.

Just to recap (or explain, for newcomers), the short, incomplete version goes something like this:

-Jose Antonio Abreu launches El Sistema in Caracas, Venezuela in 1975 with 11 kids in a parking garage.

- In the 1990s El Sistema forms a National Children's Orchestra, of which Gustavo Dudamel is a part as a violinist and conductor. They eventually take on the name of Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra "B".

-Gustavo Dudamel wins the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004. Everyone asks "Who is this kid and where does he come from?" The answer is, of course, he is a product of El Sistema (El who?).

-Somewhere during this time, Mark Churchill, Dean of the Prep School and of Continuing Education at the New England Conservatory, takes note of this national youth orchestra program in Venezula. This is the beginning of a long relationship between Churchill and NEC and Jose Antonio Abreu and El Sistema.

-Dudamel's victory in the Mahler competition leads to instant curiousity and eventually recognition of El Sistema, their Simon Bolivar Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel. Who knew there were 350,000 kids playing in neighbourhood youth orchestras everyday after school all over a country better known for its oil, its president and its Miss Universes.

-Cue concerts with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra B and Dudamel all over the world, including the London Proms, La Scala, Carnegie Hall and Walt Disney Concert Hall. Plus hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.

-Dudamel is named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

-Jose Antonio Abreu is garnering prizes all over the world, including in the United States, the TED Prize, which is worth $100,000 and "one wish." His wish: to create the Abreu Fellows Program in order to train musicians to start El Sistema in the United States and beyond.

-Given its relationship with El Sistema in Venezuela, the New England Conservatory hosts the Abreu Fellows Program. El Sistema USA, a networking and resource organization, is formed to spearhead the Abreu Fellows Program and connect other American (and other) El Sistema programs to each other. Mark Churchill is director of both the Abreu Fellows Program and El Sistema USA.

-The Abreu Fellows study El Sistema all year (2009-2010), including trips to Venezuela and various US-based El Sistema-like programs.

Simple no? If you have questions or want to add or correct anything, please feel free to add your comment below the end of the blog.

Back to Baltimore. I believe the Baltimore Symphony OrchKids program has the right idea with its educational and community pursuits because just like El Sistema, they're using music to uplift youths and communities. An orchestra's weapon of contribution is music, and by bringing it to the community, especially underserved communities, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is winning the hearts of many, many people (including 60 Minutes), some of whom have never been anywhere near a symphony orchestra. I say it's a "weapon" because music, in this instance, is consciously being used as a tool to combat povery of spirit, lack of motivation and an abundance of free time. And when I say "bringing music to the community" I mean, putting instruments in the youths' hands...several times a week...all year long...all over the city.

The OrchKids Program wants all 82,000 Baltimore City Public School students to eventually be part of their program. It's a lofty goal, but I think it's the right direction to go in. I saw their 10-year plan. If they're able to stick to it, tickets to the Baltimore Symphony will be hard to come by in 10-15 years. To be sure, it's certainly an investment, but in due time, those kids (and their parents, friends and families) will have a life-long appreciation of the Baltimore Symphony. This kind of hands-on, sustained investment in youths and communities ought to be part of any good philanthropic plan if symphony orchestras are going to continue to be relevant in their own cities.

For more program details and behind the scenes footage on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra OrchKids Program please see my blogs from November 2009 here and here.

I arrived at the OrchKids Program as they were preparing their end of the year concert. The idea was to turn the Lockerman Bundy Elementary School gym into a lavish concert hall. Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop was to come conduct AND play violin as part of the concert (that's her in the picture on the left at the dress rehearsal). Certainly the program could have rented a nice hall, but I thought it was a strong statement by the BSO to bring the music to the school, which is in West Baltimore.

Along with some other volunteers and interns, I was tasked with helping out with the concert production, striking the stage, teaching some classes and acting as a stage hand during the concert.

Here's how we decorated the gym. First off, we needed to cover the hideous, beige, concrete-blocked walls with something more fancy. So we went to Wal-Mart and bought loads of black material to cover the walls. We used velcro tape to hang it. We ran white Christmas lights along the edge of the material. An actual three-foot stage was brought in for the ensembles to play on top of. We covered portable chalk boards with black construction paper to create the stage wings. We bought small floodlamps and fitted them strategically around the gym to create mood lighting. We needed lights aimed at the stage so using a ladder and some zip ties we fixed some floodlights to the basketball nets and pointed them toward the stage. We decorated the edge of the stage and the music stands with music notes cut out of construction paper. 300+ chairs were brought in for the audience, which included the familes, teachers and donors. Add the American flag, the State of Maryland flag and a podium for speeches. We turned off the gym lights, turned on the floodlights, turned on the air conditioning (which never ended up working) and VOILA, the gym was turned into a "concert hall". The picture of the dress rehearsal below and to the right shows our work.


Flyers were made to announce the concert which was given the name:

"A Night With The Future: A Community Affair".

The concert involved about 150 OrchKids. There were several choir pieces, including Beyonce's "Halo", a bucket band number led by Baltimore Symphony percussionist Brian Pretchl, a piece for piano and orchestra featuring Peabody Conservatory Marian Hahm on piano, a woodwind ensemble, a Stevie Wonder piece, a blues where every kid on stage took a solo and Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop conducted the OrchKids orchestra in Amazing Grace. Marin also played violin in one of the pieces. The OrchKids teachers played with the kids on stage when needed but they made a point of staying out of the way and keeping the focus on the students. The kids performed admirably. The oldest are only in third grade and if they keep going at this rate they're going to be virtuosos.


The concert was followed by a reception in the school cafeteria where donors mingled with parents and kids with teachers. It truly was a community affair with the focus on "the future."

The OrchKids program embodies many of the concepts and philosophies I saw in Venezuela, indeed their program leadership (Dan Trahey and Nick Skinner) spent some time in Acarigua, before the Abreu Fellows Program even existed, so they certainly know what they're doing. By keeping the focus on the music, the kids and the community I'm certain the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will become an even bigger part of the city.

Please stay tuned for my next blog which will come out before the end of this week. It will include writings on our graduation, the new class of Abreu Fellows and my and the fellows' plans for next year.


Monday, May 17, 2010

CATCH UP!

LET’S DO SOME CATCHING UP SHALL WE?


HOLY WEEK WITH THE NEW NATIONAL CHILDREN’S ORCHESTRA

I promised a surprise in my last blog, which was written in Venezuela, so here it is:

In an awesome example of how far El Sistema has come in the last 35 years, they are now putting out a fourth national orchestra. Just to be clear, there are presently 3 El Sistema orchestras that get their musicians from all over the country:

1) Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra A: An excellent orchestra of El Sistema veterans and graduates that performs mainly in Venezuela,

2) Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra B: They play all over the world and we’ve seen them on YouTube. They actually started out as a national children’s orchestra (later changing their name to the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra) and slowly developed into the phenomenon they are today, with Gustavo Dudamel winning the Mahler conducting competition acting as a catalyst for the international El Sistema boom. Many of the players in Simon Bolivar “B” have been playing together since they were 10 or 11 years old. Indeed Dudamel himself was a violinist in the orchestra when he was growing up, and got one of his first conducting opportunities when a conductor was late to rehearsal and he voluntarily stepped in to conduct.

3) Teresa Careno Youth Orchestra: a national orchestra of high school students. If you’ve seen Abreu’s TED Prize video, you’ve seen this marvelous orchestra.

And now, there’s a new, fourth orchestra: the National Children’s Orchestra, comprised of kids 15 years old and under. Their first week of rehearsals was held during Holy Week in Caracas and the Abreu Fellows were graciously invited to watch. We’re not allowed to show any videos or pictures of the orchestra yet so I’ll attempt to describe the scene.

The rehearsals are complete madness. Happening simultaneously we had: 358 kids playing Mahler’s 1st symphony. 20 basses. 18 bassoons. A trillion violins. A coach for every instrument section. Too many apprentice conductors. And running the rehearsal is Jose Antonio Abreu himself, sitting comfortably behind the apprentice conductor sipping ice tea. Yes, that’s correct, the 71-year-old founder of El Sistema still runs rehearsals. This is his baby, after all.

During the rehearsals the kids are told to sit tight because there’s a surprise for them. A few minutes later in walks Gustavo Dudamel. The kids go nuts. I almost start screaming myself but then remember that I am a guest and seated at the front of the room where I can be seen.

They play through Mahler 1, 4th movement for Gustavo. Then the teachers ask him if he has any comments and if he’d maybe like to conduct. The crowd goes nuts again. Gustavo can’t say no. Off comes the watch and out of the pocket the cell phone goes. He looks for a baton and within a few seconds there are a dozen batons in his face. He picks one. It doesn’t feel right. He picks another and steps onto the podium. He turns the score to the beginning of the 4th movement. He then proceeds to conduct the whole movement and never turns a page in the score. The kids play amazingly, like it’s their last day on earth. He then rehearses the orchestra, still without ever using the score, as the kids hang on to his every last word. Without question Dudamel is a rock star. The plan for this new children’s orchestra is for them to go on tour with a world-renowned conductor who I’m not allowed to mention, yet. Watch out.

Oh, I forgot to mention the six (maybe seven)-year old simply known as “Volcan.” He’s a percussionist who successfully auditioned for a spot in the children’s orchestra. In his spare time he conducts (and you should be accustomed to these stories by now), so of course, he was put on the podium for Dudamel, Abreu and the Fellows to watch him conduct, from memory, the 358 musicians in Venezuela’s national anthem. I have the video of this if you don’t believe me, I’m just not allowed to show it to you.

With "Volcan" and Luis Cordova, bassoonist with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra "B"



CUMANA

Cumana

I need to mention my week with Stan in Cumana, a beach town on the coast of eastern Venezuela. The nucleo there was preparing for a concert to be performed in Caracas. Among the repertoire was Shostakovich’s 10th symphony, a staple of all the El Sistema orchestras. I should mention that they were also preparing some great Latin American repertoire. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I believe a symphony orchestra in this day and age is not limited to Mozart and Beethoven. It is an instrument that can play any kind of music with any kind of artist. Indeed many North American orchestras play various genres throughout their seasons and many of my highly trained colleagues from my school days play with hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Common. I hope to see this trend continue alongside the Tchaikovskys, Bachs and Brahms.

One thing I loved about Cumana was that people wear shorts. Being close to the beach, flip flops and surfer shorts were the norm. This was good for me because otherwise I would have stood out as a tourist with my khaki shorts and high white socks (I forgot to pack short socks).

Cumana, fitting in with my high socks and shorts.

The students at the nucleo promised to take me to the beach but of course that never happened because of the intensive concert preparation. Instead of beaching it on the coast on Sunday morning, I spent it coaching bassoonists from the entire state of Sucre (where Cumana is). I can’t complain, I had a great time. I also gave away the rest of the bassoon materials I brought down to Venezuela courtesy of Sue Heineman and Matthew Ruggiero.

In Cumana with the bassoonists from the State of Sucre Orchestra

I should mention the dedication to the nucleo that many former music students demonstrate, and not just in lip service. Many of them have jobs, engineers and accountants for example but continue to teach at the nucleo on a weekly basis. Abreu talks about music affecting the student, the student’s family and the community. Well these former students have gone on to great careers for themselves, certainly helping their families along the way and giving back to the community by teaching at the nucleo. Enough said.

Cumana, la playa.

CAMERATA LATINOAMERICANA AT HARVARD

I want to plug our Venezuelan colleagues living in Boston. They have a chamber orchestra called Camerata Latinoamericana and they performed at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government a few weeks ago. A few of the players grew up with Dudamel. The week before the concert, Dudamel happened to be in Boston to receive a prize at MIT. My Boston-based Venezuelan colleagues tell me that while Dudamel was in Boston they snuck him into their school (late at night to avoid attention) and away from the lights and cameras Dudamel quietly coached the group; his friends who he came up with in his hometown of Barquisimeto. Check out this video of the group playing "Como Llora Una Estrella" (The way a star cries).




THE CONFERENCE IN LOS ANGELES

 Los Angeles, Walt Disney Concert Hall with a giant poster of Gustavo Dudamel that reads: "Pasion Gustavo"

Upon our return to Boston the Abreu Fellows were handed an almost impossible task: create a one-hour presentation on our findings from our residency in Venezuela. And to make things a little more interesting we were to do this in the context of a conference in Los Angeles put on by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The League Of American Orchestras and El Sistema USA. The conference subject: The El Sistema movement in the USA. In the audience were to be 200 top-notch professionals representing orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, school board superintendants and courageous pioneers who had already started El Sistema-inspired nucleos. No pressure.



If you ever plan to take ten strong-minded musicians/educators, give them an hour to make a presentation on the secrets of a complex, ever-changing, musical system/non-system that has been developing for 35 years, you will get a near disaster. Our rehearsals and discussions were enlightening, disheartening, loud and passionate. We had all experienced El Sistema in our own ways. And to top it all off we had several people, including Tony Woodcock, President of the New England Conservatory, critique (severely) our run-throughs, which was helpful, I might add. I’d be lying if I said I was extremely confident in our presentation going into it, especially for myself. After all, not 8 months ago I spent most of my waken hours in tiny rooms playing the bassoon, not wearing suits while advocating for the transformation of society-at-large through music.
 
Presenting at the LA Phil/El Sistema USA/League of American Orchestras conference on El Sistema in the USA


But I have to hand it to my colleagues. In the end we came through as a group and the presentation went pretty well. Not perfect, but we definitely pulled it off, receiving a standing ovation from an audience of very accomplished people. Every fellow really stepped up their game and presented beautifully. I was especially moved by David Malek’s presentation. I’ll try to get a tape of it. All in all the presentation was a public speaking learning experience for me and of course I’m thrilled to have gone through it.

                                                      The Abreu Fellows, post-presentation

The conference was a real success. Partly organized by Abreu Fellow Dan Berkowitz, who is now manager of YOLA, the LA Philharmonic’s El Sistema Program, it was 3 days of “how can we all come together and make this music for social change thing work as movement in the USA and the world?” I was humbled by the presenters,panelists and participants for all the work they have done in their respective fields. I should mention Debra Wanderly Dos Santos, the young founder of the YOURS Project in Chicago. Debra started YOURS with practically nothing and now has program with over 100 kids and will be expanding in the near future. A real pioneer and visionary, I sure you will be hearing more about her and the YOURS Project soon.

I should mention that we had the opportunity to watch Gustavo Dudamel conduct the kids from the YOLA orchestra (LA Phil’s El Sistema program) in Walt Disney Concert Hall where the LA Phil performs. This wasn’t simply for show. I saw the same thing in Cumana with the engineers and accountants who come back to their nucleo and teach there as well.

                                                   My Venezuela group looking sharp in LA

MR. ROBERT GUPTA

Remember I blogged and bragged about my former Yale School of Music schoolmate turned Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Robert Gupta a few months ago? He’s the one who did the great TED Talk about his time working with the real-life Nathaniel Ayers, the protagonist in the movie “The Soloist” starring Jamie Foxx. Well, here’s Gupta’s TED Talk. He also spoke as part of a panel on education and music at the LA Phil’s conference.



ABREU FELLOWS INTERNSHIPS

Now we’re finally up to today. The fellows are currently in different cities throughout and United States and Scotland doing internships in El Sistema-inspired programs. It will be a nice way for us to see how these programs have adapted the Venezuelan El Sistema to the realities in their own communities. Currently there are Abreu Fellows interning at the Renaissance Arts Academy, Verdugo Young Musicians Association, Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, the YOURS Project, City Music Cleveland, The Harmony Program, Big Noise (Scotland) and the Baltimore Symphony OrchKids program. I am doing my internship in Baltimore with the OrchKids. I’ll be helping to set-up their big end of the year concert in which we will be turning the school gym into a glorious concert hall.

60 MINUTES

El Sistema was again featured on 60 Minutes tonight. This time it focused on Gustavo Dudamel’s arrival at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the El Sistema movement in the USA. The spot featured two programs: the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and the Baltimore Symphony Orchkids Program. I watched the show with some of the OrchKids staff tonight. Watch the 60 minutes spot here.

Man…these OrchKids that the Fellows worked with in Baltimore back in November were on 60 Minutes tonight! As I watched I couldn’t help but think how music is already opening doors for them the way it opened doors for me.

The Abreu Fellows are on Twitter. Follow us at: www.twitter.com/theabreufellows


Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Seminario en Los Llanos"


An iguana hanging out on the hotel property.

After spending most of the last three weeks in small groups, the Abreu Fellows are back in Caracas. This week is Holy Week in Venezuela, so most of Caracas is on vacation somewhere along the Caribbean Sea.

More on what we've been up to during Holy Week in my next blog. Until then let me tell you about my group's last two weeks.

We spent them at the nucleo in the city of Acarigua-Araure in the state of Portuguesa.  Acarigua is part of "Los Llanos" or "The Plains" region in Venezuela. Wikipedia tells me Los Llanos is a tropical grassland that can encounter a lot of flooding in the rainy season. We were there in the dry season and  the average temperature was probably around 35 to 38 degrees celsius. I don't really understand why, but Venezuelans aren't big on shorts, even in this ridiculous heat. We were told that it was better not to wear shorts so we could blend in more. I couldn't handle the heat in Acarigua. I wore shorts every single day.

It also didn't help that the town, including the nucleo, cut electricity everyday for as much as 3 hours.  We tried to avoid rehearsing when this happened but the students told me that they sometimes rehearse without electricity, hence without air conditioning. Ridiculous. The nucleo is trying to acquire a new space at the local university. I really hope they get it.

Some of the younger nucleo kids partying after their concert.

The people from this region are known as "Llaneros" or "Plainsman". The vibe in this region reminded me of being in Aspen, Colorado or Banff, Alberta. Upon arriving they advised me that the dish of choice in Los Llanos is meat. This brought a smile to my face. I proceeded to eat some the best steak and chicken I've ever eaten. It's called "carne en vara" or "meat on a stick". It tastes as good as it looks (with apologies to vegetarians):
Carne En Vara

Our good friend and special guest lecturer at the Abreu Fellows Program, Robert Zambrano, is the director of the nucleo in Acarigua. He had big plans for Jonathan, Stan and I. We were to spend the two weeks leading a "seminario" for his nucleo orchestra.

In El Sistema, a seminario is when the students get together over a given period of days to participate in intensive rehearsals, sometimes in preparation for a concert. The seminario can last a weekend or a month. It can take place at a retreat or at the nucleo and is often led by a guest artist. During that time the students rehearse and practice all day in an effort to put together challenging music, usually for a concert at the end of the seminario. Ok, I'll stop beating around the bush: it's band camp. And for those who don't know what band camp is, think of it like summer camp but instead of buidling camp fires and canoeing, the kids play music. And when they return to school they often get made fun of for going to said band camp. 

One thing seminarios are used for in El Sistema is to challenge the students to learn repertoire that is very challenging for them in a short period of time. Of course it's also good for bonding, making friends, having fun and getting better individually and as a group. But I think the most important reason for having seminarios is to challenge the students by giving them repertoire that they think is unplayable and then have them play it in concert. It's a confidence builder. It's an exercise is setting goals for oneself and then achieving them.

Young violinists practicing in the backyard of the nucleo.

The repertoire Roberto chose for the orchestra to play and for Jonathan to conduct was "Gloria al Bravo Pueblo" (Glory to the Fierce People), which is the national anthem of Venezuela, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Danzon by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez. 

Roberto essentially let us organize and run rehearsals the way we wanted. It ended up being great on-the-job training and a chance to practice running a nucleo for two weeks. The only constraint Roberto gave us was the times available to rehearse. He said:  3pm to 8pm Monday through Friday, the entire weekend and any other time we wanted. "What if the kids have school?" I asked. "They'll get special permission to get out of school for this," he responded. Well OK  then...let's roll.

Hanging out during a break from rehearsal. The boy with the yellow shirt is the nucleo orchestra's concertmaster, at age 13.


We decided to teach private lessons and master classes in the mornings, then in the afternoons we held sectional rehearsals and full orchestra rehearsals. Stan led the brass sectionals, I led the woodwind sectionals and Jonathan led the string sectionals and full orchestra rehearsals. He also conducted the final concert, from memory, in brilliant fashion. Kudos JAG.

Stan teaches a trumpet lesson while our camera man, Joaquin, does some filming.

Stan and I often played in the orchestra rehearsals after having coached our sections but didn't play in the final concert. After coaching these kids for two weeks, we figured it was more appropriate to keep the spotlight on them during the concert.  Us playing with them in rehearsals was simply a form of teaching by playing. 

These were long days and a lot work. The orchestra had never played 1812 and for a number of the players the piece was very challenging. However, Roberto insisted that they all play the concert no matter what.

Sitting in on the nucleo orchestra rehearsal.

To get around this issue and still give all the kids the satisfaction of playing great music, Jonathan came up with the idea of writing out simpler parts for the less advanced players. He even had them play an audition of these simplified parts offering prizes for the best performances.

I taught 10-year old Carlos how to put a bassoon together and play an F major scale on a Wednesday. 9 days later he played 1812 in concert. Yes, I wrote him a simplified part and he had to sit through most of the piece without playing because the music was too advanced for him. But, he got to sit through great rehearsals beside older, more advanced players, play great music and play his first orchestra concert. This is inclusion.

I have to admit that it was difficult for me to understand why you would throw a kid into a concert when he can barely put the instrument together. But the way Roberto Zambrano explained it to me it was important that Carlos participate so he can see what it's like to prepare a piece, play it in concert and experience the audience's recognition for his work.

With Carlos and his family at his first orchestra concert. Hence, he received his first Tocar Y Luchar medal. 

Was he bored or discouraged? I don't think he was.  After singing in the choir and playing recorder for at least a year while watching the older players rehearse in orchestra, he was so wound up to play in orchestra that I don't think it mattered to him that he couldn't play all the notes. After our first lesson, I gave him a reed,  had him put away his instrument and gave him some drills to do over the week. I went for a drink of water, came back a minute later, and found him with the bassoon put back together and practicing.

"los vientos maderas" aka the woodwinds.

The notion of always challenging their participants and always setting goals that are a little bit outside of their reach is part of the spirit of El Sistema. Their motto is "tocar y luchar" or "to play and to struggle".  The idea is that this fighting spirit can be applied to other areas of their lives. 

Throughout these two weeks I also started thinking more about how the kids in El Sistema (or other similar music programs) transfer their music skills to life skills.  One Saturday morning we called a rehearsal for 8 am. When we arrived at the nucleo there was only one student there.  We didn't have enough people to rehearse until 9:30am. I was livid. I was upset that the kids were late, but I knew there was a more important reason why I was angry, but at the time I just couldn't quite put my finger on it.

I had spent most of the week coaching the woodwind sectionals. Coaching them to play the right style here, working endlessly on tuning there, giving them ideas on how to practice difficult passages and how to mark their orchestra parts. I thought I was being hard on them because I wanted them to play well and also to have some tools to keep on improving when we weren't around. But after they arrived late that Saturday morning, it started coming together for me. I wasn't being hard on them because I wanted them to play perfectly.

Acarigua nucleo director, Roberto Zambrano, gets the orchestra ready before showtime.

Through teaching them all this musical stuff they were implicitly learning skills for life. Having the discipline to practice their part at home and come to rehearsal prepared was teaching them responsibility, learning to play in tune and blend their sound with other players was teaching them how to listen and consider other people's positions and difficulties. Telling them to write notes in their parts so they wouldn't forget certain instructions was teaching them to be sharp, reliable and alert. Putting them on the spot and having them play alone was developing their confidence and ability to perform in front of others. Going over passages with lots of fast notes in a slow and methodical fashion  was showing them that there's no secret to success except quality practice in a progressive and consistent way. Encouraging them to play like soloists was honing their expressiveness.  Making sure they were on time was showing them that they mattered, that they were part of a large group or society that depended on each one of them and that part of being respectful of others was to be on time.

Teaching a reed scraping class and handing out some free materials courtesy of Sue Heineman (National Symphony Orchestra) and Matthew Ruggiero (retired from Boston Symphony Orchestra).

I guess these links between music skills and life skills are rather obvious, especially to music educators, but it wasn't until I was put in this position of preparing these kids for an important concert that I felt a responsibility to teach them more than music.

With the nucleo staff and the camera crew after the concert.

It all started making more and more sense to me. I now remember in high school how I was almost like two different people: I was a musician and I was just a normal kid doing stupid things kids do. Then slowly as I developed as a musician all the tools I was using to get better were seeping into my school work and social life. The two people were becoming one: the musician took better notes in class (except chemistry class),  the musician that liked playing things well in every rehearsal started hating going to class if he hadn't done the assigned reading. When others got tired of working the musician just kept going because, that's just what had to be done to get it right.  And the cocky high school athlete in me got tired of hearing myself talk and instead spent more time listening to and learning from others.

Jonathan conducting the nucleo orchestra in concert.

So when the kids were late that Saturday morning, I now realize that I had gotten so upset not because we missed out on rehearsal time but because they weren't fully understanding the importance of how their work as music students would benefit them in other parts of their lives. I voiced my displeasure to Roberto, who was just as upset as I was and he gave his students a good talking to. They did much better after that. I still don't know if they understand what is at stake for them here, but that doesn't matter, yet. It took me awhile to figure out too. But eventually I think they will understand that the way they approach their music will bare resemblance to the way they approach their lives.

Plaza Simon Bolivar in Araure, where the concert took place.

The concert was scheduled for Saturday March 27th in the Simon Bolivar Plaza. In the run-up to the concert Roberto had us on two local televisions shows, do an interview for the city newspaper and took out ad space in a newspaper. On one of the TV shows I somehow got convinced to demonstrate my mediocre skill at "baile de tambores", which is a traditional Afro-Venezuelan drum dance that I've been working on. The staff at our hotel poked fun at me for my attempt. Apparently the whole town saw it. I'll keep practicing but I hope a video of it doesn't end up on YouTube.

Hanging out after the concert with two bassoonists from the nucleo. As you can see I've received my Tocar Y Luchar Medal and custom-made El Sistema T-shirt complete with Canadian and Venezuelan flags.

The concert went off without a hitch. Jonathan did a fine job leading the orchestra and the kids played very well, showing remarkable improvement over two weeks. Just before playing the Danzon, Jonathan, Stan and I received our own Tocar y Luchar medals, a plaque, and homemade t-shirts with the words "I am 100% El Sistema" and the Canadian (American for Stan) and Venezuelan flags joined together.  Following this we went back to the nucleo  for a reception with the families of the participants where we did some eating, pictures and dancing.

 Roberto Zambrano presents Jonathan, Stan and I with the Tocar Y Luchar medal. His son Karel, who is holding the medals, is a percussion student at the nucleo.

During the two weeks we also took two day trips. On the first one we went to the nucleo in Guanare to go see Abreu Fellows Program Seminar Director Eli Epstein, a longtime former horn player with the Cleveland Orchestra. Eli spent 10 days leading his own seminario with the brass students, which culminated in a great concert in which he conducted the Guanare Nucleo Brass Ensemble. Bravo Eli!

Our Seminar Director Eli Epstein is mobbed by students after he conducts them in a brass ensemble concert in Guanare. Eli received a plaque and medal as well.

Our second day trip was to Barquisimeto which is Gustavo Dudamel's hometown. Dudamel is so popular in his hometown that graffiti of his name can be found in several places. We saw the nucleo in Barquisimeto but Roberto really took us to Barquisimeto for two different reasons: to eat goat ("chivo"), which the town is famous for, and to take us to a nearby town called Quibor, to do some souvenir shopping at the markets.

The market...great for souvenirs.

There is some really big stuff going on here in Caracas this week. I'll write about it in my next blog. If you think El Sistema is just another music program, you have another thing coming.

As always, I'm open to questions, comments and requests. If there's something about El Sistema that you'd like to know more about just let me know. And more importantly, if there's something about El Sistema that you don't like or disagree with, I want to know as well.  I know and they know that the program isn't perfect. It's in constant development, as their motto suggests.  But what truly impresses me about El Sistema, are its philosophies and how they are applied with such commitment and to such a vast number of youth.

The nucleo percussion section before the concert starts.

After Holy Week, we're back into our groups again. Jonathan has returned to North America for a couple of weeks to do some auditions but Stan and I will be heading to Cumana,  a town which is on the coast of the Caribbean Sea.  Stay tuned for more.

           


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mérida: Part 1: Words

Welcome to a three-part blog on my ten days in the Venezuelan Andes. 


I haven't been able to blog in a while because we've been really busy and have had spotty internet access but I've been documenting quite a bit so I have lots to share. 


We've been doing lots of different things from teaching, performing, learning through observation and improving our Spanish. Part 1 of the Mérida blog will be in words, Part 2 in photos and Part 3 in videos. 


After spending two weeks in Caracas, on March 4 the Abreu Fellows split up into three groups. My group is Stan (trumpet), Jonathan (conductor/french horn) and myself (bassoon).  We set out to learn as much about El Sistema in Mérida by observing/learning, teaching and performing. For me, to get a full understanding of El Sistema and Venezuela, it's important to be equal parts observer, musician, teacher and student and I'm really happy that our time in Mérida has turned out that way.


The director of the Mérida nucleo, Jesus Perez, wanted us to get an overview of how El Sistema works in his state so throughout these 10 days we got to see several nucleos all over the state of Mérida in the following cities: La Azulita, Tabay, El Vigia, Mucuchies, Santa Cruz De Mora, Chiguara and of course Mérida. Just to avoid confusion I should probably mention that Mérida is a State and its capital is the city of Mérida. Much of the state of Mérida is in the Venezuelan Andes, so most of the towns we visited are way up in the mountains. As you'll see from the scenery pictures, it's a beautiful state.



On our excursions to the different cities, every nucleo presented us with a showcase of their students and ensembles. We saw everything from orchestras, recorder ensembles, special education ensembles, choirs, violin lessons and more.


The nucleo directors were all great and wanted us to perform and teach after the showcases. That's exactly what we wanted to do anyway so our visits were always of a give and take nature.  


For example in Mérida, Mucuchies   and Chiguara, Jonathan conducted and rehearsed the orchestras. In San Juan De Mora, Mérida, and Tabay, Stan taught trumpet masterclasses. In La Azulita, which is a newer nucleo with less students, all three of us played with the orchestra for the showcases.


All the nucleos seem to have a book of pieces that they play. Arrangements of pieces like Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Brahms Hungarian Dance #5,  Shostakovich Symphony 10 2nd movement, Bach Brandenburg Concerto #3 and of course Danzon and Mambo. In terms of a system, there is definitely a systematic list of pieces that is available to all the nucleos but it is up to the teachers at each nucleo to decide which piece will be played and when.



Alongside the typical orchestral instruments, some nucleos have Venezuelan folk music programs with instruments like cuatros, maracas, Venezuealan folk harp and more. So while the orchestra is the main ensemble of the nucleos, El Sistema allows room for many other forms of music.

In North America that means our El Sistema-inspired programs can consist not only of orchestras but also of jazz ensembles, bluegrass ensembles, hip-hop ensembles, funk ensembles, rock ensembles and more. In my opinion, if the music is uplifting and requires daily practice in order to master the skills needed to perform, then I think it's legit.

Throughout our stay I also got a chance to teach some private lessons, lead some woodwind section rehearsals and perform. I somehow managed to get through all this in Spanish. The students were very patient with me regarding my Spanish and often corrected my mistakes, which I was grateful for because it helps me learn more quickly.

I can't say enough about the enthusiasm the students have. They'll all so eager to learn and play. It happened several times that the showcase was over and they wouldn't leave the stage. They love to perform and they seem to know nothing about stage fright.

At one sectional  rehearsal I led in El Vigia, it was extremely hot and we had worked hard all afternoon so I thought I'd give them a choice: leave 15 minutes early or keep working. All hands went up to keep working. In Tabay, the nucleo showcase lasted 10 minutes. Stan and I then played a few solo pieces for them  and  thought that would be the end of it. Then they started screaming "otra!, otra!, otra!" So we played more. Then when we ran out of stuff to play for them,  we played their music with them...for two hours! They wanted to keep going. Luckily a ballet class kicked us out of the room or I think I'd still be in Tabay right now. Their enthusiasm is contagious. No matter how tired I was when I got to the nucleos, at the end of the day I didn't want to leave.

I also love the feel of the nucleos. It's hard to explain, so maybe I'll try to get a video of this sometime. The feeling of the nucleo reminds me of that of a YMCA or Boys and Girls Club, but for music. It's a place where kids can just hang out: before their rehearsals, after their rehearsals, they can drop in whenever they want to practice, or they can drop in just to hang around. The nucleos (at least the ones that have enough staff) are always open even when classes are not taking place.  Picture a street corner with a big building that is the nucleo. There's a little snack shop beside the big building with tables outside. It's hot and sunny, all day, everyday (this definitely helps with the relaxed feel).  The corner is swarming with kids: some eating, some playing marbles, some playing instruments on the sidewalk. I could have spent entire days just hanging out in the lobby. And for me the great thing is that it was always about music. Everyone there was dedicated to the program: the security guards, the nucleo driver, the parents, the teachers, everyone. Hanging on the corner with a violin or a trumpet, waiting for your rehearsal to start. That's sounds so much better than hanging on the corner with nothing to do and nowhere to go. And if kids don't have anything to do once school is done, who's fault is that? I think it's ours (adults), so let's give 'em instruments and music.



El Sistema brings new meaning to the word access. I believed it but down I'm seeing in person.  Their thing is that because music is so good for you, everyone should have the right to experience it. So the programs are available to any child, rich or poor, white or black, with no initial audition. If a student is talented, works hard and wants to play in a more advanced orchestra then there are many opportunities. El Sistema has city, regional, state and national orchestras which are very competitive to get into. In this way nobody is denied but then again nobody is held back. If you just want to play in the nucleo orchestra with your friends then you can do that (you still have to do it well though) but if you want to be the next Yo-Yo Ma, then there's a track for you too. Enough with the one youth orchestra per city, only two spots available each year,  thing. Our  professional concert halls are half-empty. It's time to get more kids into youth orchestras so that in the future when they're adults they're actually interested in going to see live music.

Continuing with access, El Sistema also has programs for students with cognitive, hearing, sight and physical deficiencies. We saw choirs of deaf children alongside choirs of children that can hear, we saw two blind boys play a percussion duet, a lady with cerebral palsy play the piano and a percussion ensemble of children with hearing and sight deficiencies, learning disabilities and physical handicaps. It doesn't matter what the issue is. If there is a way for the child to play music, and there almost always is, then the special education teachers find a way to integrate the kids. I saw a mother in tears (of joy) as she helped her daughter, who's blind,  off stage after she performed three solo pieces on violin.

I also really enjoyed seeing how the special education programs were integrated to the regular programs whenever possible. For example the, White Hands Choir was not only for deaf children but for any child that wanted to be in the choir. I can only the imagine the sensitivity, patience and empathy a child develops if they sing everyday in a choir with others that can't see or can't hear. In terms of music programs for kids with special needs, I believe El Sistema is miles ahead of the game. I'd like to know more about similar programs in North America so please let me know if you know of any.

There's even an El Sistema program for inmates at one of the jails in Merida. We were supposed to go see it but some of the inmates were on a hunger strike so we were told it was too dangerous to go. I met the conductor of the jail orchestra and he's going to try and get me pictures from the jail.

After 10 days, we've now come down from the mountains and are in the Los Llanos (The Plains) for the next 15 days, in a city called Acarigua. Roberto Zambrano, the director of the nucleo here, has lots of plans for Jonathan, Stan and I so I'm sure it will be a great two weeks. It's also ridiculously hot here. My friends in Canada will love this: the average temperature in Acarigua for this week is about 38 degrees celsius, 100 degrees fahrenheit for my American friends.



Please check out Part 2 and 3 for pictures and videos of our time in the El Sistema programs in Mérida. I recommend watching the videos through to the end so that you have can see the reactions of some of the students when they finish playing and the audience applauds. In that moment music means the world to them. They seem confident, happy and understand why they work so hard. For me, that's the beginning of the social change that music provides.