Sunday, January 24, 2010

Past, Present and Future

Abreu Fellows and students from Youth And Enrichment Family Services at Menino Arts Center.
Boston, 01/24/10

Video of Abreu Fellows' first semester:


Since I haven't blogged in almost two months, this post is a little long. But so much has happened that I don't want to leave anything out. And don't worry, it's mostly pictures.

As most of you know, after this year of training the fellows are expected to spend one year (and hopefully longer!) as part of an El Sistema-inpsired program somewhere in the world. So you'll begin to notice that everything that's been happening is helping to propel us towards next's year goal.

Let's go back to December of 2009.

My roommate Stan and I had the opportunity to go to Atlanta, Georgia to discuss the possibility of an El Sistema-style program there. We met with several people from the music performance, music education and non-profit world. We also attended a TED conference, TEDxPeachtree, hosted by Al Meyers.

For those who don't know what TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is, it is essentially a non-profit organization that promotes "ideas worth spreading." TED holds their annual conference each year in Long Beach, California. It is at this conference that they announce the TEDPrize. The winners of this prestigious prize win $100, 000 and "one wish to change the world." In 2009, Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of Venezuela's El Sistema won the TEDPrize and his wish was to start a special training program in the United States for musicians to spread the El Sistema idea to all parts of the world. The Abreu Fellows Program is his wish coming to fruition.

At TEDxPeachtree, organizer Al Meyers, gave Stan the opportunity to do a sort of mini TED Talk on the possibility of starting an El Sistema-inspired program in Atlanta. This is quite an honor. Stan did great (see Stan's talk and presentation here) and we managed to get a few people interested in helping move the process foward.

If you've never seen TED Talks, take your computer, find a comfortable seat and check them out. The talks are given by world's most creative, innovative and inspiring people (like Abreu). Some of them will blow your mind.

Stan and Me, with Melanie Darby and Reggie Brayon at TEDxPeachtree.

Stan is from Atlanta and his mom is a music teacher in the public school system, so we took that as an opportunity to coach some students at her high school.

We also attended a great concert combining the Spelman College and Morehouse College Glee Clubs.

Glee Club concert at Spelman College, Atlanta

Our professional meetings in Atlanta were very productive and it looks like Atlanta has the right combination of a strong arts community (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, ten youth orchestras and marching bands galore!) and plenty of youth to serve. Defintely furtile ground to start an El Sistema-inspired program.

Back to the pedagogical side of things now.

One of the biggest issues with starting a new music program is deciding what age group and which instruments to start with. Throughout our studies it seems that two instruments are consistently a safe bet: voice (choirs) and percussion.

Therefore this past week we had percussion seminars, led by Jerry Leake and Marcus Santos.

Abreu Fellows, Christine and Alvaro during percussion seminar with Jerry Leake

We learned percussion techniques and rhythms from North and South India, West Africa, particularly Ghana, and Brazil (Samba Reggae, Samba and Samba Funk).

The reason for having percussion be a part of a music program from the beginning is that it's makes it easy for everyone to be involved right away. Hitting the bucket, djembe, repique or surdo makes an immediate sound and incorporating things like call and response, dynamics, singing and dancing provides an exilirating ensemble experience, much like playing Mahler or Brahms in a symphony orchestra. Most of the time you don't need to know how to read music to do it and it'll teach one of the most important aspects of playing music: rhythm.

This is important for kids because sometimes, especially in elementary school, to start having fun on the violin or the clarinet, it takes a long time. Producing a satisfying sound, learning the fingerings and how to read music can be a slow process at first and a child may lose interest if they are not encouraged daily. By having a percussion ensemble, they get access to a musical group performance right away. It gets them "hooked" from the get-go while they slowly build their skill on their orchestral instrument.

Speaking of percussion and Brazil, I will divulge that last semester, with the encouragement of my mentor, New England Conservatory Viola Faculty, Martha Katz, I spent a weekend amongst Brazilians in Boston. I took a Samba class, (in which I required much assistance) and the next day I took a Samba percussion workshop, (which went much better).

At Samba class with my roommate Rebecca (on the right).

I am convinced the reason that Brazilians are so good at soccer is because they dance Samba. Quick feet, a neccesity for both Samba and good ball control in soccer. I have slow feet, which is why I'm good at neither...

The Samba percussion workshop was lead Meia Noite, who hails from Salvador Da Bahia, Brazil, where Carnaval (the biggest street party in the world) happens every year.

Shout out to my good friend Jan who should be making his way to Salvador for Carnaval in the next few weeks.

Now back to Meia Noite. Quite simply, he is amazing. He has been Sergio Mendez' principal percussionist for years and has played with Madonna, among others. Check out this video I took from his workshop. In the video he is playing the "Caixa" with a drumstick in his left hand and using his right hand to also strike the drum. Take note of all the different sounds he gets with only one drum and also watch for the call and response between him and the class towards the end of the video. How could any kid not enjoy doing this?

We have also continued our outreach activities with different music programs in the Boston area. You'll remember that last November we visited Youth and Family Enrichment Services (YOFES) which targets the Haitian community in Boston. Yesterday, January 24, 2010 we returned to do an outreach gig with their students. They have a Suzuki string program involving more than 50 kids.

We had set up the outreach date back in November, but in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, it seemed even more important for us to do this gig.

With Geralde Gabeau, Director of YOFES and Ms. Heidie J. Jean, Violin Instructor

We started off by watching their violin and viola students playing Lightly Row and Twinkle, Twinkle, which are two standard beginner pieces from the Suzuki Method. All the kids played from memory with great big sounds and solid rhythm. Credit to their teacher Ms. Heidie J. Jean.

Following this the Fellows demonstrated our instruments and played a few solo and duo pieces. We then premiered a wonderful new piece titled Puesta Del Sol, composed by New England Conservatory composition student Albert Oppenheimer. Nicely done Albert! And to finish off, the fellows and students took the stage together to play some Haitian folk tunes. The parents joined in singing the words, while one parent even played percussion on a chair. For me this was easily the highlight of the night.

Playing "Haiti Cherie" with the YOFES students.

YOFES then graciously invited us to stay for a dinner of delicious Haitian food including the classic rice and beans and fried plantains.

A big thank you to Geralde Gabeau, director of YOFES, for having us. YOFES has their own Earthquake Relief efforts aimed at Haiti and the Haitian community in Boston. Please go to the YOFES' website to find out how you can help.

Switching gears back to TED for a moment.

Last December an announcement was made that five of the fellows had been invited to Long Beach, California to attend the TED Conference in February 2010. And not only that. But as a group, the five us will be speaking at the 2010 TED Prize presentation.

Unfortunately they could not invite all ten of us and I assume it probably has something to do with the $6000 it costs to get into the conference...

Along with me, TED has invited Christine, David and my roommates Stan and Rebecca. I don't want to give away exactly what we'll be doing on stage but obviously it will be related to Abreu's TED Prize wish. Tune in online at 5pm Pacific Time on February 10 to watch live!

Here's a sneak peak at our rehearsals in Boston which were directed by artist and TED veteran, Rives:

L to R: Me, Dave, Christine, Stan and Rebecca (off camera) for our TED Conference presentation.

I'll admit I'm feeling a bit of pressure with this thing since public speaking is not my background and apparently the TED Prize is watched live online by millions around the world, not to mention the 1500 people sitting in the audience. I've played concerts at Carnegie problem! But this? Yikes...

Also coming up quickly is our residency in Venezuela to study El Sistema in person. We're finally starting to get some details surrounding the trip.

We will be leaving on February 18th and will be there for two months. We will be spending the first week in Caracas and then breaking up into groups to go teach, study and perform at various nucleos in different parts of Venezuela. The latest word is that during this first week we will be attending a gala in Caracas celebrating the 35th anniversary of El Sistema Venezuela where we will meet Abreu and watch Gustavo Dudamel a conduct the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. We're told that we will also participate in rehearsals with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestras so we can get a feel of what it is like to play in their orchestra.

I'm looking foward to teaching and performing with the El Sistema kids. My spanish is not bad, as long as I don't have to speak in the future tense. I'm especially looking foward to not having to wear boots, coats and tuques. Mid-February, the best time to head south from the winter weather...

Kudos to Dan Berkowitz, one of the ten original Abreu Fellows. Over the holiday break Dan was offered and accepted the position of Manager of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, the LA Philharmonic's El Sistema-program. Dan is already out in LA working hard, but will be with us when we arrive in Caracas in February. Congrats Dan!

And to finish up, shout out to my friend and Yale School of Music classmate Robert Gupta. I still remember the conversation we had the day of graduation:

Gupta: hey Dantes, so what are you up to next year?
Me: Oh, I'm going to do more graduate work in Pittsburgh. How about you man?
Gupta: Oh, I won the Los Angeles Philharmonic violin audition a fews days ago.
Me: (gulp)

Gupta won his first audition, at the age of 19, with one of the best orchestras in the world. But of course, if you knew him you wouldn't be too surprised. In any case, Gupta has been named a 2010 TED Conference Fellow, quite an honor, so he'll be in Long Beach, CA at the same TED Conference we'll be. Gupta, see you soon.

More from the Abreu Fellows Program in about a week. It's been a while and I'd love to hear from you, so please leave your comments or questions down below.

Thank you for reading.


  1. Hi

    Interesting stuff. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments on percussion ensembles in schools. A samba band is a way to introduce students who are wary of formal musical training to quality performance. I wrote an article on this, 'why start a school samba band' which you can find at Good luck with the TED talk!

  2. I finally got to see that drum clip all the way through. Made my little pc chug. I managed to find your friend Gupta on his TED page. So delighted to see that he is in the LA metro area. I've got a 5 year old Suzuki student of Indian decent who needs to him play. Hoping TED will post his performance.

    Wishing the Haitian Suzuki children and the Santa Ana Suzuki children could play for one another some day. I am wondering if Ms. Jean knows a Suzuki colleague I met in Japan by the name of Donald Becker. He brought Audrey White with him when we were studying with Dr. Suzuki.

  3. Hi Miss Wobbly,

    Thanks for your comment. I read your article and found it very informative. Thank you for the link. I will post in on the El Sistema USA Ning site. Please join our site and take part in the discussions:

    For my El Sistema-inspired program next year I plan to have percussion elements from all over the world. Jerry Leake showed us rhythms from India and the Middle East as well. All great stuff.

    Personally the Samba and West African percussion get me fired up the most, but I'm always learning and listening for different grooves, because in the end that's what it's really about right?!