Sunday, February 28, 2010


I learned my first important lesson about El Sistema this past week. We all know that "El Sistema" translates to "The System." Well please allow me to reveal to you one of the secrets of El Sistema: There Is No System.

Our camera man Joaquin, who is a native of Caracas, compares this lack of system to the traffic in Caracas. The traffic here is almost always congested. Motorcycles and mopeds can drive between in the lanes legally and pedestrians make frequent and casual appearances in the roads. In some places the traffic is so slow that venders easily walk between the lanes selling everything from car chargers to tupperware.

Now to an outsider like myself it seems like complete chaos, but ask any Caraqueno and they will tell you that every car or motorcycle knows exactly what they're doing and where they're going. How they do it though,  is always changing, reacting in real-time, adjusting to the world around them.

This is how El Sistema functions. It's mission, the democratization of music. Its method, fluid, flexible and always adapting.

So when they told us last week that we would be going to Montalban, the flagship nucleo in Caracas, I was really looking foward to it. Then Monday came and plans changed. Instead of Montalban we went to Rinconada. Apparently Montalban was being fumigated.

On Tuesday I saw my colleague Dan during lunch and he said, "the jazz band at the Simon Bolivar Conservatory has invited us to observe their rehearsal. If you want to go you have to be ready in 2 minutes."

Wednesday it was back to La Rinconada. We had Thursday afternoon off until it was announced, at the last minute of course, that we were going to Montalban to observe their classes. We also went to Montalban on Saturday to watch the orchestra rehearsals but we arrived to find out that the orchestra was departing for an impromptu concert.

All week I heard plans for us to go Barquisimento next week, but everytime I heard about this trip the day changed. I still don't know if we're going. Tuesday is the latest I've heard. We were originally supposed to be in Caracas until about Feb 26. Well, ends up we'll be here until March 4. Why? They haven't told us.

This is "The System." And I think it's beautiful.

I quickly came to terms with the fact that here, writing anything in an agenda is a futile exercise, so now I just keep my  bassoon, camera, note pad, pen and bottle of water ready to go. It's actually quite nice as everyday is a surprise.

So how does this apparent lack of organization help?  I think for one that it helps El Sistema make the most of every opportunity. In a movement that is trying to grow and reach 1 million kids in 5 years, they have to have an organizational structure and mechanism in place that is flexible and adaptable to take advantage of any opportunity: to play a concert at a big event, to take a meeting with a potential community partner or funder or to find a spot for 20 new students in a nucleo.

This kind of thinking helps in the teaching of the the students as well.  For example, we were told at La Rinconada Nucleo that for the string classes there are no set pieces to be played. They have plenty of options for pieces so instead of a strict curriculum, they adjust to the development of each individual class. If the class  moves slower as a group they'll play easier music. If the class loves to play percussive and fast music, they'll play more of that style. If the class needs to work on style perhaps they'll play more Mozart.

And finally this model of flexibility keeps everyone on their toes and motivated. Did  the Montalban orchestra kids know they were going to play a concert yesterday when they arrived at the nucleo? I doubt it, since we were sent there to watch their rehearsal.  That means that students  better be ready to play anytime or anywhere. Responsibility and courage are learned without even being taught explicitly.

Yesterday we were at a function when a few top brass El Sistema employees got a call from Maestro Abreu for something important. They were up and gone in a few minutes. Apparently this happens quite often.  Does this get annoying for them? I'm sure it does, but what a feeling it must be to know that no day at work will be the same and that you're part of something that is moving forward, constantly reshaping itself in order to fulfill its mission.

Yes, the mission. Let's not forget that the El Sistema mission is so clear, and let's be honest, so good, that you can't help but think that while things are a little chaotic there is a goal and everyone involved knows what is being strived for.

Here are some pictures and videos from our activities this week.

Observing a bass and cello class at La Rinconada nucleo. They were working on a two-octave G major scale and a Suite by Jean-Phillipe Rameau. The teacher constantly emphasized to the class that they had to be ready to play, all of them together, when they were instructed to. This is normal, one has to be alert in an orchestra rehearsal.  What stood out for me was how the teacher emphasized that they all had to be ready, so if one person wasn't ready, they would put their instruments down and start the process over. So this process was developing personal responsibility, teamwork and looking out for one another.

With the teacher, Amilcar,  and his bass students from the cello/bass class:

La Rinconada string teacher, Josbel Poche explaining to us the paper orchestra. The paper orchestra, which was started a few years ago because of a lack of real instruments is now a full-fledged part of the initiation to music process (hello Flexibility and Adaptivity!). Before the students can play real instruments, they build an instrument made of paper and materials with their parents. They learn how to care for their instruments, hold them properly, what the different parts are, how to sit in rehearsal and they even "play" the instruments as a piece of music is being played over a stereo system. This process lasts about three months, at the end of which they "perform" a concert. After that they move on to real instruments. Thanks to the paper orchestra, they'll already know how an orchestra rehearsal works and the discipline that comes with it. All that's left is learning to play the instrument.

With Rinconada students Moises (clarinet) and Claudia (bassoon). I worked with Claudia on some Bach Brandenburg, Weissenborn studies and long tones. She sounded great.

Montalban is the flagship nucleo of El Sistema in Caracas. It has more then 1000 students. When El Sistema wants to show off  their program this is where they often bring guests, although I'm sure you could walk into any nucleo and be amazed. They walked us through the building where in every room there  was an ensemble and conductor ready to dazzle us. In all we saw 5 different orchestras. Here's a video of the first stop. You'll recognize the tune: the Finale from Rossini's Overture to William Tell.

El Sistema does jazz. On Thursday we went to see the first and only official jazz band in El Sistema. Most of the students in this band are classically trained and have only been playing jazz for a year and a half. Their director was really adamant that the New England Conservatory send down some of their jazz faculty to work with the ensemble. How do they sound? Check them out playing a Buddy Rich tune:

With the bassoon students from Montalban. Their orchestra was the last stop on the tour of the Montalban nucleo and they played Danzon #2 and Mambo, two pieces that the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra are well-known for. Check my earlier blogs for videos of those two pieces.

Here is a video of an early childhood music class. The class includes things like moving to music, singing, acting, note name recognition, improvisation and listening skills. In this video we see body movement, percussion and listening skills all wrapped into one. I like this class because it encourages creativity and expression. The kids can do no wrong, there is no bad answer. What matters is that they come away feeling that music makes them feel good.

Abreu Fellows Lorrie and Rebecca lead a recorder class in an exercise at La Rinconada nucleo:

At Montalban with Abreu Fellows, David, Stan and Jonathan:

I love this last picture below. I took this from inside the courtyard of La Rinconada nucleo. Many of the students at this nucleo live in this neighbourhood of shanty houses in the hills, known as barrios.  It's a great example of bringing the opportunity to play music right to the doorstep of the kids that need it most.

I'll write again pretty soon as there is some great stuff coming up this week: two road trips, another Simon Bolivar concert and some dinners at restaurants or houses.

But then again this is El Sistema, so this could and probably will change.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Finally in Venezuela!

In the days prior to arriving in Caracas chaos reigned in my life: too many things to do before leaving and not enough time to do them all. People often asked me if I was excited about getting here and I had to tell that I didn't really know how I felt because I hadn't had time to think about it.

With everything that has been thrown at us this year, the residency in Venezuela seemed very far away to me. My thoughts were consumed with things like budgets, YouTube videos,  first-hand testimonies, management skills, Abreu, fundraising, El Sistema, Spanish. I never had time think much about what Venezuela would be like. On top of that I didn't know what to expect. Travelling so far away seemed vague to me. I hadn't left North America in 12 years or so, the last time being when my high school orchestra travelled to Cuba to do an exchange with the Havana Conservatory orchestra.

As I write this, I realize that's it's kind of interesting that the only other time I've been to a Latin American country was to do something music-related. I am consistently amazed at how music has and keeps opening doors for me to experience different cultures, meet different people and learn new things. I believe that with music I can sit down with someone from anywhere in the world and connect with them without saying a word. I know our time here in Venezuela will prove me right.

It wasn't until the plane landed and the flight attendant announced "ladies and gentlemen welcome to Caracas" that I actually started getting really excited. I immediately went shutter-happy and to the dismay of my colleagues began snapping away pictures to no avail. Our first days here have been mostly an introduction to El Sistema and since I'm overjoyed to be here and taking way too many pictures, I figured why not show what we've been up to.

Upon our arrival at the airport in Caracas we were greeted by El Sistema staff, which included Roberto Zambrano, the director of the El Sistema program in Acarigua. You may remember him from by blog #3 as he was the one who gave us the El Sistema "Tocar Y Luchar" medallions.

Here I am at the airport with Rodrigo, our guide/host here in Caracas.  Rodrigo works in El Sistema's office of International Affairs. He is a marvellous host with impeccable English and an encyclopedic knowledge of El Sistema's history and development. I was thrilled to see that when he greeted us at the airport he was wearing a Leading Note Foundation (Ottawa's own El Sistema-like program) T-Shirt. 

Meet 19 year-old oboist Carmello. He hails from Chacao, a municipal area in Caracas. Rodrigo was leading us on a tour of El Sistema's stunning new performance and rehearsal center named "The Center For Social Action Through Music." Carmello's El Sistema nucleo is in Chacao but I imagine he was at the center to get in a bit of practice before going to attend the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra Concert, which was also taking place at the Center.

Here are all the fellows plus Rodrigo and Stephanie on the far left on a terrace of The Center For Social Action Through Music. This building is beautiful, with several terraces, which are accessible directly from the hallways. Every room in the building is multi-purpose and was built with acoustics in mind. They can all be used for rehearsals, performance or recording of any type of ensemble. The rooms are all equipped with multi-media outlets so performances can be broadcast via radio, TV and internet.  Furthermore,  the rooms all have floating floors which helps to minimize sound transference from room to room. There is minimal office space and at a whim, any office space can be turned into a performance space.  What I admire most about this building, besides its great architecture is that it caters to music-making first and foremost. And from what I understand this was intentional, as this center's focus is to give the students the very best conditions in which to develop.

The same night of our tour we were invited to watch a concert celebrating the 35th anniversary of El Sistema. The program consisted of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra "A" (which contains the founding members of this orchestra), in Mahler's 9th Symphony. In this picture Dudamel takes a bow with the orchestra at the end of show. I have to point out that Dudamel is one of the only big-time conductors I know of that refuses to stand on the podium when he takes his bows with the orchestra. As you can see in this picture he's on the floor with the orchestra members.  I've noticed this sense of togetherness and humility in every El Sistema student I've come across, from Boston to Caracas. Here, playing in the orchestra is as much about being a family as it is being musicians and this is easily recognizable when they play.

Backstage with Gustavo after the concert.

On Saturday morning we attended a concert at the Center given by the Teresa Carreno Youth Symphony, which is an orchestra of mostly high school students from Caracas. These are some kids lining up for the concert. This here is the future of instrumental music. These are the people that must be attending concerts.

In the picture below, on the left is Lila, the concertmistress of the Teresa Carreno Youth Symphony. She played her solos beautifully in Camille Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre. On the right is Daniel Arias who performed Saint-Saens' concerto for cello  #1 brilliantly. I played both of these pieces in high school so this concert brought back some good memories.

I'm not sure if it's simply the size of the orchestras in El Sistema but they have a way of really drawing in the listener, especially the string sections which seem to all be playing for their life. It's not always perfect, no orchestra is all the time anyway, but it's intoxicating and mesmerizing. And just for your reference, this orchestra is the same one that performs in Jose Antonio Abreu's TED Prize talk, which I put in my blog #1. Believe me, this orchestra is even better live.

Before coming to Venezuela I collected bassoon related materials to give out to El Sistema programs. While Caracas has a healthy supply of these materials, a lot of the nucleos in the country and the mountains are lacking key materials.  Remember that there are 184 nucleos in El Sistema and they don't all have  access to the materials and teachers that a big city such as Caracas does.

Robert Zambrano's nucleo in Acarigua is one of these nucleos in need, especially for bassoon and oboe materials. Here we are at the Center with his nephew, Aquarius Zambrano. These materials, which include reed cases, cane and reed knives were graciously donated by Matthew Ruggiero, a long-time Bassoonist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Sue Heineman, Principal Bassoon of the National Symphony Orchestra. Thank you  both for your generosity.

On Saturday afternoon we attended a rehearsal of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra "B" conducted by Claudio Abbado. This is the orchestra that you see on YouTube all the time and tours the world with Gustavo Dudamel. Here is a picture of the bass section.

In seeing them in person for the first time one thing that caught my attention was how much they moved as a group when they played. I've never seen a bass section move like that. That night we had dinner with Alejandro, the concertmaster of the orchestra, and his wife, and I spoke to Alejandro about my observation. He chuckled and said that what I had seen in rehearsal was nothing. "Just wait until the concert." Well I can't wait to see this. The concert, conducted by Claudio Abbado, is Wednesday and it includes Berg's Lulu, Prokofiev's Symphonic Suite and Tchaikovsky's Symphony #6.

After the rehearsal we got to meet Maestro Abbado. Here I am with Lorrie, Katie, Abbado and Jonathan.

On Sunday morning we got to meet with Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, for about 2 hours.  In his talk with us three things really caught my attention. The first is that when he started El Sistema he insisted that human development be one of the key concepts of El Sistema. Not music, but human development. To help make his point he made sure that the government funding supporting El Sistema came not from the Ministry of Culture but from the Ministry of Social Welfare. In this way the government had to acknowledge that El Sistema was a social transformation program first and a music program second.

Second he encouraged us to put faith in our teachers, especially the younger ones. The teachers, says Maestro Abreu, will be the heart and soul of our programs. I know from our studies that I can look forward to seeing many, many young students in teaching positions throughout our stay in Venezuela.

And the third is something that will stick with me forever: "Culture for the poor should not be poor culture." This is happening here in Caracas. The diversity of the crowd at the Friday night concert with Dudamel was like nothing I've ever seen before back home. Whites, Blacks,  10 year olds (on the edge of their seats!), and senior citizens sitting side-by-side watching a very well-played Mahler symphony, at a fabulous hall with a world-class conductor.

Maestro Abreu is an incredible leader. He has complete command of his talking points, his arguments and their explanations. Even though he spoke off the cuff with us it was always eloquent and poetic.

Our meeting started as a simple meet and greet. He began speaking casually, pleasantries and all, but then it somehow morphed into a rousing speech. After 45 minutes I was ready to run through a brick wall for him. He is an amazing orator and if you've ever seen him speak you know what I'm talking about.  

On Sunday afternoon we took a cable car up to the top of El Avila (2175 meters), which towers above Caracas. From the top the views were stunning. One side of the mountain looks down over Caracas and the other, which is the picture below, looks down over villages and the Caribbean Sea. In the picture between Stan and I is Adam Johnston, son of author Tricia Tunstall, who you may remember is writing the very first book on El Sistema.

This man is known as "Antonin, the poet of Avila."  He was selling a poster of his own poem. They title is "Como Cambiar El Mundo" or "How To Change The World". Being the hopeless romantic I am, I had to buy a copy from him.

I have no idea what the body of the poem says, and I will translate it eventually, but with a title like "Como Cambiar El Mundo," I wouldn't be surprised if El Sistema was in there somewhere.

In the next few days we will be visiting Montalban, the flagship nucleo of El Sistema. Following this we will be split up into groups of two and three to visit nucleos throughout the country. Teaching and performing will be part of our residency, as well as research and documentation. My group is heading to the Andes to visit nucleos in Merida, Trujillo and Tachira.

Stay tuned for more!

Saturday, February 13, 2010


TED 2010!

This trip lasted barely two days and it went by very fast. The reason the Abreu Fellows (5 out of the 10 of us) were in Long Beach, California was to perform a number on the TED Stage during the TED Prize session. Here's a little background.

TED, which stands for technology, entertainment and design is a non-profit dedicated to promoting "Ideas Worth Spreading." The organization holds conferences all over the world where they gather some of the best and brightest from all fields to speak for about 18 minutes on their area of expertise. No matter who they are none of the speakers are paid and they all get about 18 minutes. Past speakers have included Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, conductor Benjamin Zander, poet and spoken word artist Rives and of course our own Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema.

The TED Conference is the main conference and it is held once a year in Long Beach, California. In theory anyone can attend but there is a pretty serious application and a $6000 attendance fee. Despite this the conference sells out very quickly. Founders, CEOs, politicians and celebrities are generally in attendance. Below is a picture of one TED session I attended where they simulcasted the talk of Britain's next Prime Minister (if all goes as planned), David Cameron.

So why the heck were we invited to perform? Well as you all know by now, the founder of El Sistema, Jose Antonio Abreu, won the TED Prize in 2009 and as a result he receieved $100,000 and a wish, which was to launch the Abreu Fellows Program. It is at these yearly TED Conferences that the TED Prize is announced. But before they announce the new TED Prize winner, they look back at previous winners and through speeches, videos and performances they show the audience how the previous winners' wishes are coming along. To show how Abreu's wish was developing they invited the Abreu Fellows do a skit/music performance.

It was a quick six-minute performance and I think it went really well. We got a standing ovation from the audience and lots of great feedback afterwards. I'd like to think that our performing skills are the reason for the positive reception, but I know it has much more to do with the fact that people believe in Abreu's wish.

I've spoken to so many people who tell me something special happened last year at the TED Conference when Abreu gave his TED Talk. TEDsters (people who attend TED) are generally brilliant and successful and they've seen and done it all, but apparently Abreu's talk and wish really made an impact on them last year. Fortunately for the Abreu Fellows Program, people are really behind this wish and want to see it unfold.

So now that I've given you the background here's how it all went down:

Tuesday Feb 9

9pm: We land at LAX. It's my first time in California and I'm happy to see palm trees instead of snow.

11pm: I meet up with my colleague, former school-mate and TED Fellow Robert Gupta for a drink at the hotel.

11:45pm: I walk around Long Beach looking for food. I see TEDsters everywhere.

Wednesday Feb 10

7:30am: I wake-up and head to the Long Beach Performing Arts Center to watch the TED University Talks session.  I'm excited to see Gupta speak and perform there.

8:45am: Gupta's TED Talk. Have you seen the movie "The Soloist" starring Jamie Foxx? The protagonist is the real-life Nathaniel Ayers, a musician who develops schizophrenia and becomes homeless. Gupta is now his violin teacher so his TED talk is about his experience working with Ayers. Gupta also performs some Bach after his talk. Out of all the TED University speakers, Gupta is the only one that gets a standing ovation. He deserves it as he is fantastic. His talk should be available online in the next few months. Bravo Robert!
      Gupta performing some Bach at the TED University Talks session.

10:50am: I'm walking to meet the other fellows. From afar I see a beautiful blonde walking towards me by herself. As she gets closer I glance at her nametag. It says Cameron Diaz. She walks right by me and like an idiot, I say nothing, not even hello.

12:45pm: Rehearsal on the TED stage. The acoustic piano we were supposed to use turns into an electric keyboard. Most of our 30 minute rehearsal time is taken up by the techs trying to get this keyboard to work. Our run-through is mediocre at best so we'd like another go at it. The answer is "sorry, but no." pressure guys.

4:00pm: Hair and make-up. No seriously, hair and make-up. The make-up artist tells me I have good skin.
4:30pm: Meg Ryan walks by us backstage.

5:00pm: TED Prize session starts. I'm a little nervous but Mark Churchill the director of the Abreu Fellows program is sitting with us in the audience. Seeing a familiar face helps.

5:45ish pm: Our performance. We kill it. The TED audience is great. I'm relieved it went well. People such as Al Gore, Meg Ryan and Bill Gates are in the audience. Our performance was videotaped by TED and I'll post it as soon as we get it.

6:15pm: Jamie Oliver does his TED Talk and announces his wish. Personally I think it's a great wish: "To create a strong and sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity." Check out his TED talk here.

6:45pm We're backstage. Sheryl Crow, who has just performed after Jamie Oliver, congratulates us, the fellows, on our performance. I ask myself what I'm doing here.

7:00pm The fellows and I head to a restaurant for a reception.

7:15pm We meet various people, all ridiculously good at what they do: a co-founder of Skype, a writer/producer for Grey's Anatomy, the President of this and CEO of that. I remind myself to take it easy on the drinks so I don't say something stupid.

8:00pm As we're standing around a table, a rather tall, black guy comes right up to me, shakes my hand and congratulates us on our performance. It's Will Smith. I tell him I'm a big fan. I decline to tell him that I know every line from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  He asks what the long, brown thing was that I was playing. He introduces himself to all of us and chats with us for a few minutes. He is very humble and easy-going. As he leaves, I immediately post to Facebook about the encounter. It pains me to admit it now, but I felt giddy, like a 5-year old in a candy store. I again ask myself what I'm doing here.

11:30pm Block party on the street. I run into a few TEDsters who support the Abreu Fellows program like Carl Haney and Michael Melcher. The band is awesome and people are best as a bunch of CEOs and Founders dance.
        With Christine, Stan and Rebecca at the block party.

Thursday Feb 11

7:00am Abreu Fellows Breakfast with TEDsters and supporters of the fellowship. Gupta attends too. I sit beside the President and CEO of Gibson Guitars.

Gupta and I at the Abreu Fellows' Breakfast.

9:00am I start writing emails to all the people I've met to thank them for their support.

12:56pm Catch flight at LAX

My TED experience was unbelievable and I feel priveleged to have been invited. Thank you to Rives, who helped us put together our performance, to Amy Novogratz and Anna Verghese who looked after us from the moment we landed at LAX and to everyone in Boston that watched our practice run-throughs and gave us feedback.

We depart for Caracas, Venezuela this Thursday where the real adventures will start. El Sistema, I'm constantly told, is the real deal and will not dissappoint. I hope so, because I've been bragging about it all year now...You'll hear from me soon.

Thanks for reading.