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.


  1. Dante,
    Thanks for posting these blogs about your experiences in VZ!! So, is this lack of scheduling and constant shifting of plans an El Sistema thing or a Venezuelan thing? How will that translate into American nucleos? We tend to be comfortable with a bit more structure...If you guys talk about this, I'd love to get in on it! Looking forward to seeing you all at the LA conference in May!!


  2. Hey Ann, thanks for reading!

    We definitely talk a lot about which elements of El Sistema will be easily adaptable in the United States. I'm certain this will come up at the LA conference.

    I know you've been down here to Venezuela to work with El Sistema students so you know about the kinds of things I mentioned in my blog.

    Personally, I think it's both a Venezuelan thing and an El Sistema thing. I completely understand the sort of laid-backness of Latin American and Caribbean countries, one entire side of my family is Haitian. However I think that this relaxed manner also comes with focus, determination and steadfastness. If that wasn't the case, then the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra musicians wouldn't play so well.

    This and conversations with many El Sistema teachers and students leads me to believe that there is a reason behind the fact that a lot of final decisions are left open-ended, to be resolved at the last minute, a "game-time" decision, so to speak.

    As far as what we'll bring back to the USA and beyond, I love the idea of a program having flexibility within the constraints of a solid mission and clear goals. Our programs will be targeting communities where there may be some difficult family circumstances, student problems at school etc. Of course some of these kids will have great family support and have no issues at all, but some of them won't be so lucky, so our programs will, I think, only work well if they're able to deal effectively with the different challenges that come with establishing music programs for the purpose of social change/inclusion in underserved communities.

    So for sure El Sistema USA programs will have to be somewhat more structured than those in Venezuela, especially because we'll be partnering with a lot of different community organizations, but I hope that we all keep in mind this idea that in order for this whole movement to keep moving forward it will have to be innovative and flexible instead of stagnant and rigid.

    I hope that gives you an idea of my thinking on all this. Love to hear more from you here or in LA in May.



  3. lol You learn to keep one damp finger in the air at all times to see where the breeze is blowing next.
    Sometimes I think my Latina Executive Director in CA is the same way. She rarely is able to tell me this is what we are doing for the entire semester. I never know if we are doing a special presentation more than a few days before. What surprises me is how well the parents cope with such a request.
    It makes you appreciate the things that you can plan and depend on. The parents always ask to verify that we are going to have group lessons on Saturday. We rarely change that schedule.
    Even in concentrated urban areas things are not always reliable. Sometimes the streets flood when it rains, they have an accident on the Freeway or the buses change their schedule. My private students from the affluent side of the freeway are not much more reliable. I think it is actually much more the geography that a culture must cope with.
    It seems that punctuality and itinerary is something we acquire at the University level because of the large numbers of people you must coordinate on a given campus.

    As for the Jazz, these rhythms are so embedded in the popular music of Latin America that they are stored somewhere in the neurons waiting for an opportunity to be expressed. Dr. Suzuki joked once that the pieces that you listened to with out playing where sitting in the freezer of the brain waiting to be thawed out.
    The ensemble playing and coherence was actually quite remarkable and much better executed than what you might hear from the same level uninitiated players performing State side.
    Love to see more of the Early Childhood muisc activities. If you can get that foundation laid down then what follows is so much easier. The most difficult work I've ever had to do was the first 3 years of starting a new program from scratch with out older students for the younger ones to influence them.

  4. Hi All,

    As a coordinator for a fledgling nucleo on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, I am very relieved to hear your assessment that curriculum and schedules are indeed loosely structured (and not formally documented?) in El Sistema. It helps me understand why our teacher training workshop here in St. Lucia was more focused on intense orchestral rehearsals than actual discussion about pedagogy and teacher methodology.

    We were lucky to have founding members of El Sistema, Batuta (Columbia), and the Youth Orchestra of the Americas for ten-days. Despite my insistence on sessions to prepare our limited pool of possible teachers, we quickly learned that training of teachers is not done explicitly, but rather through observation. It was only through the efforts of one of the Batuta members that approaches for beginning instruction and tips for new teachers were given. As I dialogued to find out more about pedagogical materials/methods, it became clear that each member of the team had a very different ideas about how to start children off in the program, what pieces are best to start with, the amount of "preparation time," etc. In fact, the sample repertoire given by some was declared quite challenging by others, because of the different factors present in each different program.

    This was very frustrating at the time, because I expected to be given a formula for starting a successful nucleo. (Like it is that simple, right?) Now, after hearing your observations, some things are clearer to me. I have more of a back story to inform the very mysterious actions that were simply everyone explaining what worked for them.

    You are absolutely right Dantes, the teaching method will depend on many factors, including the teachers, the students, the geography, the culture, and the resources available. Being able to "go with the flow" and adjust the sails for the prevailing winds will be essential to making the most out of what is available.

    So now, the question that keeps coming up with a great sense of urgency, how will El Sistema USA go about creating a foundation of principles which establish the goal, rather than prescribe the action?

  5. Could you please comment about the Simon Bolivar's orhcestra concert that you attended that wednesday night? I would love to hear what do you think about that "orchestra body movement as waves" that seems to be so common between member of the system. is it also a latin thing?

  6. St Lucia String Project,

    From what I understand El Sistema USA is currently in the process of coming up with a list of concepts and/or principles that will be meant guide and help others who want to build their own programs of social change through music. Our residency here in Venezuela is giving us great insight and will surely influence these future principles/concepts.

    El Sistema USA as an organization is very young, but I believe that because it is a support and resource network, establishing clear goals and principles for organizations/programs that are all trying to do the same thing in their own way, will be important for the momentum and success of all the programs.

    Regarding anything official written down here in Venezuela, I have been seeing some things recently. There is definitely a daily schedule of classes and there is definitely a book or list of orchestral repertoire that every nucleo plays from . But the truth is that every nucleo is different in its size, its existence and resources. With that in mind, the schedule of classes is exist but it's not always followed... but things get done. The orchestral repertoire is clear, but it is not always played in the same order or at all...but concerts happen.

    The structure and organization regarding goals, classes and repertoire seem to be there but they're accompanied by flexibility and a willingness to find a different way to make things work when challenges or unforeseen circumstances occur.

  7. Anonymous,

    The concert a few Wednesday ago was amazing (Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado playing Tchaikovsky Symphony #6)!

    The strings especially move quite a bit more than what I've ever seen. I remember one player was practically standing up out of his chair!

    I don't think every orchestra has to move like the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Every orchestra and musician is different and plays in their own way. It's really the music that matter. But that said, the people in the audience aren't listening with their eyes closed. For me, watching an orchestra that is so into the music and showing it physically adds another layer to my experience as a listener. As long as the music-making comes first, I'm all for moving with the music if that's how you feel it.

  8. Dantes, you probably don't remember me but I'm an oboist over at Carnegie Mellon, I was only a freshman when you left and I was a real quiet kid! I'm really glad I stumbled upon your blog, I'm doing research on El Sistema for my final paper in Spanish class. I'm still baffled by the paper orchestra. Isn't that frustrating for the kids when they can't actually play their instruments? The level of discipline over there is nauseating! And imagining all of those REAL instruments being played on, it's so many kids! El Sistema never fails to impress me, it's why I picked it as my paper's subject, after all!

    all the best, Amelia

  9. Amelia,

    You're certainly right about the level of discipline in El Sistema in Venezuela. It's very high. In my two months there I probably saw over 2000 kids and spent quite a bit of time with them and I never, ever saw any discipline problems. We have some discipline issues with the Atlanta Music Project, nothing too drastic though. However it does lead me to question why the discipline is so good Venezuela. Maybe the culture. But I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the kids that are there want to be there. They want to be Gustavo Dudamel and be in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. I'm sure once the Atlanta Music Project reaches, if ever, the stature of an El Sistema, I think the discipline problems will go away, because enrolment will be self-selective. Of course, me being me, I believe a music program like the Atlanta Music Project can take any kid and turn them into someone who kicks a-- at life.

    As for the paper orchestra, it's easily done, if the teacher is good and the class is focused. Remember that the paper orchestra, in Montalban (the biggest nucleo in Caracas), started because of a lack of instruments, so they had to keep it interesting and engaging.

    Sounds like CMU is you treating well. Good luck with your paper and senior year.