Monday, May 17, 2010




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"



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.


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).


 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


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.


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.


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.

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  1. Whao! That has to be your longest post on record. Thanks for the update. I'm still going back over all the links. Hope to see the Camerata on Facebook.
    Label that video carefully and hang on to it. You never know what its value is after a good bit of time has past.
    Still trying to find your YOLA Symposium presentation so I can show it to colleagues. They must still be editing all of it. I would be happy with the uncut version. It was a very moving presentation.

  2. Thanks for the update! How come you are not allowed to reveal the details about the National Children's orchestra? Is it Claudio Abbado the "world-renowned conductor"? I know you cannot say that! Please keep us posted. BTW I love the way you express yor ideas on your blog!

  3. Nelson Venezuela CumanáMay 18, 2010 at 4:32 PM

    hola mi pana (amigo) es nelson de cumaná, he estado esperando tu respuesta y no me ha llegado. no nos olvides. esperamos que regresen, saludos a stanford. este es mi correo

  4. I would like to translate the above message:

    Hi Pana (meaning "friend"), this is Nelson from Cumaná. I have beeen waiting for your answer. Do not forget us. We are expecting (more like "we wish") you to come back. Greetings to Stanford. My email address is

    I am sorry, it seems so urgent that I feel compelled to tranlate it for you

  5. Thank you for your posts! I've really enjoyed reading them. I'm a high school senior from around Boston MA. I recently heard on 60 minutes that USA Sistema was coming to Boston, but I haven't been able to find any sort of website or information about it. I play cello and would LOVE to do community service over the summer in el Sistema. Do you know anything about el Sistema Boston or can you send me to another Abreu scholar who does?
    Thank you,

  6. Thanks for your kind words Ms. Cynthia. I'll inquire about the recording of our presentation too.

  7. To Anonymous:

    Thank you for your translation of my good friend Nelson's comment.

    In regards to the your question, the conductor is not Claudio Abbado. Although, as you probably know, Abbado has a great relationship with El Sistema and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra "B". We watched Abbado conduct them in Caracas in Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony. It was stupendous!

    I'll certainly blog about and post any pictures and videos from the National Children's Orchestra when El Sistema gives us permission. For now they want to be the one releasing important info about their own product, which is understandable.

    Thanks for reading.

  8. A Mi Pana Nelson,

    Como estas amigo? No puedo olvidar mi tiempo en Cumana, porque fue demasiado bueno! Espero que todo esta bien contigo y tu familia.

    Vamos a hablar cuando la copa del mundo en sudafrica comienza!

    Por favor, saludos a todos mis amigos del nucleo Cumana.

  9. To Anonymous from Boston:

    Indeed, there will be an El Sistema-inspired program in Boston launching this fall. Leading it will be Abreu Fellows Rebecca Levi and David Malek and it will be housed at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, MA.
    For more information or to get in touch with Rebecca or David email me at

    If you want to volunteer for El Sistema USA or the Abreu Fellows Program over the summer send an email to

    Hope that helps. Good luck.

  10. Thanks for your help, I'll definitely look into volunteering this summer.
    Helen (Anonymous from Boston)

  11. Nelson from cunamáJune 21, 2010 at 12:39 AM

    hi my friend, how are you? how is evrything?, the wolrd cup began and was desqualified cameroon, i´m so sorry i wanted them to pass the group stage . i think argentina will win. send greetings to standford. both are coming back some day?

    EXCUSE ME for (by?) my english. bye.

    your good friend Nelson.