Monday, June 28, 2010


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.


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 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!

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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.