Saturday, October 17, 2009

Whirlwind Week 1: Focus on El Sistema's Key Elements

How do we capture the unique qualities of El Sistema and translate them here in the U.S.? That was the big question permeating our discussions this week led by incredible presenters:

On Wednesday, Anne Fitzgibbon who traveled to Venezuela as a Fulbright Scholar and started an El Sistema initiative in the US called the Harmony Program in Brooklyn, New York, shared her key elements:

  • Intensity of Study:  students start as early as age three and attend the conservatory every day after school.
  • Supportive Culture:  extraordinary relationship between teacher and students, as well as student to student.  Everybody is on the same team.
  • Emphasis on Ensemble:  students feel important and have fun through peer interaction and mentoring. Movement is embedded in everything they do.  They play joyfully; they have fun.

On Thursday, Eric Booth, who wears many hats including author of the book, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, helped the fellows brainstorm our own list of El Sistema key elements (see photo).  In addition to Anne’s list we added:
  • Child First, Music Second
  • Sustainable through Consistent Funding
  • Emphasis on Performance 
  • Passion before Precision
  • Flexible Model with Clear Vision
  • Access to All Students 
  • Family and Community Inclusion
  • Every Child is an Asset and has the Capacity to Learn 
  • Mix of Classical and Folk Music
On Friday, El Sistema graduates studying in the US provided an informal round table discussion, allowing us to ask questions about their experiences as children participating in Venezuela’s El Sistema program (see photo below).  They were very patient with us and after three hours of questions were able to help us hone in on what they thought made El Sistema unique and successful:
    • Camaraderie: students and teachers are a family
    • Consistency and Intensity of Program: rehearsals every day for at least four hours 
    • Use of Movement as Teaching Method: having movement as part of their lessons helped them stay motivated and instilled a sense of play. 
    • Seminars:  each nucleo would have the opportunity to travel, visit and play with students from other nucleos.  Each seminar lasted one or two weeks and was obvious by our visitors’ enthusiastic responses that it was key to the program. 
    • Competition or “to strive with”: students worked hard to advance to the next orchestra level, because it meant more challenging music, performances and travel.
    The week ended very much like it began:  being inspired by Ben Zander.  Instead of his “home” in Jordan Hall where I watched him conduct the Boston Philharmonic last weekend, Ben hosted an evening at his home in Cambridge for many people key to making the El Sistema USA program a reality, including Anna and Amy from the TED organization.  Ben shared dinner, conversation and inspiring stories about his life.  I am thrilled to be able to participate in his Music Interpretation class each Friday, one of the most popular classes at NEC! Not only does he model how music is an art form; but equally important, how teaching is an art form.  You can watch his inspiring talk on TED about music and passion.


      1. Lorrie, A GREAT start!! ...and nice to read about the bio's of the other recipients. I was immediately drawn to Christine Witkowski, since I know her former instructor, Gail Williams; this will show my own daughter that there is life and opportunity for horn players after graduation!!
        News from Juneau: the JSO played to a packed (new auditorium) at Thunder Mtn. HS last night. The acoustics of the hall are quite good for such a small space, and we look forward to performing there more in the future. Absent from the audience were all the students and young folks; I took a quick head count and noted the average age to be around 45-50. Only 3 folks in the Jr. High to High School age range. I feel that in order for the El Sistema program to be successful in Juneau, we are going to need to find a way to get more of the young musicians of this town attending the many local performances available to them. Part of the problem is funding; I note that one of your key elements for program success is (to be) sustainable through consistent funding. That will certainly be a challenge as we drive this idea forward! Perhaps the JSO can do a better job of helping promote the concerts in local area schools AND offer special resources for those that DO attend (lower admission, lessons with JSO principals; other thoughts?)
        Thanks for the update. I will try to follow closely and add thoughts as the year progresses and time allows!

      2. Lorrie, I was struck by two things. One, playing with joy and two, ensemble.


      3. Dear Lorrie:
        What a wonderful looking group of young Latin American musicians. Are any of them in schools in CA? Are any of them string players?
        I would love for our Santa Ana students to meet such wonderful role models and have them speak with our parents in Santa Ana.

      4. Actually, is there anyway that they could do this online? In Spanish? Maybe as a promo to the new video.