Sunday, May 9, 2010

Weeks 23 & 24: Composing Change - YOLA & the El Sistema Movement

Alvaro and I ready to start Composing Change in the US

I have just returned from an incredible symposium, Composing Change: YOLA and the El Sistema Movement, held in Los Angeles and hosted by the LA Phil in partnership with El Sistema USA and the League of American Orchestras. Thank you, Dan Berkowitz, Leni Boostin and Gretchen Nielsen for organizing such an inspiring program!

As part of the symposium, the Abreu Fellows shared our experiences in Venezuela, including this short movie that I made to document how a child as young as two years old might prepare for and progress through the orchestra in an El Sistema nucleo. Afterward, many people asked if they could use this film to share with their communities at home. So, here it is.  You can also access it on Youtube:  El Sistema:  Venezuela's Youth Progress through the Orchestra

Over 250 music educators, musicians and delegates from youth orchestras and organizations attended the symposium, representing 26 states (Hawaii and Alaska included) and 6 countries! It was an honor to be in attendance and be able to share the Abreu Fellows' insights from our combined visits to over 60 nucleos throughout Venezuela. My part of the presentation reiterated the impressions that I had shared with Dr. Abreu during our last week in Venezuela:

Continuity and Unified Vision:   At the nucleos where our team visited, there was always an orchestra or ensemble to meet each child at his or her musical level.  More importantly,  no gaps existed between one orchestra and the next, but rather a continuum of musical support from the baby classes all the way through adulthood, ensuring that no skills were lost in the interim.  Every teacher works toward a strong, unified vision.  For example, the early childhood teachers know how the skills they are teaching in their classes will manifest themselves in the kind of high level musicianship we see in the Simon Bolivar B Orchestra.  In the United States, we have so many different community and school musical experiences available to children.  We could benefit from the Venezuelan model by exploring ways to connect these offerings into one continuous conveyor belt of musical support, making sure our young musicians always have a place to "tocar y luchar" (play and strive).

 At La Rinconada Nucleo, a 2-year old practices steady beat

Trust in Our Youth and Culture of Sharing:  Rebecca and I had opportunities to give workshops to teachers in each Venezuelan state we visited.  Our last one was held in Caracas, on a Saturday morning for 4 hours.  We were amazed at how young the 40 participants were - many still teenagers or in their early twenties. When I asked, "Are all of these participants teachers?" the response from one teacher was, "Many of them are students becoming teachers" (see photo below). This is just one example of how El Sistema brings its youth into the fold and places trust in them as educators at an early age.  The doors to professional development are open to everyone, as well as the doors to classrooms, materials and teaching practices.  Every teacher gladly shared what they had with us wherever we went.  It was an overwhelming gesture that I hope we can foster in the states.  This culture of sharing and collaboration can only improve the musical experiences we provide for our children.

 Some of the young participants at the teacher training workshop in Caracas

Start Early and Place No Limits:  Josbel and the teachers at La Rinconada are responsible for creating the Paper Orchestra concept and are continually testing out new ideas so that children can successfully access music-making at a very young age.   They embody the words that Josbel shared with the Abreu Fellows during our first week in Caracas:  "There are no limits on our creativity as teachers."  When I think of teachers who approach their work as an art form, I think of the incredible teaching staff at La Rinconada.  An important message I will bring back with me to Juneau came from Israel who teaches violin at La Rinconada (photo below).  When I asked him what should people in the United States know about El Sistema, he said, "Never place limits on what a child can do.  He or she is a musician from the very start."  Before coming to Venezuela, I was so worried about being able to teach violin to an entire class of kindergartners,  but after seeing much younger classes with more children and a variety of instrumentation, I know it can and has been done.

Rebecca and I with some of the inspirational teachers at
Nucleo La Rinconada: Amilcar, Josbel, Veronica and Israel

My fellow colleague, Christine Witkowski, also addresses El Sistema's philosophy of starting early and placing no limits on a child in her posting entitled, 8-15 Year Olds Take on the Titans which recounts the rehearsals we saw of the National Children's Orchestra of Venezuela.  Very inspiring!  Muchas gracias El Sistema teachers, staff and students for giving me these incredible experiences to take back with me.

Tonight I leave for Scotland! That's right! Tomorrow I begin my one-month internship with Big Noise, an El Sistema-inspired program in the Raploch area of the city of Stirling supported by Sistema Scotland and the Scottish Arts Council. I am very excited to intern here because Big Noise partners with its local schools both during and after the school day, which is a model I plan to bring back to Juneau, Alaska. Thank you, Scottish Arts Council and the New England Conservatory for your financial support of this internship.

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