Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Week 16: La Rinconada: El Sistema's Oldest Nucleo

For the next couple of days, the Abreu Fellows will be visiting La Rinconada Nucleo, which is located in the southern part of Caracas and was the first nucleo established by El Sistema in the 1970's. La Rinconada emphasizes early childhood programs, including one for toddlers and moms and a percussion class for children with special needs.

When we arrived, a group of 4-year old children had just moved from the Paper Orchestra to playing a real stringed instrument. All of the fellows are fascinated by the Paper Orchestra concept. These beautifully homemade instruments are created by the child and parent to help develop respect, care and discipline for the stringed instrument that the child will eventually play. The paper instruments also allows kids to safely practice motor skills needed for bowing and handling, before the real instrument is placed in their hands. Students make the instruments at home with their parents for one month and then play them at the nucleo for two months leading up to a final performance. Then they are ready to move on to the real thing!

Much of the pedagogy at La Rinconada developed out of practical need and trial and error. The talented teachers here constantly create and revise their teaching practice to meet the needs of their children, many who come from the outlying barrios. In fact the Paper Orchestra concept was born out of just such a practical need: after waiting months for the real instruments to arrive, the paper orchestra was created to get instruments into the hands of eagerly awaiting children.

I had a chance to observe two classes of musicianship for 3 and 4 year olds. Movement and percussion instruments were built in to each song, with deliberate moments of silence, "rest position" and taking turns to develop discipline, focus and listening skills. One of the teachers explained that the primary goal of these musicianship classes is to develop discipline. After hearing from some of the fellows how unbelievably focused the 6 - 9 year old students were during an hour and a half orchestra rehearsal next door, I believe the teachers are accomplishing their goal.

Here is a short documentary from Michael Uy who worked at La Rinconada for two weeks in 2008. He shares his experiences there and provides a wonderful summary and visual backdrop to this inspiring place.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Meeting Two of El Sistema's Ambassadors

Where do you get to meet the world's leading conductors Gustavo Dudamel and Claudio Abbado on the same weekend? In Caracas, of course, celebrating the 35th anniversary of El Sistema. Both conductors are deeply committed to this inspiring youth music program and see youth mentorship as an essential part of a professional orchestra’s work. Their hope is that more orchestras throughout the US and Europe will take up the same charge and understand how important the musical development of youth are to the future of orchestras and symphonic music. Dudamel and Abbdado give their time and expertise to these young orchestras and are working to develop El Sistema programs in Los Angeles and Italy, respectively.

Dudamel powerfully articulated the LA Phil’s commitment to youth music programs when he opened the LA Philharmonic season conducting students alongside LA Phil musicians. This gesture earned him ABC’s Person of the Week: Gustavo Dudamel's First Concert With the L.A. Philharmonic - ABC News

The fellows hope to enroll more American symphonies in this important work. I was honored to meet Dudamel after an incredible performance of the Simon Bolivar A Orchestra (consisting of El Sistema teachers and founding members) and was able to share with him my plans to work with the community of Juneau, Alaska, to start an El Sistema-inspired program there.

In keeping with El Sistema's philosophy of early access to instrumental instruction, our hope is to pilot an initiative at Glacier Valley Elementary School where all of the kindergarten classes will learn Suzuki violin alongside their teachers during the school day. I just wrote my first grant proposal to help fund the purchase of a classroom set of violins and am keeping my fingers crossed!

I was able to present Dudamel with an Alaskan pin to signify that his advocacy of El Sistema USA is expanding to a northern neighbor in Juneau, Alaska.

Maestro Abbado was kind enough to meet some of the fellows after a rehearsal with the Simon Bolivar B Orchestra, which will perform Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 next Wednesday night. When I shared with the concertmaster of the Simon Bolivar B Orchestra how expressive and passionate the orchestra played together during the rehearsal, moving like waves across the stage, he said, "You haven't seen anything yet. Just wait for Wednesday night's performance." Here's a photo from their rehearsal. It's hard to capture the intensity and energy behind their playing in a still photo, but I can testify that I have never seen anything like it before in my life! I can't wait for Wednesday night!

My colleague, Christine Witkowski, posted a beautiful reflection on the Saturday morning performance by the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra, made up of El Sistema musicians ages 12 - 16. I couldn't express our experience more eloquently. Please read her blog, Key Changes, describing this incredible orchestra.

Friday, February 19, 2010

El Sistema Celebrates 35 Years

We arrived in Caracas just in time to celebrate El Sistema's 35th year anniversary. Tonight's the big night! Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and there are rumors we may be able to meet both Maestro Dudamel and Dr. Abreu! With all of this excitement, the fellows are still very grounded in our purpose here in Venezuela. We are here because of a wish Dr. Abreu made when he won the 2009 TED Prize:
"I wish that you help to create and document a special training program for 50 gifted young musicians passionate about their art and social justice and dedicated to bringing El Sistema to the United States and other countries."
With the accomplishments Jose Abreu has made in Venezuela, I have no doubt that his wish will come true. The Center for Social Action Through Music (pictured above) is a physical testimony of his work. FESNOJIV (El Sistema) created this building to provide quality space for youth music academic programs especially those at-risk. This impressive center has 94 rehearsal rooms and two performance halls - the Simón Bolívar Hall, which seats 1,100 and the Concert Hall N° 2 with a seating capacity of 400. The walls, floors and ceiling are soundproofed and rooms are built with flexibility in mind, so that a meeting room can quickly be transformed into a performance or rehearsal space.

Here's a slide show of the different spaces this beautiful center offers:

Rodrigo Guerrero, International Affairs Coordinator of FESNOJIV, gave us a tour of the center and shared Dr. Abreu's goal for expansion:

With six buildings like the center approved for other cities in Venezuela and 24 new nucleos scheduled to open next year, FESNOJIV is accomplishing Dr. Abreu's goal of providing 1 million students access to quality music experiences in their community.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Week 15: Arriving in Venezuela!

The moment the Abreu Fellows have been waiting for has finally arrived: we landed in Caracas to begin our two-month period of observation and study at various El Sistema sites throughout Venezuela.
As guests of FESNOVJIV (El Sistema) or the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela, the fellows will stay together as a group in Caracas for the first 10 days and then will spread out in teams of 2 or 3 to visit three different nucleos in outlying areas to continue our observations, as well as help teach.

There are 180 nucleos operating in Venezuela, which are community-based and house choral and orchestral programs. Although the itinerary may change, Jonathan Govias and I are scheduled to visit the following communities, each for a two-week period: Maracaibo, Barquisimeto (home of Gustavo Dudamel) and San Felipe. Tomorrow we'll visit the Center for Social Action through Music and watch the Simon Bolivar Orchestra perform Mahler's Symphony No. 9 conducted by Dudamel! Until then...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Week 14: Kids are Kids

The most difficult part of being in the Abreu fellowship has been the lack of contact with kids.  I really miss the students at Glacier Valley Elementary School and have been searching for opportunities to work with children while in Boston. A good friend of mine, Irene Smalls is a children's book author and volunteers at a local Boston school in Rochester:  Nathan Hale Elementary School.  Irene created a program called Literacise, which integrates children's literature with physical movement, and she shares her lessons with classes at Nathan Hale.

Irene arranged for me to visit the school so that I could work with some of the classes.  As soon as I entered the school grounds, I knew Nathan Hale was a very special place.  Volunteers greeted me at the door, positive messages adorned brightly painted walls and children's artwork hung proudly throughout the school.  The principal, Sandy Mitchell-Woods, is the driving force behind this incredible school.  She works alongside the community and parents to bring a variety of experiences to the students and was awarded Massachusetts Principal of the Year for her efforts.

I decided to bring one of the Remo drums along with me on the subway and bus to share with the kids.  My first thought entering one of the kindergarten classes was:  would this school population of predominantly African-American and Latino students respond differently to the way I teach than those of Glacier Valley consisting of mostly Alaskan Native, Asian-Pacific and Caucasian students?  After visiting three different classes that morning, I came away reaffirmed that "Kids are Kids"  and that lessons filled with challenge, joy, teamwork, humor, goal-setting and a sense of accomplishment appeal to both child and adult learners.

After we mastered the first skill, I'd announce, "Congratulations, you have reached Level I in drumming."  The question from the class that immediately followed was, "What's Level II?"  and with the answer came an eagerness from the class to achieve it.  From sitting up properly, holding a steady beat to tapping out a complex rhythm while singing an African song, the class was determined to reach higher levels of skill mastery.  By the end of the lesson, they had reached Level XII and you should have seen the pride in their faces.   We ended the session giving everyone a chance to improvise.  Here's a picture of one of the students - his face tells it all.

Thank you, Sandy Mitchell-Wood, Irene Smalls and the entire Nathan Hale Elementary School community for welcoming me into your school.  Also, thank you Will Schmid and Remo Belli for your gift of drums, which continues to reach others beyond the NEC community.