The highlight of the conference for most people was the presentation on Friday morning by the Abreu fellows, where nine of the ten fellows described their two months in Venezuela during February, March, and April, 2010. (Dan Berkowitz was hired by the LA Philharmonic to head up their YOLA program before the fellows’ trip to Venezuela.) The Abreu fellows are enrolled in a graduate program at New England Conservatory; they are named after José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema. (My identifications of the fellows are less than minimal; please see the Fellows page at El Sistema USA for full bios on each.)
The nine fellows spent two weeks together in Caracas; on their first day there they witnessed a performance of Mahler’s 9 conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. They then split into 3 groups of 3, and went out into the country for 6 weeks, visiting 10 states and thousands of children.
David Malek, a clarinetist from Texas who has taught at many levels in many places, described arriving at their first nucleo at 8:30 in the morning, only to find it empty and closed up. They figured they were too early but then found all the administrators and teachers in an orchestra rehearsal around the back, illustrating El Sistemo’s motto of Tocar y Luchar – to play and to struggle or strive. Administrators continue to play and students become teachers or grab a teacher wherever they find one. David gave 3 1/2 hour clarinet lessons in hallways where he and the student couldn’t speak the same language, yet somehow connected.
Rebecca Levi, who spent some time teaching in Peru, talked about time and intensity in South America: “Time beat me here. I wasn’t late; time beat me here.” The nucleos are open all the time, 6 days a week, and children seize time to get an extra lesson, practice in the corridor. She described an afternoon when the power went out during an orchestra rehearsal, so the children turned their cell phone lights on the music to keep playing. She also described the “white hands choir” for deaf kids, where the children sign songs by signing the words, and other special-needs kids sing along with them. One young girl in a very poor neighborhood described how she used to get into a lot of fights, but now when she gets angry, “I grab my arm and start to practice my fingerings.”
Lorrie Heagy, a music educator from Juneau Alaska, described how there are orchestras at every level to support each child at every level, with no gaps. Teacher training is a conveyor belt of support; the most important message she learned was from a violin teacher in Caracas, “Never place limits on what a child can do – he or she is a musician from the very start.” Lorrie has put a video on her website illustrating this “conveyor belt of support” for children of all ages.
Christine Witkowski, French Horn, taught 12 kids – one had a leg growing out of her stomach, and another was missing a right hand. They got assigned French Horn because it was physically possible for them to play horn; Christine was struck by the level of self-confidence of these severely disabled children. The orchestra can really be a metaphor for every piece of Venezuelan society; a mother saw that the kids in her poor neighborhood weren’t going to the nucleo, so she started one in a small house with paint cans for chairs, “and the kids came running.” She used the resources available to create a new module.
Katie Wyatt, violist, talked about how the nucleo feels alive – they use the words “nucleo” and “orchestra” interchangeably. The orchestra is where all these ideas come together, and where you can experience the tenet that every child is an asset. The kids feel safe there and call it a second home; it is a place of joy and community. She also described the concept of “Trust the Young” – a young girl in a small town decided that her orchestra needed a better viola section, so she asked if she could switch to viola. She then asked to teach the next generation of violists, in order to improve the orchestra. Now she’s the lead viola teacher, at 15!
Alvaro Rodas, a percussionist from Guatemala with a Masters in Arts Administration from Columbia, discussed El Sistema as a complex network of organizations and people. He used Rodrigo, a young cellist, as an example of an administrator who used tough love to rate teachers and students in order to select those who will play Mahler with Simon Rattle this summer.
Stanford Thompson, trumpet from Georgia, described a situation out in country where they had 2 weeks to prepare the kids for a concert. It was really hot and the power went out. There was no A/C in the small crowded rehearsal room, the window wouldn’t open, and he couldn’t bear the heat, so he left. When he came back, the kids were all still there, drenched in sweat but still rehearsing, sharing their vision of preparing for this concert.
Dantes Rameau, a bassoonist from Canada, talked about Carlo, the best recorder student who wanted to play bassoon. Dantes gave him his first lesson and then Carlos joined the sectional, having had 2 hours of experience with the instrument. Dantes was rehearsing a 16th note passage and suddenly Carlos came in with a BLAUGH. Would Carlos play the concert 2 nights from now? Of course! No one ever says NO to a child. So Dantes rewrote the part for Carlos so he could chime in — Tocas y Luchar! Carlos is a true example of El Sistema’s open access, where you find a way to include the child in the nucleo. Sports is not accessible like music; all kids, including blind kids, poor kids, and disabled kids, can all do music.
Jonathan Govias, a conductor from Canada, wrapped things up. He conducted the concert where Carlos was making his debut on the bassoon, performing the 1812 Overture. He described how the bar was set very high — there was only one orchestra and it included rank beginners like Carlos up to the concertmaster of the National Children’s Orchestra. He had to simplify parts for some of the kids, and practice all the kids during the rehearsals because there was no other time available. To quote Jonathan, “This concert was the most meaningful experience of my life. We were playing outdoors, the light was fading fast, the wind was throwing the music off the stands, and it was close to 100 degrees. Two dogs started to fight, and then a drunk started conducting; he finally saluted us. This was indeed ‘to struggle and then to play’. But this performance gave direction and purpose to the struggle. There were a lot of wrong notes, and we often weren’t together, but it was beautiful.”