Sunday, October 24, 2010

What are we doing?

If you are wondering what we are doing at the Abreu Fellowship Program this is a good place to look. I am writing this blog in an attempt to share with you and in essence give you a bird's eye view of our conference room. The list of speakers who have come in to lead our seminars is impressive, from El Sistema USA senior advisor, non-profit specialists, partnership gurus, scholars on children-at-risk, to authorities on urban education, and El Sistema consultants. We are getting exclusive, exceptional, and expert education in the form of an exercise for the jobs we will hold in the near future.

Fellowship is used sometimes as a synonym for awareness, familiarity, and understanding. At the Abreu Fellowship program, we are practicing all three of these and then some. Our consciousness of topics such as child development, community engagement, creative strategies, program design, marketing, and budgeting is being challenged on a consistent basis through focused seminars guided by brilliant experts in these fields.

In the end, after all the discussions, after studying subjects and deliberating arguments, we don't come up with concrete answers. What we do come up with are a series of potent questions that serve as a pathway towards finding methodology. These questions are powerful and relevant and are crucial in the debate of what we will do in the future. Answering these questions will inevitably shape our strategies and hopefully propel us towards our collective goal. In case you have not heard, our goal is to transform communities through the power of music education. Recent history has unveiled for us the power music education possesses by example: El Sistema Venezuela. Our job is to unfold it and spread it as far as the eye can see. Our eyes are set on making this a reality in communities all over the United States.

I want to share with you some of the questions that are taking shape in our dialogues in the hopes that you might contribute to finding the answers.

I have mentioned in my previous blog entry the idea of "passion driven education", so here is a question for you:

How do you synthesise or structure passion and organization?

Two more questions I want to share with you:

How do you change the perception or the branding of classical music in the United States?

How can what we are doing with El Sistema be an intervention for kids in poverty?

These are some tough questions. We hope to find the answers to these questions and to the dozens more that directly shape our approach to successfully implementing the El Sistema model in the U.S.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Connecting and Engaging Communities

How do the arts connect to communities? In the United States right now there are so many arts organizations that have been around for decades, yet so many of them find the task of connecting to their communities to be a real challenge. Arts education and outreach programs exist in almost every major city in America, yet somehow they are not fully succeeding at engaging their surrounding communities. These organizations need to find a new model for reaching out to their audiences and most importantly, they need to identify a successful way to activate and sustain their audience's engagement.

In Venezuela, El Sistema has managed to connect to their communities by using music as a "vehicle for  development". Their model is innovative but has a clear mission.Their approach of "sharing the knowledge of music with under-served populations" has produced such a clear outcome that the whole world is paying attention and now wants to learn.

Arts organizations in the US can learn a lot from this Venezuelan model but may not have the time to go and observe El Sistema for weeks or months, although some have. Some of the important lessons to learn from El Sistema aren't new ideas, they are just ideas that have not been implemented here before, at least not with the proper dedication of time and energy. If there is one thing I would underline that has to be done, it's the investment of time. Time could mean years, and years translates to a big financial investment for a lot of these institutions. But that's what it takes. We cannot expect to build sustainable community engagement in a few months, or with a handful of run-out concerts or music workshops.  If we want to really create interest we have to impact crowds and target arts education in innovative ways. We have to use alternative pedagogy, what some expert teaching artists call "passion driven education".

Some of us may have a hard time adjusting to these ideas. Our personal backgrounds and ways of doing things can "conflict" with the El Sistema model. If you find yourself in this position, I encourage you do investigate just a little, and identify for yourself the successes of this model. I admit I am an advocate for El Sistema. My job is simple, as Eric Booth describes it: "the purpose of advocacy is not to change what people think but to change what people do, and what people do is based on what they believe. If you change what people believe, you can get them to change". As an advocate for El Sistema USA, I am dedicated to changing how arts organizations approach and interact with their communities and am on a quest to challenge what they believe they know to be true about community engagement.

If you have any thoughts, please comment.....

Let's share 'Notes'

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What is "El Sistema" ?

I knew about "El Sistema" long before I went to live in Venezuela. I had put together an idea in my mind of what it was based entirely on snippets of information I had gathered from meeting musicians from Venezuela. My husband (Venezuelan clarinetist Jorge Montilla ) had told me quite a bit about it because he grew up in it and has been and still is an active member and teacher in "El Sistema" for 30 years now. But it wasn't until I became involved in "El Sistema" that I really understood what it was all about. Nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed in Venezuela. I remember someone telling me that the "most important thing happening in music today is happening in Venezuela". A quote I later found out came from the video "Tocar y Luchar" which is a documentary about “El Sistema”. What I saw, heard and experienced in Venezuela made that statement come to life. I tried to explain to my friends what life is like in Venezuela for musicians and music lovers with words. Words like: unbelievable, astonishing, exciting, mesmerizing, and moving came to mind. But sometimes words are not enough. Sometimes you need some hype and mass media coverage to get a point across and this is what is happening now with “ El Sistema”. I can tell you that the hype and excitement about” El Sistema” is for a good reason. “El Sistema” is changing the world of classical music as we know it. Change is here, and change is not only good, it's exciting and is filling us with great expectations for the future. When was the last time you thought about the future of classical music and felt excited or hopeful? For me, “El Sistema” is the future of classical music. I am choosing my words very carefully here. I am not saying that “ El Sistema” is the future of classical musicians, or the future of orchestras, or the future of music education. I mean it is the future of everything we know that encompasses classical music. Before I get into that though, I want to write a little more about what I saw and heard during my 3 years living in Venezuela.

In 2007 I moved to Venezuela with my husband Jorge and our then 3 year old daughter Lilian. My husband immediately started playing as Principal Clarinet of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. I, on the other hand, did not start working immediately; I wanted to get to know Venezuela a little and especially the local community where I was going to be living. But, what better way to get to know your community than to dive right in and start working, right? So that's what I decided to do. Looking back, I have to say that I was very fortunate and lucky to have gotten the opportunity to teach and be a part of "El Sistema" in Venezuela. It turned out to be one of the most inspirational jobs I've ever had. I worked at the "Nucleo San Antonio de los Altos". I taught violin to children and youth ranging from ages 6 to 20. I lead sectionals for orchestra, and conducted orchestra rehearsals and concerts. The "Nucleo San Antonio de los Altos" had only been operational for a year when I joined the staff of teachers. In the time I spent teaching there, I got to see the 'nucleo' grow and blossom. They are in their fifth year now and have become an important part of the community of San Antonio de los Altos, a small town located about 10 kilometers from Caracas. They serve over 400 kids 6 days a week, 3 hours a day, and offer orchestra and choir. The kids perform for virtually every local event and the surrounding community shows their support by attending concerts which usually are standing room only because the seats fill up quickly.

So, how does "El Sistema" achieve this? How do they build small community music schools that grow to take on central roles in the lives of the cities they serve? They do it through passion, love, and hard work. Teachers in 'nucleos' in Venezuela are passionate about their work, they love the children they work with, and they show up Monday through Saturday to demonstrate their passion, love and dedication. The end result speaks for itself and all the hype and mass media coverage is trying to show the world how this concept of passion, love and hard work is changing the face of classical music. I worked in "El Sistema" and saw first-hand the passion and love teachers and directors have for their students. I can attest to the kids presence 6 days a week, 3 hours a day, working hard and having fun in the safe environment their 'nucleo' provides. I've seen people walk into our concerts just because it's the local kids performing. There is something special about kids performing that warms our hearts. And in Venezuela, "El Sistema" has tapped into our universal need to see children succeed because somehow, their success is our success. Their achievements are our achievements. We find comfort in the knowledge that children are not out creating mischief, but rather they are in a safe place working hard. There is nothing nobler than a life with purpose. And the 'nucleo' provides that purpose to hundreds of kids who otherwise wouldn't know where to turn to or what to do. Tavis Smiley came to interview us at the Abreu Fellowship program this week and made a comment about how so many kids today seem lost and are searching. They are searching for purpose, and "El Sistema" is filling that need by putting a musical instrument in the hands of thousands of these kids and giving them free membership to a kind of fraternity that is inclusive and welcoming. And that fraternity is orchestra!

Can you imagine a world where orchestra is cool? A world where enjoying classical music is not elitist, but rather a natural and wonderful thing to do? This is how it is in Venezuela. They use classical music and orchestral repertoire in their 'nucleos' and because they have been doing this for over 35 years in local music schools all over the country, in Venezuela, classical music is cool. It is not elitist, it is inclusive and for everyone. I know that "El Sistema" is a lot of things, but to me it really is the future of classical music. "El Sistema" is a world where classical music is shared. Those of us who are lucky enough to have studied classical music know all of its benefits and music educators have for many decades tried to convince the general public of its value. "El Sistema" has found the perfect pathway to making this available to everyone, by placing classical music in the heart of the communities that are furthest from it. We can talk about the resulting social changes that have occurred because of this, but what I want to focus on today is how "El Sistema" has gotten hundreds of thousands of people excited about classical music. We can be optimistic about the future of classical music because "El Sistema USA" is spreading the seeds of excitement and optimism throughout small communities all over the U.S.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Let's Change the World

Let's change the world! Sounds ambitions doesn't it?

Well, we at the Abreu Fellowship Program think it is possible. I am honored to be part of an amazing team of Fellows and fortunate to be in an environment where people are excited about the future of music education.

This week I got to meet Tony Woodcock, president of the New England Conservatory. His excitement and energy is infectious and his belief in the power and potential of this program is inspiring. This year we will be having sessions with him regarding presentation and public speaking. But what's most exciting is the opportunity to exchange ideas with a person who is actively revitalizing the world of music and challenging others to do the same. If you are not familiar with Tony Woodcock, I invite you to listen to a presentation he gave recently at the Salzburg Global Seminars. Click  here to listen to his presentation.

How can we change the world? "Let's be Creative". Tony Woodcock invites us to re-evaluate our role by asking these questions:

-What is the role of a musician?
-What are the skills needed for contemporary society?

Creativity is not lacking in musicians and at NEC, Tony Woodcock is teaching us to trust and empower musicians because, together we can change the world. But how? Well, first we have to have a plan!
On Tuesday October 5th, Greg Kandel will be speaking to us about strategic planning. Kandel is a “partner of Management Consultants for the Arts, Inc., a consulting firm serving the American cultural community since 1983 through strategic planning, executive search, and organizational analysis”. He is also a contributor for the resources section on the National Endowment for the Arts webpage. You can Click  here to read his paper The Art in the Process of Planning . I am excited to hear what Greg has to say to us. I was recently reading a draft copy of one of Greg Kandel’s papers, and in it he quoted Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Only those who can see the invisible can accomplish the impossible!”

I agree with that statement 100%. And in order for us to change the world, we have to believe in a vision that although today may seem impossible, tomorrow will transform our world. For us music educators, musicians, and parents, El Sistema is providing us with that vision. A vision of a tomorrow where children who are considered ‘at risk’ now, will be empowered to take ownership of the world and contribute to our collective future. All through the power of music education.

On the evening of October 5th, I will be participating in a panel discussion at NEC entitled “Changing the World: Musicians and Social Action”. It is part of a Career Strategy Workshop Series offered to students, alumni, and the public. Click here for more info. I invite you to come. I also invite you to comment on my blog so…..

Let’s Share ‘Notes’