Thursday, September 1, 2011

Abreu Fellows: The Beginning (August, 2011)

August 29, 2011
A little background on the weather conditions leading up to the first day of the Abreu Fellows program: Last week, the news indicated that the East Coast would be hit with a hurricane so fierce, so vicious, as to threaten to storm us back to the Stone Age. Leading up to the weekend, stores were running out of milk and toilet paper as people stocked up. At least 370,000 people were ordered to evacuate their homes in New York City. The New York transportation system shut down for the first time in history. Ladies and gentlemen, this was an apocalypse we were talking about.

I had planned to leave for Boston on Sunday, after spending a day leisurely packing and enjoying a day at home in New York. No such luck. After flying back from Switzerland Friday night, I stayed up all night packing, then left on Saturday to catch the last bus leaving Port Authority before everything shut down. After 7 hours, I arrived in Boston and holed up at a friend's house to watch the storm pass.

And in Boston, that's really all it was: a storm.

At the orientation for new students at the New England Conservatory on Monday morning, President Tony Woodcock aptly expressed the beginning of our year, to the effect of “we'll always remember this class as the one that blew in with the storm.”

I'm not going to dwell too much on how that could or could not be an analogy for our journey in the Abreu Fellows program this year. But it did feel oddly appropriate to have weathered a storm as we left everything behind to delve into a program that explores music education as a vehicle for saving the lives of millions of children.

In our first meeting as a group (well, 4/5ths, as Aisha and José Luis got marooned in the Dominican Republic and Mexico from the storm), President Woodcock explained the history of how the Abreu Fellows program began at NEC, how and why the program has changed since its inception in 2009, and why he and his team feel that this program is so important to the field of music and music education. Much to the relief of the Fellows around the table, we learned a little more about our schedules for the year, as well as about the specific classes and projects we'll partake in. Looking around the table, I realized that there were 7 other people who were as passionate about the mission of El Sistema as I am, and equally eager to delve into this work. When I looked at the curriculum for the year, I felt like a pig in... um, mud. But seriously, it dawned on me how awesome it is to join a group of extraordinary people in asking questions, in getting our hands dirty in this work, in learning as much as we can about the exceptional program of El Sistema and how elements of it can be adapted to the U.S and beyond.

Already, several comments and questions emerged around the table that resonated with me. While we search as a group to communicate what we're learning in a way that's interesting and/or helpful, I'd like to simply echo some of the questions and comments that may become themes this year.

  • Leadership at every level of an organization is essential to the success of that organization. In describing the expectations of the Abreu Fellows, President Woodcock, and Leslie Wu Foley (Dean and Executive Director of Preparatory and Continuing Education) explained that this program is not attempting to create 10 new CEOs. Instead, it's positioning us to develop multiple skills that we can take with us to whichever direction we end up pursuing in this field. As Leslie explained, not everyone will start a program from scratch. The field needs more highly qualified people to help run existing programs in multiple ways, and this year's curriculum aims to position us to develop leadership skills necessary for several possible positions besides just CEO. 
  • What is El Sistema? This is a question we will be asked time and again, just as former Fellows have been asked for the last two years. A definition in progress as the program itself evolves and metamorphoses. Thoughts are welcome here. What's your definition of El Sistema? To be continued... 
  • How can we become better contributors to the field? I was overjoyed to hear that Erik Holmgren, our Program Director, has designed this year to be more project-based. We have so much capacity as a group to do something for the field, because we're not currently overseeing programs. We can use this year to make a contribution. Curious to learn more about how we're going to do this, exactly.  
  • Here's a big juicy one: When does it make sense for organizations to collaborate? Or, why do we collaborate, and how? In Venezuela, one major goal of El Sistema is to save children's lives through music. In order to do that, the nucleos work together in many ways to ensure that the maximum number of children can participate in a rich and engaging experience. It would seem natural that in the U.S., organizations would want to learn from each other and share resources to help advance the mission of saving numerous children's lives through music. But does it make sense? How does collaborating impact our fundraising culture? When should we collaborate, and why?
  • El Sistema in Venezuela has been a major supporter of the El Sistema “movement” in the United States. As we begin to identify what that movement looks like and how the El Sistema-inspired programs adapt to the needs of communities in the U.S., it's possible that our programs will look quite different from those in Venezuela. What implications will this have on our relationship with the Venezuelan program? I'll leave this question as it is, as it's probably far more loaded than I'm in any position to explore. But it came up, so here it is.

Update: please visit fellow Abreu Fellow Stephanie Hsu's beautiful blog on the art of getting lost and discovering in the world of education.


  1. An Abreu Fellowship in Boston is not an Abreu fellowship. Boston can not compare to Caracas to the real feeling and soul of an Abreu Fellowship experience. Just saying!!! Greetings from warm and lovely Venezuela. So far away from earthquakes, and hurricanes, and tropical storms, black outs, water and milk shortages, etc., etc...In conclusion, I do not miss New York City at all these days. Peace, Pedro

  2. Pedro, thanks for your comment. We're all looking forward to taking what we're learning in the classroom and seeing for ourselves the miracle of El Sistema in Venezuela. I'm personally thrilled to see how it's evolved since I was there 4 years ago. Enjoy your beautiful country, and hope to see you soon!