Sunday, October 9, 2011

Abreu Fellows Take New York By Storm

Drummers in Tompkin's Square in the East Village

I am writing in a community garden in the East Village, peering up through trees and plants at the blue sky above. Ten red and white balloons are floating up above behind one of the buildings; someone below must have just released them. It is quiet and unseasonably warm for an October day, and the city feels magical and at peace. My day included a yoga class at Finding Sukha with Abreu Fellows Julie Davis and Stephanie Hsu, brunch, a long walk through Soho, an eyewitness account of the Wall Street protests, a visit to Apexart to see Fred Hersch's Private Stash exhibit, and a relaxing late afternoon in a hammock in the garden of an East Village apartment.

Wall Street Protests

The last two days have been a whirlwind of activity, and oddly synchronistic.

  • Crittenton Women's Union Senior Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Chuck Carter taught us about inclusive leadership (which social lenses we look through in approaching our work as inclusive leaders; knowing who's in the room and how we can help them support the organization and mission)

  • World Business Forum with Tamara Erickson, Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, and Patrick Lencioni on inclusive leadership and generational lenses through which people see the world and their work

  • Influencer “Change” conference at Saatchi & Saatchi, where Aisha, José-Luis, and I spoke about the El Sistema movement in the U.S, and where the other fellows got to meet many inspiring change-makers

    Abreu Fellows speak at the Influencer Conference on "Change" at Saatchi & Saatchi, October 6 (Aisha Bowden,
    José-Luis Hernández-Estrada, Jennifer Kessler)

  • Gathering at Jamie Bernstein's house with the fellows and Harmony Program Executive Director Anne Fitzgibbon
  • Meeting with Jesse Rosen and Polly Kahn from the League of American Orchestras about the orchestral landscape in the U.S and potential benefits of El Sistema in engaging communities around orchestral music

Children from the Corona Youth Music Project in Queens
  • The musical touch: SFJazz Collective show of Stevie Wonder arrangements and originals by this amazing band of star composer-performers

(Here's their video from last spring of "Do I Do" by Jack Conte of Pomplamoose. If you look closely, you'll see me grooving behind Robin Eubanks, the trombonist, during his solo.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

On More Connections in the El Sistema Movement

The Abreu Fellows and the Longy School of Music came together for two days of exploring best teaching practices in an El Sistema program at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston. This workshop culminated the week for the fellows in working with Lorrie Heagy (Alaskan teacher of the year and former Abreu Fellow), and observing the CLCS program led by first-year fellows Rebecca Levi and David Malek.

What a terrific couple of days. About 35 people came together from around the country (and Canada!) to learn about best teaching practices from Lorrie, and to observe the classes at CLCS. The participants included the fellows, teachers, and El Sistema program leaders. My favorite parts of the two days were Alvaro Rodas (first year Abreu Fellow and director of the Corona Youth Music Project) leading us through a bucket band rehearsal, and the last night, when four of us stood outside a restaurant singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” What a beautiful way for people to connect.

But there are more connections between fellows and the community... After the restaurant, Stephanie Hsu and I were walking back to the train when a group of students stopped us on the street and asked, “Do you guys have a minute to answer a question?” Of course we said yes, but we really didn't expect this: “Who is the living face of jazz to the average person?” This made me laugh uncontrollably, while Stephanie earnestly thought about it and then gave what I thought was a terrific answer, Esperanza Spaulding.

OK,” said one of the guys, “but between Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis. Who does the average person know?”

Oh boy.

To my amusement, one passerby stopped and proclaimed, “The average person wouldn't know either of them. The average person would say Kenny G.”

Anyhow, this turned into an almost two hour conversation with random people on the street, including a former Russian linguist for the US Air Force, an international business student at Northeastern, and a Puerto Rican pianist at Berklee. Everyone was divided equally about the answer, but it provided fodder for a riveting conversation about jazz, musical perceptions in the US, and musical outreach for social change. Some of the guys even came to our Social Social film night at NEC.

I love Boston-- the quaintness of the city gives us more room to slow down, meet people, ask questions, and discover conversations and people that we might not approach in other places.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Institutional Connections in the El Sistema Movement

Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, July, 2007

Five years ago, I was visiting nucleos in Venezuela with members of the Berlin Philharmonic and the whole time, we discussed how on earth such a program could be adapted to other places in the world. It was tremendous to see so many children engaged in music at such an extraordinarily high level, and to know that for many of these kids, music was the only path through which they could realize their potential in life as human beings and citizens. Ever since then, I've become a strong advocate for bringing qualities of El Sistema to programs in the US and abroad. So it came as a happy surprise and deep confirmation in the power of this program when the Longy School of Music announced to all of us that they are merging with the Bard Conservatory of Music and partnering with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to offer a Masters of Teaching in Music degree, in order to help support the movement by training qualified teachers.

WOW. This means that major institutions around the US are working together in support of music for social change programs. In the five years since I was in Caracas hearing 10 year olds play Mahler like pros, major change has happened in the States to institutionally support El Sistema as a theory of change for young people.

For more information on the merge and this new degree, check out the Los Angeles Times' and the New York Times' articles.

The Abreu Fellows with Lorrie Heagy and the Conservatory Lab Charter School

Rehearsal of the Abreu Orchestra at Conservatory Lab Charter School

This week, the fellows had the wonderful opportunity to experience some of what we've been learning, by visiting the Conservatory Lab Charter School, where first-year Abreu Fellows Rebecca Levi and David Malek direct an El Sistema program. Alaskan teacher of the year Lorrie Heagy (from the same class of fellows as Rebecca and David) spent the week with us unlocking the “magic” behind fully engaging and managing a classroom of children while elegantly scaffolding lessons.

What was surprising to us was how integrated music is into the school day. It seems that children are playing music all day long, in between other subjects. How fantastic!

A day in our week looked something like this:


The fellows learn teaching techniques with Lorrie.

Fellows and Lorrie begin in a circle singing a song as a ritual to begin our day.

Lorrie spends time explaining how she builds lessons with a balance of including songs the kids know with new songs.

In teaching a new song, she breaks different sections down and celebrates each “level” of learning. For example, if you learn the first verse of a tune, she'll say, “Congratulations! You've reached level 1! Take a bow!” before she moves on to the next verse, hand motion, etc.

After teaching us by instruction, Lorrie would notice the energy of the group and say that we needed to “breathe out” by participating in an activity.

The group would get into a circle and sing another song.


Visiting classrooms at CLCS

Observing a Kindergarten classroom where Rebecca and Lorrie would co-teach a class on songs and movement.

Observing orchestras

Observing one of the three orchestras at the school (the Abreu, the Bernstein, and the Dudamel orchestras), and noticing how the techniques we explored with Lorrie were being used in the lessons. The Dudamel orchestra (comprised of older students) sets the bar for the other learning in the school. The younger children see this orchestra, aspire to play in it, and know where they're headed musically and that they need to work hard to get there.

Observing choir

Watching a music class with the choir (all of the children sing as well as play in orchestra). The choir director was fantastic, and I got quite choked up to hear the kids all sing together.


Discussing what we observed, what we noticed about the teaching and learning throughout the day.

After spending a few weeks delving into building strategic non-profit organizations, it was a powerful experience for many of us to see the life of an El Sistema program in Boston, and confirmed our aspirations to contribute to this movement in the best way that we can.