Saturday, April 7, 2012

El Sistema Venezuela Wrap-Up: Meeting with Abreu, and Lessons Learned

We've reached the end of our 5 week journey discovering El Sistema in Venezuela. We taught all day, we met the warmest, most open-hearted people, we saw really, really hard work. We heard beautiful music everywhere we went.

On our last day, we had a chance to sit with Maestro Abreu and share a little about what we saw and what we'd improve. Sitting in a room with that man, after seeing first hand the work that is a result of his vision, was astonishing. This was a genius among us. And he sat there, smiling, and gave each one of us his full attention.

When he came to me, I wasn't sure what I was going to say. Should I talk about Soroco again, and how powerful an experience it was for me to see how music can literally live anywhere? Should I talk about how El Sistema isn't magic, but the result of strong vision and extremely hard work? Should I talk about the music making, or the intrinsic nature of access in everything El Sistema represents?

Instead, I spoke about 4 things that resonated profoundly with me on this trip:

1. The love of learning, permeating throughout the entire culture of Sistema. Everyone is hungry to learn. Kids want to learn more and more everyday. Teachers want to learn from experts. Families want to learn more about the music. Children want to learn from each other. What a beautiful space in which to live a life.

2. The love of teaching. Not just the love of teaching, but the need to teach, to give back. Great teachers gave so much to me time and time again in my life, and when I teach I feel that I have to give everything of myself because that is what my teachers gave to me. And this spirit of giving is so prevalent all throughout Sistema.

3. The democratic nature of music, both within the music itself and in terms of who can participate. Musically: jazz, folk music, choir, and orchestral music can (and according to many people I spoke to, SHOULD) live in the same place so that kids can have access to many ways of making music. Who can join: everyone can participate in music. Doesn't matter where you live, how old you are, who you are, what disabilities you have, or how much money you have. If you want to play, you can.

4. I didn't have a chance to mention this last one, but something that cannot be ignored, which my Fellow Jose Luis Estrada Hernandez talks about, is the music. The music! We heard so many beautiful concerts! So many children taking risks and committing to making daring musical phrases together, regardless of their level.

Maestro Abreu wanted to know what we'd improve. I learned so much from this trip that the few things I would suggest seem so minor in comparison to the great lessons I took away. But if I had to offer two thoughts, they would be:

1. Create even more opportunities for older students to thrive. The academy (a program for more advanced students to come to Caracas for private lessons with master teachers) is wonderful, but for kids in rural Venezuela and elsewhere who may not be going regularly to the academies, it would be great to get them accompanists on occasion and opportunities to solo with orchestra so that they can enjoy the full musical experience of the solos they're working on.

2. More opportunities for exchange among international artists, educators, administrators, and Venezuelans. The more people who can come to Venezuela and see the extraordinary work that's happening there first-hand, the more demystified the program might become so that many more people can bring the same energy, motivation, and commitment to music and children to their communities as El Sistema brings to Venezuela.

I would love to see a day when all of the world's major artists no longer see performance and education as two separate things. When institutions for higher education no longer separate music education from music performance. When there are more bridges between genres so that musicians can become more versatile musically, and in life. When young people no longer insist on hip hop, but also demand orchestras in their neighborhoods, and jazz ensembles, and choirs. I think that the more people who can come to Venezuela, and teach, learn, play, and ask questions, the better chances we have of tipping the scales in making music a focal point of society, to thrive in a life with a love of learning and playing.

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