Saturday, March 24, 2012

Group Learning: Sistema Fellows from the New England Conservatory

As we passed from dry farmland, to gorgeous, verdant mountains, to fields of palm trees on our ten-hour drive from Calabozo to Coro, I continuously thought about how very, very lucky we are that the New England Conservatory has sent us here. That a U.S. music conservatory has supported 30 musicians over the last 3 years in an El Sistema Venezuelan immersion is not just really cool; it is extraordinary.

The 10 Sistema Fellows from the New England Conservatory (formerly called Abreu Fellows) are traveling as one big group for the whole 5 weeks in Venezuela. This is a little different than in previous years, when fellows split up into smaller groups to travel. Even though traveling in a group of 10 has its challenges, it also comes with the tremendous benefit that there are more people to learn from. And you can't do much better than this group of 10 if you want to learn from deeply thoughtful, inquisitive, musical leaders.

My fellow Fellow David France said something the other day that resonated with me. It was something to the effect of, "We keep talking about what we're seeing from El Sistema about group learning. How are we applying that to learning from each other and working together as a group?"

Observing and sharing perspectives with my fellow Fellows has been just as profound a learning experience for me as has observing and teaching at the nucleos. So as an homage to my teachers, here are a few videos of fellows in action (there's more to come):

Avi Mehta teaching in Valle de la Pascua

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Aisha Bowden and Alysia Lee greet the Valle de la Pascua choir in a Spanish-rendition of "Shalom," translation courtesy of Stephanie Hsu
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One of my FAVORITE moments from this trip: Aisha and Alysia greeting every choir in Valle de la Pascua with Oh Happy Day.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Peer Teaching in El Sistema: Part 1

"Trust the young, and give them the mandate to lead."
-Maestro Abreu

We hear a lot about kids teaching kids in El Sistema, and I was beginning to think that we were romanticizing the idea a bit. Like, “Oh! Look at that 14 year old working with the beginner 6 year old! How lovely! It's peer learning at its finest!”

I wasn't so sure. It seemed great for some reasons (empowering student leaders, saving money), but it also seemed more like a solution to get around there just not being enough professional musicians and teachers, and less like a strategy to empower young leaders. I kept thinking, "how are the teenagers supported in their musical and social development? Who's continuing to take care of them?"

I'm beginning to think that these questions are inconsequential, or at least partially so.

All of the teachers I speak with, professional and student, tell me more or less the same thing. The older students receive free music instruction, and therefore it is their duty to give back through teaching. They don't question it; teaching is just part of life in the same way that learning is. How are they kept engaged and supported? Many of them get to travel to other cities, like Caracas, for intensive lessons twice a month with master teachers. They also feel a sense of ownership in developing and guiding group classes and individual lessons.

After teaching (group) lessons to 3 horn players at the Antonio Estévez nucleo in Calabozo, I came the next day to find the oldest -- a 15 year old -- giving a lesson to a beginner (who is 7). The 7 year old was insolent. He stubbornly refused to continue to try to play lower notes. What I noticed most (besides the child's attitude) was the 15-year old's patience. He just get working with the boy, finding new ways to keep the learning moving forward. At one stage, I asked the boy why he chose the horn. He looked at me (still with a sour face) and said, "Because I love the horn! I like the sound." And so he and the 15-year old kept working away.

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I still wonder in which ways the teenagers are receiving mentor-ship by adults, and if there could be more and better ways for some of these kids to continue to be as supported as their younger cohorts. But I'm understanding something else that more seasoned educators will already know: that embedding student leadership opportunities into all learning experiences is very powerful. These kids feel really proud to be in this program, and they carry with them a deep sense of responsibility for passing on their knowledge to the younger kids.

Here's another account: on our first day visiting this same nucleo, I started chatting with a lovely woman, a young clarinet teacher in her 20s. She told me a little about her work, and offered this:

"I came through this program, as did all of my friends. I went on to study accounting in university in another city, but I came back here because I had to, for the children and for the music. I have my own business - a clothing store - where I work during the first part of every weekday, and then afterward I come to teach here. It's exhausting, but I do it because I need to. The reason we do this is for the love of music. We feel drawn to this to give to children what we were given."

At first I thought this might have been planted fodder to feed to a visiting Sistema Fellow, but then it occurred to me that she might not know why 10 people from the US were at her nucleo and who on earth we were. It turns out she hadn't a clue; her explaining why she teaches came entirely from the heart.

It seems what she, and others, are telling us is that the question isn't "how do teenagers and young adult teachers continue to receive mentorship and support?" but rather, "how can we teenagers and young adults better help our younger peers who need it most?"

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Seeing El Sistema: One Student's Journey

They come to experience music through a vision that is guided by a spirit of solidarity. And this same spirit, provides them with a new family within the nucleo: a safe-haven to learn, socialize, and feel valued.
-Sistema Fellow Jose Luis Estrada Hernandez

In Barquisimeto, I met Victor Santana, a 15-year old trumpet player from Barquisimeto who lives in New York and attends Juilliard Pre-College. He was visiting home on a school break.

I had been quite dazzled by the closeness of the brass players and the intensity with which they work together as groups. I wanted to know more about their experience growing up at this conservatory, and Victor very graciously allowed me to interview him.

Getting Started in El Sistema

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"You Live For This"
He says it's not a music program, but more like a school. And almost in the same breath he says, "You Live for This." Imagine if that's how kids felt about going to "regular" school!

Becoming Like One Through the Orchestra

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Here's what I took away from talking with Victor: It's no joke. Group learning and intensive ensemble playing really do impact community. Warming up together, hanging out together, learning from one another, feeling part of the ensemble as a whole with all of your closest friends. Knowing that you can rely on these people for support; truly believing that the orchestra (community) sound comes from your shared love for and commitment to the music.

(This got me thinking: What can this mean for education of high school and college students in the US and elsewhere? How can we offer this experience to young people, who are 12-15 years old right now? How, if they have only played once a week in orchestras their whole life? What would a youth orchestra or other ensemble that worked together everyday look like?)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Seeing El Sistema in Venezuela: Santa Rosa Nucleo

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Working with two horn players in the square of the Santa Rosa nucleo near Barquisimeto. Apparently, the boy is also a conductor and a prolific composer. They've both been playing less than a year.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The "Naked in the Sauna" Revelation about El Sistema

It's taken me a week to find the words to express my biggest take-away from Barquisimeto. My fellow Fellows have shared their experiences beautifully: about teaching, about playing, about observing. My take-aways have surprised me, because they were not at all what I'd expected. They have to do with the older students, and how a program like El Sistema has shaped them and the music they make together.

The best way I know how to describe the impact that Barquisimeto had on me is what I'd like to call the "naked in the sauna" revelation.

When I was 21, I studied abroad in Vienna. Some friends and I went to a sauna, and -- accustomed to saunas in the US -- I walked out of the dressing room in a bathing suit, wrapped in a towel. My Austrian friend looked at me aghast and said, “What are you doing? We go naked in saunas here, otherwise people think you're hiding something. Oh, and the saunas at this place are co-ed. But don't worry-- when people are in a sauna, they're not looking at you, they're just there to relax.”

Um, really?

She continued, “You just have to pretend like you're really confident, like you do this all the time, so that people don't sense your discomfort. Believe me, once you've experienced being naked in the sauna, you'll never want to wear a bathing suit in one again!”

So I gave it a try. Put on my best acting face, walked right in as if I do this all the time, took off the towel, and sat down like my friend. The sauna was full of men and women. No one looked up. Everyone was in their own world, relaxing. I can't say I could actually relax that time around, but over the next few years living in Germany and visiting many saunas, I came to know no other way to enjoy them. Why on earth would you have extra clothes on when you can enjoy the heat from the sauna as freely as possible?

When I was growing up playing the French horn, I was lucky to play in top youth orchestras throughout the year, attend really good summer music camps, and study privately with the best teachers (thanks mom and dad). Youth orchestra met once a week, and we performed fairly frequently throughout the year. The summer camps and festivals were life-changing, intensive months in gorgeous locations, and I remember wishing that my whole year could be as enriching musically and personally as those summers.

In college, there were about 20 students in Gail Williams' horn class. We played solos in horn class for each other once a week, and I recall the experience feeling inordinately stressful. Yes, this experience was essential as practice for performing in front of people. But I certainly didn't want to put myself through it any more than I had to. I had work to do! I had excerpts to learn perfectly! I had Mozart and Strauss concertos to work on! And in addition, we had tons of rehearsals and classes to boot! On the rare occasion, some of us would get together and play through duos or quartets. All this to say that I generally remember trying to figure things out in a practice room alone, with my teacher, and sometimes in orchestra rehearsal.

While doing graduate work in Germany, I saw a culture of group learning for my first time while studying at the Hanns Eisler Musikhochschule. The horn class of Marie Luise Neunecker shared a big horn room, practicing together and playing for each other. They seemed to enjoy working on their horn with one another. It was a totally different (and quite pleasant) learning environment, and while they invited me to join them, I always felt a bit like an outsider because I studied with a different teacher (Fergus McWilliam). While this feeling may have been based on nothing, I usually chose my comfort zone and opted to find a separate room where I could practice individually. After all, that's the best way to focus, right?

Cut to this week in Barquisimeto, Venezuela (commonly known as Gustavo Dudamel's hometown, and a home to Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu in his childhood). On our first day at the conservatory/nucleo, I thought I'd understood from a nucleo director (in Spanish) that I'd be giving a master class to the horn students, and all I could think was, “Oh god, I'm totally out of shape, please give me a few minutes to myself to warm up before anyone hears me play.”

I said hello to the 3 horn players standing around (between 17-22 years old), and they asked me for lessons. I said sure, and suggested later in the morning. Then I found an empty room, ducked in as quickly as possible hoping no one would see me, took out my horn, and started warming up. It was so great to play again! To be in a room alone with my horn! And then, not 2 minutes later, the door opened and all of the horn players walked in. They didn't say anything, just came in with their horns and sort of stood there, waiting for me to say or do something. I finally understood that they wanted me to teach them or play for them. Fortunately, I had some quartets and we started by playing quartets together.

But I was back in the "sauna" without a towel. I kept thinking, “No! I need more time alone to warm up! This is not good for me! I don't want them to hear me before I've played a little more! I won't be able to teach them as well if I don't have a few minutes alone!” But, like in Vienna, I decided to put on a poker face and pretend like I'm as confident as ever on my horn (walking naked into a co-ed sauna).

Slowly, I realized that playing quartets was the perfect way to warm up. You get to blend with other peoples' sounds, work on articulation by trying to match what everyone is doing musically, and play beautiful music first thing in the day.

That same day, I got the music for Prokoviev and Wagner, which I'd be playing in the Orchestra Symphonica Juvenil de Lara (the top youth orchestra in Barquisimeto) later that week. I needed to practice, so after teaching lessons to the 3 horn players, I said, “OK, I need to practice now.” I thought they'd understand that I needed some space, but instead, they all stood around looking at me while I went through the music. Finally, I turned to them and said, “This is weird. Can one of you please play along?” And so Daniela, the only woman brass player in the orchestra, played along with me. Practicing had never been more fun.

A couple of days later, they said they'd like to do a group warm-up with me. Again, the panic (“but I need to sneak a warm-up by myself first so that I'm ready to play with them.” Or, “if I just keep my towel around me the whole time, no one will notice.”) Again, the letting-go and just going for it. And again, that feeling of dismay that I hadn't done this my whole life. It felt great! Playing long warm beautiful tones with 4 other people, echoing each other, commenting on sound quality or the dynamics. It was like a prayer, like singing a song you love with people who love that song, too.

Suddenly, feeling naked felt like the most natural thing in the world. I wanted to play in groups as often as possible. To go back through my music education and insist with all of the musicians I knew that we warm up together, practice together, learn from each other as our best resources for growing.

My awakening really came during the orchestra rehearsals and concert: group learning has affected every aspect of these horn players' lives. They have been playing together for many, many years. They know each others' musical backgrounds, and they know each others' families. They have gone through hardships together, they have been there for each other over the years. They watch out for each other. Their competition is positive (according to what they tell me). They constantly strive to get better to try and surpass their friends, as a fun and spirited competition among friends.

And the evidence was in the sound of the orchestra. They move together as a section effortlessly. They're constantly listening to each other in a highly sophisticated way, making minor adjustments based on what they hear, giving each other feedback (not as colleagues finding the most diplomatic way to communicate musical decisions, but as buddies who are looking out for each other and for the orchestra as a whole).

So my big naked question: What would a program like this (rigorous musical group learning) look like for teenagers in the States? Particularly for at-risk teens, how can a program like El Sistema instill a sense of positive community among youth, and from youth to their own communities? Imagine teenagers around the country with as much love for one another and for their communities, with sophisticated communication skills, and with a burning desire to strive for excellence as the kids we met in Barquisimeto. What would it take to create an environment like summer music camp, like El Sistema in Barquisimeto, all year long?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Seeing El Sistema: Motivation and Staying Awake

Pedro Vasquez, the tuba teacher at the Conservatory/Nucleo in Barquisimeto, and his lovely family, took some of us out to a beautiful spot on a hill overlooking Barquisimeto tonight. It's a hotel of sorts (more like cute little cabanas) with a courtyard with live music and a restaurant. The owner-- a plastic surgeon -- has a wonderful old car collection, and many of the cars were parked around the place. (One of the other Fellows may post an incriminating video that involves several of us dancing on the outdoor stage at the request of the MC.)

We chatted at length that evening (in Spanish! Success!), and - unprompted - he offered this to me:

"The two most important elements of El Sistema are... Not being tired, and motivation."

According to Pedro, he and his colleagues work 7 days a week, Monday-Sunday, tirelessly. And even if they feel tired, they never let the kids see that. "They see us committing to them 100% and they see us invested in working with them to constantly grow on their instruments and in their lives."

He went on to explain that embedding motivation at every level is an essential part of El Sistema. The child in the beginner's string ensemble feels motivated when, after a week of working on scales, he can play something he's never played before in a short period of time. As he becomes more advanced, he finds motivation through performing a full piece with the orchestra that they have worked hard on. Maybe he has a chance to play with older students in a side-by-side with a more advanced orchestra.

The older students who teach the younger students earn money for their work-- another motivating incentive. And more seasoned teachers in the Sistema find motivation through their multi-faceted careers: as teachers, playing with their chamber music groups in international festivals, performing in their orchestras, working with world-renowned musicians who come to perform and teach in Venezuela. One story in particular surprised me: the horn players in the professional orchestra in the state of Lara were given brand new horns (any model and make they chose) as a gift from the Interamerican Bank, one of the main supporters of Sistema.

But getting back to the “getting tired” idea. I didn't quite have the Spanish skills to convey “do you ever experience burn-out?” but my sense was that the leaders I spoke with (teachers, administrators, administrator/teachers) find great joy and energy from having multi-faceted careers and some of the rewards that come with them. Some have even gone back to school to get advanced degrees in pedagogy or business, enjoying the experience of being a student again.

The lesson on that hill with Pedro: stay awake, and constantly seek motivation whenever and wherever you can.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Seeing El Sistema: Caracas, Sarria nucleo

The nucleo Sarria is located in a school in the middle of a barrio (neighborhood). After the school day ends, the school is taken over with hundreds of children learning to play music.

Most of the space is outdoors, and the students and teachers take advantage of any space they can find. As we wander around, we find dozens of small groups of children learning together with teachers. Along one corridor, children whose feet don't touch the ground work on flute, bassoon, oboe, and clarinet. (In this picture, the kids share instruments because there aren't enough flutes.)

Along another corridor, a group of brand new brass players works on scales with their teachers.

This little boy is 7 years old. No joke.
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Under a large tree, we discover a percussion ensemble. The teacher explains to us that because there isn't so much for percussionists to play in orchestra at this stage, they have several hours of percussion ensemble every week to work on their own repertoire.

In a small auditorium, we find a large children's orchestra, that plays beautiful Venezuelan music for us. The children play with unbridled passion.
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A few things become clear at this nucleo:
  • The children feel very proud to be in this program (as evidenced by our chatting with numerous children, who expressed joy and pride in being part of the orchestra)
  • Repetition is emphasized to achieve perfection (while observing classes, I notice that many teachers ask the students to repeat until they get the phrase or notes perfect). In other words, continuously striving toward improvement.
  • They make do with what they've got: Not enough instruments? Share them (taking turns in group lessons). No free classroom? Take a music stand and go outside.
  • Group lessons reign supreme here. Within the group lessons, many teachers attend to each individual, while the other kids wait patiently, or work on the same technique that the teacher is demonstrating. (RE: waiting patiently, it's also possible that the kids were on very good behavior because they had a bunch of guests in the room. But still, it was impressive.)
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Teacher working with students who have been playing for 2 days!
















Friday, March 2, 2012

Seeing El Sistema: A day in the Montalban nucleo

When you walk into the nucleo Montalbán, you see dozens of children hanging outside a large building. The backdrop is a green mountain, and beyond the gates to the center, adults and children line up to buy ice cream and snacks from a couple of vendors (the parents among them will have several hours yet to wait). As you walk inside, you see a few posters displaying the nucleo’s name, and some posters have pictures of various children. Several children sit around during their break.


You ask one child what he plays and he responds, “Cuatro.” Then he takes it out of a case and plays for you.
(Apologies for the video quality-- old camera with some health problems.)

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You wander into the building and there are several rooms on each of the three floors. In every single room, children are packed in, playing music.


In one room, we see a group of little children singing.

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In another room, a more advanced choir sings gorgeously for us (many of these singers performed in the Mahler 8 with the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra)

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Upstairs, a large group of string players works for hours on paying attention, proper positions, and scales after only a few weeks of playing. (Notice that the kids are singing along while they play.)

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Down the hall, we find a sectional of brass players. In El Sistema, everyone works very hard, but it is through the hard work together that they find joy.


This boy is 7 years old:















A second string orchestra works on their music (singing along, clapping, counting the rhythms together)














A brass, wind, and percussion ensemble works on their own pieces in addition to the orchestral repertoire. The El Sistema leaders believe that wind bands and other ensembles help the orchestras.

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There’s a cuatro class! Cuatro is a traditional Venezuelan instrument. These students have only been playing a couple of months, and they’re working on theory, position, paying attention, and basic cuatro techniques. Over time, the nucleo plans to start a traditional Venezuelan folk ensemble with some of the cuatro students. Other cuatro students will go on to orchestra once they get basic music concepts down.


A cuatro teacher balances fun with disciplined work, and positions one student as a leader by showing her how to conduct.


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An orchestra rehearses their repertoire. Our very own Jose-Luis inspires them. (My editing software is sub-par-- please scroll to 30 seconds in for the music. )

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Some of the younger cellists in that orchestra…


Seeing El Sistema in Venezuela: Day 1 at Montalban Nucleo, The Info

















On our first day in Venezuela, we visited the nucleo (or, program site)
Montalbán, one of the oldest in Caracas. It's located in a building that would have been torn down, but the community insisted on using it as a space for a nucleo.

The nucleo director, a lovely young woman named Sobella, explained a few facts:
  • There are almost 2000 kids at the site
  • 110 teachers
  • 40 administrators
  • The teachers mainly come from within El Sistema
  • They receive teacher training prior to starting, and during the year
  • The little kids have choir to learn musical basics, 2 times per week. After age 6, children can start an instrument and join the orchestra program
  • Children older than age 6 come everyday (sometimes 6 days per week) for 4 hours per day.
  • They may not play in full orchestra each day, but will play in group sectionals (and take theory if they're beginners)
  • For young beginners, there is an initiation phase to prepare for the orchestra: music theory, literacy, solfege
  • For older beginners, choir is the best tool for them to learn the language of music before starting on an instrument
  • Once or twice a month, all of the kids go to the main theater in Caracas to hear concerts of the professional and other children's orchestras