A special congratulations to our Professional Studies Certificate in Jazz student, Lisa Witwicki, who gave her final recital on Wednesday, January 29, 2014.
We wish her all the best in the next stage of her musical journey!
To learn more about our certificate programs and how we can help you achieve your musical goals please visit our Certificate Programs page.
Few musical venues hold an allure as compelling as the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It is the very same place where the now legendary riots surrounding the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite Spring took place. There were fistfights and objects were thrown at the stage. The usually well-mannered French composer Saint-Saëns walked out appalled that the score called for instruments to play in such unusual and deviant ways (expanding the limits of what was thought possible). The choreography did not help either. The Russian dancer Nijinsky infused the scene with jagged dance-like gestures decorated by a morbid primitivism. No wonder the Rite had received such a mixed reception. But this was the year 1913. Paris was entering an era of artistic experimentation pointing towards the avant-garde. How would I love to have been there! As you peruse the space, special attention must be paid to the theater building itself. It is as artful as the work described. The facade is almost too simple. Inspired by the nascent Arts Deco movement of the time, the architecture exudes a fresh perspective and plainness at the same time. (Very unlike the traditional and ornate Parisian trend.) It is always a wonderful experience to visit such historic places and try to immerse oneself in narratives of the olden days. Ironically, no modern works were presented here tonight. I heard both Chopin concerti played by Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz, a very intelligent and serious artist who identifies himself very well with the composer’s music. Chopin, a Romantic, lived in Paris for most of his life but seldom played in large venues such as this. Most of his performances were held in private salons or at homes for highly discerning audiences. For this same reason, the music should always convey a sense of intimacy. Blechacz was able to achieve this effect by being both exceptionally close to the music and completely aware that any unnecessary mannerisms would disrupt its natural simplicity. Chopin’s music can be easily spoiled by over indulging in it, but this was never the case. The inner slow movements sang with a controlled and soulful tone and the orchestral accompaniment led by Trevor Pinnock was sensitive to the nuanced phrasing. They were memorable. He gave us three encores. Two short preludes by the same composer and a scherzo from an early Beethoven sonata which came as a very pleasant surprise.
Paris, January 2014.
First-year GD Trombone
If you’re anything like me, the idea of traveling home to family over the winter break is both an exciting and terrifying prospect. What begins as a joyful reunion of kin can quickly turn into an interrogation. “What happened to your nice shoes?” “Have you put on weight?” “When are you going to give me some grandchildren?” The possibilities to antagonize are seemingly endless, and the relief only temporary. A safe haven from the stress of familial interaction lies in private practice. Locking ourselves in a room away from external worry is what we musicians do best. Here follows a guide to maximizing your outcomes while home for the holidays. If you follow these simple suggestions, you will definitely come back to NEC a different musician than when you left. Enjoy your breaks and happy not-practicing, everyone!
1. Make sure to leave at least some, if not all, of your important music in your locker at school. A common rookie mistake is to believe that you need to read music to be able to play it. It’s OK, I’ll forgive your trespass. In fact, I’ve never read a sheet of music in my life! 2. Remember that it’s not necessary to bring all musical accessories with you. In line with point one, you don’t need all that extra junk! Broke a string? Replace it with some copper wire from the hardware store! Need some valve oil? Tears of a jilted lover work fine! You don’t need a tuner and metronome to play well. Do you think Ashlee Simpson uses any of those things? Correct– she doesn’t use them, so neither should you. 3. Practice only between the hours of 10pm-10am. All good bohemian artists waited till sundown to let their creative juices flow. Preferably after consuming a few alcoholic beverages, get your kit out in the dead of night and let it rip. Nothing will receive more of a reaction than your bold statement of purpose as an artisté. 4. Abandon scales, etudes, and technical studies. Are pieces made up of scales or easily identifiable motifs transposed through harmonic modulations? If you answered no, then give yourself a gold star! You don’t need to practice all that other stuff when you’re staring the Bach Cello Suite No. 2 down the barrel and nothing’s gonna stop you. Just dive in and play it through many times at breakneck speed without stopping. You’ll have it under your fingers in minutes. 5. For expert level achievement, leave the
instrument in its case for the entire duration of your stay at home. Most people underestimate the power of the mind. Why, once I learned the entire trombone part to Mahler’s 4th Symphony while also finishing a particularly difficult level in Halo 3. Remember, the best practice is the one done in your head. Your muscles will be very happy when you surprise them with Prokofiev’s Chamber Symphony the week after you come back to school. They’ll let you know!
First-year BM Soprano
♫ “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything–” ♫
[music stops, play grinds to a screeching halt]
Brigitta: I thought you just said ONE WORD FOR EVERY NOTE?
Maria: Yes, I did, Brigitta, that’s right.
Brigitta: But when you sing “a-ny-thing,” you are using up threeee notes on ooooone word. I find that confusing.
Maria: Well, sometimes we do that. Hm. Maybe I should have said, “one syllable for every note.” Thank you for clarifying. Any more questions from the peanut gallery?
Kurt: Please explain to me the vocal mechanism by which phonation is produced.
Gretl: What exactly do you mean by “when you KNOW THE NOTES to sing?” Do you mean, when we know the syllables that go with each note? Or when we know the order in which to put the notes so as to form the song in question? Or when we know the pitches of the C major diatonic scale, excluding all other notes from
different keys and tonal systems?
Marta: What does it mean to KNOW something? How can we separate knowledge from our own selves and our own existence? What is truth?
Maria: I’m so glad you asked. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that I hadn’t explained these things to you, but you’re cleverer than I thought. Let’s abandon this silly song, and let’s try to find all the gaps in the two-minute music theory lesson I’ve just given you. After I’ve answered all your questions, we can really start at the very beginning, go back a few thousand years to Mesopotamia, and look at cuneiform notation…
…The Von Trapp children never sang again.
Fourth-year BM Oboe
December 1st deadlines have passed. Thank God. Why is everyone who’s graduating still stressed out? It’s because we don’t know what we’re doing next year! DUH! Please stop asking us if we are stressed or what our plans are. We will continue to be in “unknown territory” until we find out.
Grad school is the obvious next step for many people here. People have been working their butts off in order to get pre-screening material recorded and applications submitted, while still trying to be a person and a student. Oh yeah, it’s finals season too, right? Some people have even started applying for summer festivals! How many applications do we need to submit!? We haven’t even thought about how stressful February will be with so many auditions. Yikes.
For those who aren’t in this boat yet, please relish in your freedom. The time will come for you to submit 20 million applications and pay 20 million dollars in application fees (why do they make us pay so much?). I’m not trying to scare you. Just be aware and plan ahead.
Here is a suggestion for those of you to whom this does not yet apply: Check the application/recording requirements early on. Start early. Record your tapes when it isn’t 30 degrees outside and when your reeds are actually vibrating and sound half decent. Really, do this. You won’t regret it.
Here is a suggestion for everyone else: Everything will be okay. We tend to think there is a prescribed path one must follow (at least in the classical world) in order to be successful and win a huge orchestra job with the Boston Symphony or something of the sorts. But everyone is going to get there by different means. Who knows what’s going to happen– it’s the future! We can try to control as much of it as we are capable of, but we can’t control it all. Things happen for a reason. Trust in that. Trust that NEC has put you in a position after (insert how many years you’ve been here) to be successful in one way or another. Stop freaking out. Know we are all in the same boat. Take a deep breath. Go buy a holiday latte at Starbucks.
Second-year BM Oboe
It’s that time of year again; Boston’s icy winds threaten to tear off your face every time you set foot outside, Christmas decorations go up all over the city, and the Boston Pops put their noses to the grindstone for a month of holiday pops concerts. It’s a magical time of the year.
But not all was magical last weekend at Symphony Hall, when the slap stick player missed his entrance in Sleigh Ride, ruining the entire performance. In case you haven’t willingly listened to Sleigh Ride since December 2008, the sound of a whip is the biggest solo part in the entire piece. Leroy Anderson writes for the orchestra to drop out for an entire beat, leaving the whip all alone (ba-da dum, bum bum bum bum, bum bum bum BUM…..*CRACK* ba-daah, etc.).
There was a bare, silent gap in the Pops’ performance during which maestro Keith Lockhart gave the percussionist a death-glare, which caused the musician to drop his instrument and miss the second whip crack. The concert inexplicably continued, and the percussionist picked up the clacker and nailed his last few entrances of the number, barely salvaging the experience for the audience.
After that performance, Lockhart demanded that the orchestra rehearse Sleigh Ride again and again, to make sure the whip cracks were always in the right place. It is estimated that during this week, the Pops rehearsed the piece more than they had rehearsed it in the past ten years combined.
Musicians trudged out of the rehearsals, complaining that they just couldn’t get that jazzy variation out of their heads. However, since that awful performance, all the Pops’ holiday concerts have been spectacular, and the whip player hasn’t missed an entrance since.
First-year GD Trombone
I sit in Margie Apfelbaum’s office on a very comfortable couch, and I ask if it’s good for sleeping on. “I don’t know,” Margie says. Though I’m inclined to believe her, there’s a hint of something else in her smile.
Margie is a benevolent, cheerful, hard-working stalwart of NEC. Now entering her third decade in service as the Administrative Director of Orchestras, she interacts with most of the instrumental students who come through the school. And she has an awesome couch in her office.
Aside from the couch, I ask, what’s a good part about working at NEC? “It’s a really nice community of smart, talented people– talent both in and outside of music. People seem to be well-rounded and articulate, and I learn something new just about every day. I also get to work with young people, so it keeps me young and energetic.” I wonder aloud if NEC has changed in the years that Margie has been here. “Tremendously,” she replies. “I think we’ve always had very, very talented students here, but – to use a sports terms – we have a very deep bench now. There were years that the orchestra department had, like, three bass players and five violists; the orchestra department has grown very well since that point. The quality of what happens in the orchestra is just really, really high.”
I ask Margie about the sports term “deep bench.” Is it a baseball thing, I naïvely think? “Well, the term applies to any sports. It means there’s a lot of talent throughout the team. I’m a big sports fan.” Is she a Red Sox fan? “Of course!” she grins. “I watched one game at LAX before a red-eye flight, and an entire pizza place in the terminal had been taken over by Red Sox fans. One waiter told us that the Red Sox weren’t going to win the World Series, and went on about how much he hated them. I really wanted to fly back as soon as the Red Sox won and just go…” (She makes a, ahem, colorful physical gesture that can’t be described here.)
Back to music– what’s the worst excuse Margie’s seen from a student for missing orchestra? “Oh! I get some pretty funny emails. I once had a student who said they couldn’t come to rehearsal because of the Boston Marathon. I asked, ‘Are you running in it?’ and they said, ‘No, but I’d like to watch it.’” One of her craziest memories was witnessing a student show up drunk to a concert. She recalls, “The student enlisted a relative to tell me that before the concert a bottle of whiskey had fallen on him, so that’s why he smelled like alcohol!” With a knowing smile, she says, “I’ve been doing this for a while, so I can tell when people are making stuff up.”
We talk about some of Margie’s dreams for NEC. “I’d like to do a festival around the first week of April dealing with humor in music,” she says. “I love comedy, and I’ve done some stand-up as a hobby. I think there are so many humorous pieces, and the festival could coincide with April Fools Day.” Who knows– maybe now that people are reading this article, they’ll become interested in making it happen!
As for upcoming holiday plans? “My partner and I got a new puppy this year, so we won’t be vacationing away during the break. One thing I try to do is invite students staying in town over the break away from family without anywhere to go. [My wife and I] try to get in touch with them and have them over on Christmas Eve for a nice meal.” So maybe she’s a stickler for orchestra attendance– but she gives away free food!
Margie and I talk for quite some time. She’s easy to talk to, and we have many topics to talk about. There’s the time that Bruce Springsteen opened for her during the dedication of the Zakim Bridge (Margie sounded a shofar at the end of the ceremony, and Bruce played at the beginning!) We look at pictures of her beautiful puppy, Louie, who is half Australian Cattle Dog, half “not-quite-sure.” Margie does a lot of photography and has a professional certificate in photography. Very into politics, Margie was always down at the State House around the time that same-sex marriage was in debate in Massachusetts. It’s very important to Margie, as it enabled her and her long-time partner Meridith to finally marry. We also talk about Margie’s resident town, Watertown, which became world-famous for all the wrong reasons this past April as television viewers across the world witnessed police cars and military tanks close in on her neighborhood. “As horrible as the whole thing was, it really was an amazing time in Boston’s history. What terrorists don’t realize is that they galvanize people to care more for one another. The response by everyone at NEC was so amazing. It just showed how thoughtful, articulate, and soulful everyone is here.”
As we part, Margie leaves me with one final gem: “I say that one of the reasons I love what I do is because I’m able to get rich. It’s not measured by money, but by the experiences of my life, the people I get to meet, and the places I get to go. Every time we have a concert here, I watch the transformation from infancy to full-growth. It’s amazing.” I think so too.
Second-year MM Guitar
Coming out of Thanksgiving this year, I’ve had the chance to consider all the things for which I am thankful. I’m very lucky, and have been given opportunities that most can only dream of. Although Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated exclusively by Americans, the internationality of NEC has given me a new perspective on this time of year as well as the world at large.
Leaving one’s country is an incredibly brave thing to do; I have the utmost respect and even jealousy for those who are living their lives abroad. Even though I have not left my home country, being surrounded by those who have at NEC has given me the sensitivity to the challenges of living abroad. NEC has exposed me to so much of the world by just attending school, and for that I am thankful.
Americans have a reputation for being naïve, especially in regards to the reality of other countries. Perhaps this comes as a result of shopping centers and restaurants appearing the same from sea to shining sea, a homogenous feel that stretches over a country the size of a continent. Though it may be convenient to order a hamburger in Boston and Los Angeles and expect the exact same lunch, it creates a nation scared senseless of something that stands out from the crowd. Embarrassingly, the first year I spent here I was surprised to find out that not everyone left town to visit family for Thanksgiving as I had grown so accustomed to. Similarly, I was surprised to discover holidays recognized by some of my peers that were not a part of my own calendar. I was unaware of my own international ignorance until my first semester here, and even though it was humiliating, I think now I’m a bit more aware of the customs of others. To students at NEC, differences in international customs are intuitive; it’s a non-issue. Unfortunately, outside the walls of the conservatory, unawareness of cultural diversity still persists.
Along with the end of the semester, the holidays are now upon us. This is the time of year that is recognized and celebrated the whole world over, each culture branding traditions to look forward to. Music, already the signature of the cultures themselves, often serves as the cornerstone on which these holiday traditions are built. Just hearing the music of holidays transports us vividly to them; it carries incredible power. Living abroad may displace you from immersion in the holiday traditions of home, but it will be a time in life you will always remember. Because in the end, we don’t remember the times we were comfortable, but instead the times we were not. The times we stepped out of our comfort zones and into a world we never knew existed. Later, we will call these moments of discomfort nostalgia.
So wherever you call home, transport us there. Whatever songs you sang in December as a child, sing them now with might. America suffers from a mild and childish ignorance to culture, and it’s our job as musicians to expose anyone unfamiliar with such cultures to their wonder and beauty. The diversity we have within ouf conservatory is truly one-of-a-kind, and through music we all have the power to share and experience it in the most potent of ways.
First-year GD Trombone
December: the month of holidays. Mention of it conjures up an entire backlog of memories of hot chocolates, scarves and mittens, and perhaps warm nights indoors by the fire in defiance of the cold outside. At least that’s what I think it does for you! Where I come from, December is a month of the outdoors, of late sunsets and early rises, BBQ and cold drinks, tank tops, and flip-flops. Just as my perception of the holiday season is informed mostly by second-hand information from Hollywood and friends, so then would your perceptions be of the land far, far away known as Australia. Allow me to give you a first-hand introduction as to what it’s like to experience a Christmas down under. (Incidentally, flip-flops are not known as such back home. We call them thongs. It makes sense if you think about it.)
Like any child growing up in the nineties, I got most of my education from The Simpsons. The very first episode of the show is a sweet story about how the family receives their dog one Christmas; this was likely my first exposure to the phenomenon of a Northern Hemisphere winter. A couple of things passed through my mind as I watched the episode:
A. What is this magical substance they refer to as snow?
B. Why are they all walking around with lots of clothes on– isn’t Christmas supposed to be hot?
C. Where’s the emu?
I’ll get to that last one soon, but the other questions answer themselves. Indeed, when I finally did experience a Northern Hemisphere winter for the first time at 20 years old, I couldn’t quite shake the nagging feeling that I was walking through a real life movie. None of it seemed like it could be real, as I’d only ever experienced it through the lens of the television.
My family video collection contains footage of a particularly legendary Christmas from when I was a boy. A mischievous uncle had gifted my siblings and me with Super Soakers that year, and he brought along some of his own to make things interesting. What started as three children playfully soaking three burly adults (my two uncles and my grandfather) shortly turned into a full-on war. In my favorite part of the vidoe, my five-year-old self screams, “Hey, that’s cheating!” as my grandfather takes sniper shots out the window from the relative safety of the inside of his bedroom. This is the sort of diversion you can afford to have when it’s 110º outside on Christmas Day in Sydney.
Still, not all traditional Christmas ideas are thrown out the window in warmer climates. Poor, suffering Santa still labors away underneath mountains of woolen fabrics. Christmas pines are still erected, and often inexplicably adorned with fake snow. Chestnuts are roasted, turkeys are consumed, and eggnog flows abundantly. Ever-popular Christmas songs survive intact. Well, almost all of the time.
A popular push was made in the late 1980s to ‘Australian-ize’ the lyrics to many popular carols. Tunes such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” have survived fully as they have no reference to colder weather, but tunes like “Jingle Bells” had all Northern Hemisphere references removed and replaced with Australian sound-alikes. Sometimes the results are better than others; take “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” for instance. After the refrain, “On the ___ day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,” the Australian version goes:
An emu up a gum tree
2 pink galahs
7 koalas climbing
8 possums playing
9 wombats working
10 lizards leaping
11 numbats nagging
12 parrots prattling
I remember singing this in elementary school, but I still don’t quite know what a jaibiru is!
So, as you sip your warm drinks and curl up away from the cold with family this holiday season, spare a thought for those suffering under the tyranny of a shining sun and endless beaches in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ll be home in Sydney for Christmas for the first time in three years this year, and I have lots of new cousins – I think I know what Santa is bringing them all this year!
I picked up this nasty mindset somewhere along the way. It was this little voice that said “not unless it’s perfect.”
I never would show anybody anything until it was perfect. I would hide from the world, and craft this amazing thing (whether it be a product, a piece of music, a new skill…), then unveil it to the world as the cheers and praise came rolling in. Then I would stand there and be able to say “I did that myself” and “I knocked their socks off.” END Fantasy. Enter Reality.
This mindset flew in the face of one important thing I forgot. Exposure. Not something I forgot, something I was afraid of. I was afraid of exposure because what if I wasn’t good enough. Then came the reframing.
I was fortunate enough to meet with one of the most successful venture capitalists of all time, and he blew my mind. He completely reframed my idea of failure, to see it as a good thing. One of the most important things is to go out and fail, he told me. You have got to put yourself out there because there is the potential not of criticism but for feedback. He talked about the idea of minimum variable product. In a nutshell, this term refers to putting as least amount of something out to test to see if it is worth moving forward, because, he said, that know when to pivot away from something (with the least impact on your time and wallet) is as important as being able to move forward.
I have been trying to take his words to heart. For my current project, GTX,
I have tried to show it to as many trusted people as possible and get as much feedback as I can. It has dramatically shifted the way that I look at the project, and helped me not waste my money. Originally, the project was going to be the most beautiful perfect website, with no money spent to advertise it. Now, it is a work in progress for all to see, which markets the hell out of itself. Now, it is consumer driven- I am getting feedback from users about what works and what doesn’t. I am seeing the holes in the pedagogy, and working to help the people using my product. In this way the focus shifts from this being my project, to it being their project. That’s what it is really about- serving a community of people. And in the end, if it is helping those people the most, won’t they use it more and pay more for it.
If you only take away two things from my rambling then let it be this:
1. Most people are on your side and want to see you succeed. Use that to your advantage and get feedback.
2. Get yourself out there- exposure is more important than a perfect product. Your product/music/whatever is like a tree falling in the forest….if there is nobody there to hear it then…
It’s been a very long time since I actively blogged. Now that I’m running Community & Education programs for Orchestra of St. Luke's, the last thing I feel like doing after a long day’s work is sitting at the computer and writing more. At this stage, more than sharing what I’m learning along the way, I’m craving to learn from my colleagues about what’s working for you all, and what challenges and milestones you're encountering along the way. Amidst the all-consuming nature of my job (which I love), I find myself yearning for a monthly drink with my Sistema and other arts education colleagues and friends, to just share whatever we can in the spirit of growing in our individual work.
So I’d like to change the format of this blog for a bit, and turn it into a conversation. If we were to all get together informally over coffee (or something stronger) and share our questions and concerns, what would they be? Let’s start simply: what’s one thing going on in your program this week that you wish you could share with your colleagues outside of your organization?
To get the conversation started, here’s what’s on my mind this week: how do I find (or develop) the kinds of teachers who will embody the spirit of “Sistema” and commit every lesson to helping the kids build focus, collaboration, and respect? I’ve brought in guest teachers to model what I’m hoping to see in the classroom, but how do I create that same energy across the whole team of teaching artists who have very different skills and strengths?
Please comment either with feedback, or with your own questions for the community. I very much hope to hear from you!
Here’s to an abundant, healthy, and joyful 2014.
Frente a el Arco del Triunfo.
Panoramica de ensayo del Requiem de Berlioz con Gustavo Dudamel en la Catedral de Notre Dame.
Detalle del Palacio Nacional de la Opera Garnier.
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Upon completing the Sistema Fellows program at the New England Conservatory, the world’s preeminent training program for “gifted young musicians passionate about their art and social justice,” graduates are required to dedicate at least one year to establish a social change through music initiative following their formal studies in Boston and Venezuela. I chose Oklahoma City as the place to commit my energies to the cause. I knew in my heart that, if I was able to fashion a space where people could dream big and work together in a spirit of generosity, extraordinary things would happen. And they did. I would like to share aspects of this experience as a tribute to my friends and colleagues who offered their generous support throughout my tenure; and to the students who inspired me to give my best each day.
Any project that aspires to generate a systemic change will require the participation of an organized civil society. The Stanford Social Innovation Review refers to this as collective impact (broad cross-sector coordination and not just the isolated intervention of individual organizations). In imagining El Sistema for Oklahoma City, it was important to bring a variety of institutions and people in a symbiotic relationship. Two local institutions welcomed me as part of their ministry and academic staff. I received a full-time position at St. Luke’s UMC and an adjunct position at Oklahoma City University. The church and its moral credibility in the community were instrumental to cast a vision. The university and its record of academic excellence and service-thinking was the right vehicle to grow an initiative from a scholarly and research-based standpoint. Others joined us along the way. The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools as a facilitator of community-in-education affairs made it possible to reach out to many of my colleagues and stakeholders in the field. My good friend Jamie Bernstein, the daughter of the great American conductor, helped me introduce El Sistema to state-wide leaders in the arts during the first Music Transforms Symposium. The stage was set. A working group was ready to announce El Sistema Oklahoma as an after-school program to bring hope and social change to children through the collective practice of music. Over one hundred students and families would be invited to join the inaugural Children’s Orchestra. A structure would gradually be formed to multiply this program indefinitely.
After months of careful planning and organization, a flagship orchestral nucleo was launched early in September. Teachers on-site were chosen on the basis of artistic merit, their potential for professional growth, and ability to inspire and influence others to do good work (over 50 teachers applied for positions). It was also important that everyone grapple with the fact that there was nothing glamorous about this work. The work of education is complex and highly demanding. Helping to meet the needs of others is a mission that requires us to invest our industry in extraordinary ways and with a deep and almost spiritual commitment. When it came time to choose our students, we weren’t looking for those that the general population might deem as musically talented. We spoke to school principals about the importance of identifying students that they cared deeply about and wanted to see turnaround and blossom as successful students. Some other people asked, “How will you do it?” “How will you bring them up?” The answer—you believe passionately and wholeheartedly that your contribution can make a difference (and you empower others to believe the same). I am grateful that Mr. Springer, the now retired Superintendent of the Oklahoma City Public Schools district, rallied strongly behind the project and saw it working well as part of his own strategy to bring about much needed attention to urban schools (many of which have ongoing challenges due to poverty, language barriers, or cultural dissonance). The Abreuan idea that programs are meant to serve as a system to grow citizens and not just musicians resonated strongly with school and civic leaders in the city. I remember telling Heather Hope of News 9 that “we were not aspiring to produce virtuoso musicians but rather citizens of virtue, young people with a new confidence and tools to be able to succeed in life.” In order for this to happen, our mission of helping students “share the joy of music and grow as responsible citizens” needed to be embedded deep within our budding organization’s social action philosophy. “It has to be a learning and service organization,” I proposed. In other words, it had to act as a laboratory to help shape new habits of minds that would help responsible and caring adults articulate the ideal of believing in a new and blossoming youth that could achieve success no matter where they came from or what futures others assumed for them. I was very clear about this from the very beginning. This also had to reflect on the quality of their musical training and experience. El Sistema teaches us that culture for the poor should never be a poor culture.
Having worked with many orchestras throughout Venezuela, I knew the kinds of miraculous artistic feats that could be achieved. Naturally, I asked that we also aim very high—to the point that some of these visions were sometimes met with a friendly skepticism. Deep within the culture of El Sistema is the idea that in order for a social transformation to take place you must both nurture and expect extraordinary artistic results from all participants. The social change that we aspire to stimulate is directly proportional to the success that is being envisioned and achieved through a collective lens of music-making. I would tell our students every day that if you could learn a piece of music with all its intricacies and complexities then they could achieve anything life. Perseverance is one of the most valuable transferable skills one attains from the serious study of music—this alone might literally change or even save your life. For their first concert (at 12 weeks of regular instruction) the children’s orchestra was to play an ambitious arrangement of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It was generously provided by one of our Project 21 composers-in-residence, a university based group that will provide arrangements and original compositions for other El Sistema-inspired programs through their own publishing house. (Those compositions will also aid in the development of a scaffold system of teaching and learning where students will also be able to interpret as well as create music with the help of their teachers.)
Our program beneficiaries came from six inner-city elementary public schools representing students and families of a rich cultural diversity and socioeconomic backgrounds. I quickly realized that our orchestra would be emblematic of an inclusive community that could begin to see themselves reach higher and claim the admiration of their fellow citizens. What better vehicle to articulate and empower these voices than through the orchestra? Every student had an opportunity to try each instrument. Assignments were made according to personal affinities and through an assessment of potential success in particular instrument families. By the end of the first week, we were ready for our first rehearsal. The first note was not a pretty sound but it was exciting nonetheless. There was a spirit of transcendence and celebration in the air (now after each rehearsal, stand partners shake hands in recognition of each others’ work, it is their tradition). Surprisingly, the following Friday I had over fifty parents show up at the full orchestra rehearsal. Our students inadvertently told them that we would be hosting concerts at the end of every week! When it came time to for the real concert one parent came to me crying after seeing his son play. “I see him there, focused, smiling, and making these sounds, he makes me so proud.” That same parent later told me that he had lived in fear that his son would not be able to succeed because immigrant families still lack the opportunities that others might take for granted. Another parent pointed out that, unfortunately, urban public school children "don’t get a lot offered to them." Now the program is changing that and the experience of music is already helping create an ascending social dynamic. A student’s accomplishment in music can fill a home with much needed hope. Music also has the ability to strengthen family and interpersonal bonds. This was clear to me as grandparents, uncles, and cousins came with flowers to cheer upon their students at concerts or as one violin student hand-crafted an elaborate card to tell his teacher how much he appreciated her. In a few years time, research currently in progress will show that beyond achieving a musical proficiency superior to the norm, our students would have also achieved a proclivity towards discipline, kindness, truthfulness, and generosity as fundamentals of a moral and ethical life.
I was fortunate to see our teachers give so much of themselves to others. Every new lesson was an opportunity not just to teach something but to literally be present in the life of our students. Many went out of their way to prepare additional teaching materials, offer extra lessons, visit with parents, and even help students with homework or cope with an issue that needed mending. This communion and exchange from the heart brought our students a sense of value and recognition. Serving our children were also a group of dedicated volunteers from all walks of life. Some were retired educators, former businesspeople, and even military men. St. Luke’s church members helped serve a daily dinner; employees from local companies came to share their time; a Justice of state’s highest judicial court made sure that each chair in the orchestra was at the right place before I gave the first downbeat at each rehearsal (Judge Gurich would later tell me how much she enjoyed doing this. “It was an opportunity to witness people enjoying the best time of their life,” she expressed). To see these men and women contribute so much on a daily basis was incredibly humbling. The most remarkable thing for me to see was how they also benefited from the experience of being in service to others. They too found a place to belong; they formed a community of optimistic peoples, and found joy even in the simplest administrative tasks or logistical chores. I know that their example is going to pay huge dividends in the lives of our students. I fervently believe that positive role models are essential to building up success. Inspiration can work wonders.
As a leader, or even more importantly, as a teacher, one’s goal is to ultimately inspire towards the understanding and application of knowledge so that it might be used wisely to benefit others. Every Monday morning at the university, I taught a course on social action through music (the nation’s first undergraduate level course on the subject). In it we explored how public value might be fashioned through a sharing of the experiences inherent in art. Central to the discussion was the work of El Sistema and other related frameworks of action. In thinking about the elements of my course, the concept of cultural agent came to the forefront consistently. Throughout the semester, the idea of engaging in “an inter-face between academic learning and civic engagement” became a model for my students. I first learned about this idea through an encounter with a colleague at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. During my Fellowship year, our Boston-based cohort was invited to present to scholars at the center as part of a study group which explored the arts and humanities as a vehicle for social mobility and agency. In that same spirit, my students explored the role of composers as moderators of student creativity and the role of teaching artists in the classroom to effect transformational change. These were all practical assignments intended to engage and encourage their awareness as artists who could serve simultaneously as active participants and proponents of public affairs.
The idea of building up citizen artists merits a special mention and further elaboration. One of my favorite experiences was to be able to ask our program faculty members to share a story or two about successes in their everyday work. "What are you observing in your own classroom or domain that is changing or evolving? How can you articulate this in terms of moving towards achieving the mission which we are all part of?" Every Wednesday night as our faculty and staff gathered for dinner these anecdotes became our reason for being (and not yet being). We learned about what could be improved, who needed special attention, and where we should channel our energies in pursuit of our program’s goals. Beyond the practical pedagogy or even the operational structure of any El Sistema-inspired program, knowing and embodying your mission well is of utmost importance. Good work lives in authenticity. And it must always be focused on the mission—“the social mission of art,” as Maestro Abreu would contend.
Someone recently expressed to me that she couldn’t imagine the Oklahoma City program without me. What is important to know is that this community, even before I arrived, already had the necessary ingredients to build a world class program. The teachers of Oklahoma are extremely talented. The students are hungry to learn; many influential people already care deeply about their own community and are willing to invest resources and time. I think the key to building systems that work lies in communities finding a purpose to act boldly and the passion to work together to achieve more. With some many assets and talent available it would be immoral to let any student fall behind. Education is not the work of a few idealistic individuals, it is the responsibility of all people.
I am on lifetime mission to share the joy of music. I also believe that engaging in artistic endeavors is crucial to understanding the human condition and to help us rescue the truest essence of the beautiful and the good in life. Music is essential to grow people who are constantly striving and becoming. This is why I am hopeful for the future of my students in Oklahoma City. A seed was planted for them. I will always remember them as people of infinite promise. They were an extraordinary inspiration to me and the driving force behind my work. I am also grateful that this journey led me to meet and collaborate with so many wonderful educators, families, volunteers, church leaders, journalists, and public servants. Together we were able to create a model for the kind of support systems that our societies desperately need to grow a new generation of achievers. My heart is full of joy.