Atlanta Music Project Celebration  

Atlanta Music Project co-founders Dantes Rameau and Aisha Bowden have invited me to guest conduct the Sistema-inspired South Bend/Gilbert House Children's Orchestra in their end of year concert celebration at the Midtown W in Atlanta. I’ll spend a full week working with the orchestra and their teachers to prepare for the event. The final performance will feature over one hundred musicians who are "forging confidence, ambition, and creativity through music." The concert will also feature celebrity host Lauren Cohan, star of The Walking Dead. Stay tuned for updates from Atlanta. 

Learn more about the vision behind the Atlanta Music Project: 


On the National Summit of Creative Youth Development  

Commentary on Emerging ideas for a call to action
On the National Summit of Creative Youth Development - Strategic Priority 5: Facilitating Social Change and Social Justice
“Make young people’s work visible to, and their ideas heard by, wide audiences.”
The social reformer Jose Antonio Abreu often quotes the words of Mother Theresa—“the most miserable thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no one.” The creative arts provide some of the best tools help bring up a new generation that feels more joyful and confident about their chances for success. And while we have done a great work already in the field, it is not always enough. Schools still suffer from budget cuts in the arts and after-school programming for youth does not yet include all those who cannot afford participating in a theatre school or a youth choir. Unfortunately, the arts are still a luxury in many communities, yet there is a great and growing hope in the fact that so many people are already committed to finding avenues to serving those with the greatest needs and most limited resources. Many examples abound, a quick look into the National Arts Guild non-profits membership and the US Sistema-inspired programs should give us a picture of the scope.
Upon reading the proposed National Summit Creative Youth Development policy agenda, I am hopeful in that the core of the social justice discussion today is centered in part on the ideal of student visibility and recognition. When I worked as part of a collective impact initiative to bring free music education to underserved children in Oklahoma City, I saw how important it was to provide opportunities for students to share their accomplishments with others. Open-rehearsals and concerts in churches, conferences, and universities provided for a space where families could attest to their student’s progress and feel proud about them. Our students felt acknowledged for their hard work and were encouraged to continue to strive for success. Newspaper articles and television reports highlighted many of their accomplishments. This public recognition is important for the sustainability of youth development programs overall yet imperative for the future of many a youngster in poverty who might feel disenfranchised from the potential of a life of value and contribution.      
What can we do to make young people’s work visible to, and their ideas heard by, wide audiences? Here are a few ideas:
Programs need champions that will advocate strongly for their students. These individuals of influence can come from within and beyond the arts sector. But in order for them to participate effectively they must fully understand (and articulate) the nature and scope of the social change a program aspires to create.
Consider the impact of scale. When like-minded programs and initiatives come together as larger ensembles or collaborative productions their audiences grow and their messages of change can magnify and garner the attention of entities who might not have noticed their individual efforts. 
The media can be a great ally to help promote young people’s accomplishments. Program leaders must always keep in mind that these opportunities can be scarce and hence must thoroughly prepare students to showcase their best possible and most inspiring work. Their pursuit of excellence will encourage the public’s ample support.   
A student’s work can become socially relevant when shared with an empathic purpose. Young people can reap enormous benefits from being mentors to others, performing for people who might not have access to the arts experience, or inspiring others to also envision their life as purveyors of beauty.  
In closing, the movement for social justice through the creative arts is alive and well. There are still many challenges to solve but the provisions enumerated in the “Strategic Priority 5: Facilitating Social Change and Social Justice” will be instrumental to helping hundreds of leaders, advocates, and students in the arts improve the mechanisms that will allow us to better serve our communities. Artistic experiences can be life-changing for those who have the opportunity to participate in them. Let us continue making sure that these truly become a patrimony of society.


March 26 

On the anniversary of Beethoven's death —

yearning in solitude
the messenger enamored 
a poetic hope

Thoughts for a more joyful art 

In my previous post, I wrote about musicians being reminded of the spirit of joy that inhabits their art. The conversations that followed my sharing of the Salzburg rehearsal story have prompted me to try to bring forth a few ideas to help bring us (musicians) to realizing a deeper meaning to the experience of music. These thoughts have been inspired by my own work as a conductor and teacher with El Sistema and elsewhere. In many ways these are also pedagogical in nature. They often guide my work as I seek to help others bring forth their best music-making.  Please feel free to share these with fellow musicians. They are conveniently expressed in 'Tweet' form. 

A few ideas to help ensembles and musicians transcend with a more joyful art: 

Be idealistic in your experience of sharing music. Everyone should play for a reason; those that truly know why they play as opposed to how to play can generate the kind of meaning that will draw more people in.
Be creative with your playing. Draw every ounce of surprise, melancholy, mischievousness, and defiance (you name it) from the score and dare to extend the boundaries of what was originally conceived.  
Be generous in your music-making. Powerful connections can be made when listening intently to your neighbor’s part while you play yours. This is called interdependence—you are responsible for others and they are responsible for you. Everybody wins.  
Be grateful for your gift. Remember that even today, the opportunity to learn music is rare; and the fact that you are a musician makes you a purveyor of beauty, one of the world’s most sought-after riches.
Be present in the moment, or better yet… show the music. A musical performance is not just an aural experience but a visual one as well. On stage, thoughtful gestures can help highlight your musical intent and presence.
Be committed to excellence. You should always aim to give the performance of your life, but remember, that perfection should never be the goal. A performance is always both the end and beginning of your learning a piece of music. This is an infinite process. 
And…don’t forget to smile. It tells everyone that you love what you do. 

March 2014 

Above all else: Joy  


The gardens at the Philbrook

I was recently invited to participate in a concert with members of the Tulsa Symphony at the elegant Boston Avenue Church of Tulsa. It was a wonderful experience. One of my favorite things about traveling is seeing new places and meeting new friends. I certainly made many friends there! I am very fond of museums and my gracious hostess, Janet, took the time to share many of the open secrets surrounding the nationally-renowned Philbrook Museum. In our tour, she pointed out a work by sculptor Harriet Frishmuth. She was one of the very few American students of the great master Auguste Rodin. The story goes that as a young sculptor she had struggled with finding her own personal stamp and was looking for someone or something to inspire that gift. The great French master had one piece of advice for her—show joy. This reminded me of Salzburg. A few months ago, I traveled there to bear witness yet again to the miracle of El Sistema, the system of youth orchestras and choirs envisioned by the Venezuelan social reformer Jose Antonio Abreu. As we were both listening to a very young conductor lead the rehearsal of a children’s orchestra, he noticed something was not quite right. There were some minor issues with the ensemble and the intonation was somewhat scrappy. (This was an important concert, the stakes were very high.) Maestro Abreu, known to be conscientious for precision and of the slightest of technical details didn’t try to point to these issues. Instead, he quickly interjected to offer advice. “Muestren Alegría,” “Show Joy,” he said to the musicians. With that brilliant stroke the room began to light up, there were smiles exchanged. Everyone became much less worried of the technical hurdles and more into the feeling of letting go and enjoying themselves. That feeling was contagious even to the dozen or so people that were at the rehearsal. It was then that the music really happened. It was a reminder to all that joy has to be one of the most important ingredients of artistic transcendence and the only vehicle for authentic communication. In the words of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, showing joy generates “a net of love by which you can catch souls.” And that is the greatest gift an artist can offer. Both Abreu and Rodin are right—it is joy that makes all the difference. 

A Valentine's Concert  

The ensemble at the Ludwig Symphony festival/concert in Atlanta, GA.

At the Roswell Cultural Center, legendary saxophonist James Houlik from Chicago performed the Atlanta premiere of the Russell Peck “Upward Stream” tenor saxophone concerto. John Lemley of WABE hosted the concert that featured Mexican guest conductor Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada in Tschaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy. Maestro Ludwig conducted Brahm's Symphony No. 4 and soprano-Megan Mashburn of the Atlanta Opera sang Donizetti’s “Quel guardo il cavaliere” from Don Pasquale and “O luce diquest anima” from Linda di Chamounix. See some behind the scenes footage of Jose Luis' rehearsal for this performance. 

Evening at the Champs-Élysées 

The ceiling of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

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. 

"Images" de Paris 

El Arco del Triunfo 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.

Growing the Music of Hope  


'Standing Ovation in Oklahoma City'

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. 

January 2014 

El Sistema Orchestra Performs First Concert In OKC 

By Heather Hope, News 9 - KWTV - Oklahoma City, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports |


For three months, El Sistema has been a positive outlet for Oklahoma City school children in need of an afterschool activity. The music program put instruments in 100 students' hands, and Friday night was their very first concert.

The students performing on Friday night never played instruments before this program.

Watching TV and playing games is all 9-year-old Malachi Lewis said he would do after school. That is until he joined the El Sistema Oklahoma children's orchestra.

"I like it a lot because you can play your instrument, I play the tuba, and it makes big sounds," Malachi said.

Malachi's grandmother Alta Gleason loves the program.

"It's built up his self-esteem, he feels better about himself, he has to shake hands, stand and bow," said Gleason, who also serves at the Vice President of the Gatewood Elementary School PTA, where Malachi attends. "It is a hard neighborhood and school because it is more inner city, so we don't get a lot of things offered to us."

El Sistema started in September, giving about 100 third to sixth graders from six schools, a free instrument and a world-class education in classical music.

"We weren't asking for model students, we were looking for those who we wanted to see turn around," said Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada, Executive director and principal conductor of the El Sistema orchestra. "It is a social change program through music, and we use the orchestra as our vehicle."

The young minds learn how to read music and work as a team.

"I tell them every day, if you can learn a piece of music with all those intricacies and complexities, hey, you can accomplish anything in life," said Hernandez-Estrada.

Malachi's grandmother agrees.

"Malachi just doesn't want to miss, he has not missed one night and he just doesn't want to miss," she said.

"He has three hours of music every night that is positive, and this is a possibility that it could take him on to college."

The El Sistema orchestra plans to join with the Northwest Classen High School band and orchestra for a joint concert on March 7.


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