Finding your voice (a Sistema experience) 

Finding your voice 

By Jose Luis Hernandez, Director of Sistema Tulsa 

Whenever a new student joins Sistema Tulsa we begin the process of pairing them with an instrument that they will learn and play throughout the year. It is a journey that begins with discerning affinities towards a particular instrumental sound. The students are always moved at how the pitches can have such a wide range and personality. "Clarinets have such a mellow sound and tubas can really roar," they say. Others are intrigued when Mrs. Morgan, our strings teacher, demonstrates on the violin and wonder how it is possible she can turn a piece of steel wire into a silky-smooth sound. 

Students will also gravitate towards what the instrument looks like. Some like the polished brass instruments and how you can see your reflection on them. Students are also inspired to listen to their own singing voice and realize that there is a promising sound emanating from an instrument that already belongs to them! 

We let everyone listen and try every instrument and somehow, there in between, the students find their instrument and voice (or maybe the instrument finds them!). As a general rule, beginning students who are in our Elementary-age program don’t take instruments home to practice (unless you are a singer!). First, we want to make sure that they have acquired a certain level of ownership and skill on the instrument. Since the instruments are very fragile they are also taught how to take care of them. 

One of my favorite moments in the life of the program comes around the end of the year whenever we are preparing for a big concert. I know that a few students will come to see me and ask if they can take their instrument home to practice. 

Last year, Taylor and Fiona were both quick to petition that they take their instrument home. I often ask our students why. Knowing the why allows me to get to know the students better. What I find out is that they love music and that they want to get better at their instrument. They also tell me that a concert is an important event and they want to sound and be their best for themselves, their families and their peers also. This mindset tells me a lot about our program culture. We are a community that is constantly aspiring to be a better version of itself and we are on this journey together. From our students to our teachers, families, and volunteers, we all feel a sense of needing to give our best each day. 

From a vantage point, I am able to experience how the program has evolved over time. It was no surprise for me to learn through the results of our most recent survey that the majority of our students find truth in the fact that “no matter who you are you can always become better at music.” And they are also unfazed at challenges—they say that difficult music doesn’t make them give up, “I just keep going until I get it right.” What begins as a fun game of trying out instruments progresses to life-changing and affirming possibilities for our students. 

We hope and pray that music and the care of a Christian community help them find more success and joy in their lives. 

*Sistema Tulsa welcomes new students and families for an onboarding workshop on August 16-17.

Sistema Tulsa at the Oklahoma House of Representatives 


On April of 2018, Sistema Tulsa students and teachers traveled to Oklahoma City to participate as a featured ensemble of “Oklahoma Arts Day.” The event was sponsored by the non-profit Oklahomans for the Arts and brought a group of forty young musicians to perform classical masterworks including the official state song “Oklahoma!” by Rogers and Hammerstein. The Capitol’s south portico was filled with music and the atmosphere was festive. Students served as ambassadors for the advancement of arts education across our state. “This was our first tour performance, Mr. Hernandez said, “Our students shined not just as musicians but as citizens.” The visit was championed by the Tulsa area Representative Karen Gaddis who also formally introduced the program before the House of Representatives and a Citation of Commendation and Congratulations was presented on the House Floor to students and leaders for their artistic and educational contributions to the city of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma.

Here are my remarks on the occasion of Sistema Tulsa recognition with a citation of commendation and congratulations from the Oklahoma House of Representatives as motioned by Representative Karen Gaddis of Tulsa. 

Dear Mr. Speaker, members of the House of Representatives, Rep. Karen Gaddis, fellow Oklahomans. 

It is an honor to accept this recognition on behalf of Sistema Tulsa students and our team of tireless educators and leaders who believe that investing in the arts experience is a worthwhile endeavor. We at Sistema Tulsa believe that every youth (no matter who they are or where they come from) in this state should have the right educational opportunities that would enable them to thrive.  I know that you are working on taking historic and bold steps for education funding and are thinking about what education reform looks like.  Today we celebrate the Arts in our State and showcase how much impact the exercise of our creativity can have in our social and economic life. In our program we teach our student more than music, we teach them the art of compromise. In order for an orchestra to be successful and make great music, everyone must listen to each other and figure out what it is that they are trying to express. Take a look at a musical score and you see many moving parts all intertwined and complex and to make it work everyone must agree to focus on the same harmony, the same beat, and the same purpose. And then they take it to the highest level where nothing less than excellence is expected. Promise me you will think about this idea. This is the only way that we musicians can make beautiful music.  We wish you many blessings and Thank You for this recognition. We will do our best to continue our work and make it grow.


Essay: Opening the Paradox of Conversations 

“Opening the Paradox of Conversations”

Thank you for welcoming me at the Philips Theological Seminary today to lecture on the subject of Conversations. My presentation today is titled “Opening the Paradox of Conversations.” This class couldn’t have been more appropriate at this time—a time of growing political anxieties, virtual realities, and spiritual decay. I don’t mean to paint a crisis out of our times, because we are not living in an impossible crisis. You are an optimistic group of people. Yet, I do want to point you to these fragile states of awareness—to urge you—in your role as seekers of truth and conveyors of purpose, to examine the role of conversation for hope. And today, I would like to focus on hope. But first let me tell you how we will approach our time together.

I’ve been tasked today with exploring metaphors that would help us understand the idea of conversation. Conversation or the experiment of “living together” is a matter of great complexity. I’ve set myself a lofty goal—to use music as a metaphor to understand the dynamics, tensions, and resolutions of such an experiment. This essay is also a result of my observations of contemporary life. Some of the issues (musical and beyond) will resonate with you in particular ways. I invite you to challenge my own thinking as well. Overall, my goal is to encourage you to pursue relevant connections to your field of work and ask you to offer plausible applications. For our purposes, and in addition to music, we will visit the fields of, education, theology, politics, and philosophy. Let’s make this a multidisciplinary exploration! 

Let’s talk about conversations. What is a good conversation and where does this idea come from? By definition conversations are dialogues. I also think they are more than that--they can be pinnacles of purpose. In the mid-fourteenth century, the etymological definition of the word conversation denoted the act of living with or “having dealings with others.” The Latin roots of the word imply “being with” (com-) and “often” (-versare).

My art form including both the performative and appreciative aspects of it has everything to do with conversation. A conversation with the art form, the art work (or composition in this case), and the performer/interpreter are all part of the equation. In speaking of the art form we take into account its place in history—we realize that Mozart couldn’t have been possible without Bach and Dylan wouldn’t have been possible without Guthrie. You get the idea. The art work itself is a matter of great complexity because it couples the continuum of history together with the contemporary intentions or vision of its creator. Intention is where the creative process begins, but ironically creativity is not all free since some of it is still constrained by the evolution of the art form. Let me illustrate further.

The history of music is divided in periods like the renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, etc. Changes or innovations came very slowly and gradually throughout time. We did not ever have major shifts of thought from one year to another. Yes, there were pivotal events but these were happening as a result of the bubble being more than ready to burst. (You might have heard about the famous riot following the first performance of the "Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky. This was certainly one of those pivotal moments in the history of music; and yet it was met by skepticism and disdain.) The performer is a messenger, one who has to take the history, the artwork, and give it to us in real time and space. The performer is also constrained by her technical vocabulary or skill. The greatest musicians have worked on their technical abilities so much that this is not an issue, but for the majority of us, it is a work in progress. You might be beginning to draw the parallel with your own discipline. Who are you? Are you the performer, the historian, or the purveyor of new ideas? Each role is of significant importance. And each role requires a specialized skill.

These three roles all converge in the artistic elements of music. Let’s take the conductor of an orchestra for example, she will need to have a knowledge of the time period where the work lives to discern any particular historical performance practices or intent regarding context (or at least to inform the orchestra of what the work represents). She will also need to study the actual work of art and look at the score for the notes and the rhythms. Finally she will have to form an interpretation of the work. This is where the creative process becomes manifest again. And this is also where we learn that the creative process is not exclusive to the composition process but can also be found in the process of interpretation. That is a conversation in itself, a very meaningful one. And the test of a true masterwork a well, since it invites us to a continuous exploration of meaning. 

Musicians in the orchestra don’t have the entire score or layers of instrumentation available to them while they play. They only see their own part. Now, I want to show you an orchestra score. There are more than 16 parts stacked on top of each other here. How do you begin to listen to all of this at once! This where the conductor or moderator of the musical experience comes in to try to make sense of all of these parts and make sure that they are in sync and in tune. I promise you that conductors do a lot more than wave their hands. But here is the challenge—they can also get in the way! And more often than not, they do because they might want to micro-manage the experience or worst of all bring all the attention to themselves. The traditional practice itself makes it very difficult to separate the conductor from the ensemble and to make it a more democratic experience for all. This begs the question, do we need conductors? The answer for now is yes. There have been some experiments with smaller chamber orchestras like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra that are conductor-less but even then, individuals or groups of musicians will still take the helm. Influencing is a natural human response.

Next time you are in your classroom notice who the influencer is and why? Is it because they are officially in charge of the class like I am now? Or is it because they are prepared to share ideas or because they are just too irresistible? Does gender play a role? You can formulate your questions and criteria. In this political cycle there has been a whole lot of influencing going on. The surrogates on television, rally-goers, church-goers, your grandmother, you name it. You will always listen to some more than others because your moral or political affiliations are already in tune, and you might dismiss others because it makes you feel uncomfortable. Now, let me pose to you the idea that good conversations are supposed to be uncomfortable. Is that an ironic statement?

This class is a bit uncomfortable for me. I have never taught to a group of theologians and certainly nothing I have done has prepared me for this experience. I still accepted this opportunity with the hopes that it would be an experience where I could learn from others and hopefully grow in my own thinking abilities. So I am taking this time to stretch my abilities and make my brain hurt a little bit.

The work of a good conversationalist is not to impose a point of view but in the words of the modern French philosopher Michel Foucalt, to analyze his own thinking and to continually examine evidence and assumptions so that he can then shake up routine ways of working and thinking. This is a very tedious process but when it is done right you can truly make a difference. The early Methodist church thinkers, specifically John Wesley expressed the idea of thinking and letting think at the same time. Do you notice there is an implicit tension in this argument? The formation of political, social, or spiritual will is a matter of self-determination. It cannot be imposed, although we might want to think we can. This was the belief of the Spanish Catholic church when they conquered Mexico and tried to bury all native expressions of the Divine. Granted, the people later experienced a revival focused on syncretic practices that honor the local history and theology of the colonizing church. I think this example falls well into your study of practical and systematic theology, which was explained so eloquently to me by your professor Dr. McGarrah Sharp.

Speaking of will, the perpetual debate of nature vs. nurture comes into play here. In my own experience as a teacher, I can tell you that you can nurture all you can and want, but in the end the decision to act accordingly rests solely on the student and according to his will. So, let us not be discouraged when the outcomes don’t materialize exactly as we envisioned them. As theologians and practitioners of faith you have the Holy Spirit on your side; and that conversation with the Divine is of particular importance.

There are some established techniques which connect the individual to the Spirit. I know that meditating on Scripture is one of them. Reading the verses slowly, pausing between in each word, and letting the ebb and flow of each cadence surround you with its presence. I remember that as part of my education growing up in a Christian school we were asked to memorize verses, sometimes complete passages with up to ten or twenty verses! To this day, I remember many of these passages and they live deep within my soul.

As I share  this, I am also drawing parallels with the experience of music and the kinds of conversations performers or interpreters might have with the scores. When you practice a passage of music of great technical difficulty you begin with deciphering the inner workings of the notes—the shapes of the notes, their duration, and the physical effort required to actually make them come alive. Practicing on the keyboard for example, you might start very slowly and consciously playing each note in sequence with the right fingering to minimize mistakes. Doing this slow, consistent, and deep practice activates a part of the brain that triggers the secretion of myelin, a protein that helps develop muscle memory so that the passage then becomes automatic and flawless in performance.

Once the technical hurdles are solved the interpreter can invoke the powers of creativity and make her interpretation transcend the notes or the score. This is why music performance is such an enigma to many. It is easy to believe that many great performers are somehow touched by the muses to exert power over their listeners, but this is not at all how it goes. There are layers upon layers of preparation, meditation, and practice over time to achieve any kind of meaningful conversation the score itself or with an audience in the room. For the artist, instant gratification is not part of this experience.

I am told that as young Pastors you will be entering in a territory that will be quite challenging with multiple and opposing views are being discussed regarding the future of the church. Passionate arguments are being made for one issue or the other. I won’t go into them today, but you know exactly what I am speaking of. There are deep divides and tensions stemming from issues like marriage and inclusion for example. Again, to echo Foucalt, if one arrives at the table with the intention of moulding the will of the other, that same conversation will falter! Abrahm Lincoln said the same of our own country, if we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.

Some modern thinkers have referred to orchestras not just as groups of individuals making music but as examples of social life. One such thinker is Jose Antonio Abreu who said that orchestras are groups of people that decide to come together to agree with themselves. First and foremost, they agree with the goals of music. That is melody, harmony, and rhythm. They might not agree with the repertoire all the time or with the conductor but they agree that to make good music they must focus on these elements. So already, there is a point of convergence in the experience. Can you think of ways in which you can find points of intersection among your adversaries? In the orchestra, each musician depends on each other and their fate as performers are bound up in each other. So they must let the score guide that process (remember the music with all the parts written in it). If the score is guiding force, where do we leave the conductor and the aspirations of the musicians themselves? This is still an interesting conundrum which brings me to the forces of truth.

I recently read a piece by a young theologian named Michael Stark on the Huffington Post, he was exploring the why of our tense political climate and he drew the work of Father Thomas Merton, a 20th Century monk. He said that:

“The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.” When we enter into these extreme bias says Stark, our “ability to listen and learn from those with whom we disagree disintegrates. As a result, we fight and convince ourselves that those with whom we disagree are full of ignorance, and hold views that we might deem unfairly as dangerous.”

Now, let me give you an example of this by way of Amy Schumer, the very well-known comedian. It was recently reported in the NY Times that during she singled out a Donald Trump supporter and invited her to the stage to justify her support before her 8,000 plus audience. She referred to the political candidate as an “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster.” I am not here to defend or support any candidate and whoever you vote for is your decision alone based on your own will which is also sacrosanct. What I do want to point out is the process and modus-operandi of this conversation. Do you think this was the best way for Ms. Schumer to show support to her cause? Does this episode help mend the fractures of our Union? This election cycle is very interesting because in part, it is about influencing the supremacy of impassioned truths. Our human capacities do not and can never reach the absolute. Yet we try and try and we become more and more frustrated with the outcomes. I want you to be attuned to these challenges. I am also trying to be more attentive to this phenomenon.

Assumptions fuel the rise of polarized societies. These come in different shapes and forms. Some are well meaning—when a person in a wheelchair gets overwhelmed with helping hands to the point that they also want to press the elevator button for him. Others which might be rooted in racial stereotypes can occur—when a Black man (who was to become US President, but no one knew about it yet) is mistakenly handed keys to a car at the valet section of a prominent social club; or when a White high school student gets treated unfairly because someone assumes that affirmative action somehow doesn’t apply to him. When we assume right or wrong we enter into a realm of misunderstanding.

A few days ago, I spoke to a group of executives here in Tulsa and I made a blunder of painting progressives as people that celebrate diversity and are invested in building strong communities as a result. Someone came up to me at the end and asked, “What about conservatives? We also believe that we can achieve the same objectives,” he said.  After this conversation, it was clear to me that as citizens there is more than can brings us together rather than divide us. Yet, these common denominators are not often found in strictly binary approaches to political ideology. It is worth taking a look at the Pew Research study on "political typology." You’ll find that many of your views can co-exist with that of a person from a rival political party. It is an eye (and mind) opening experience. 

Obviously achieving meaningful conversations is a real challenge. How can we move towards places of encounter or resolution? I can draw lessons from the orchestra as metaphors for this. Did you know that the etymological meaning of the word orchestra as expressed by the Greeks is the “dancing place”? Let’s start there with examining the beat and how musicians can either react or respond to the beat in music. You might already be aware that part of the function of a conductor is to keep a steady beat by way of the baton, which by the way, could also be seen as a symbol of influence. Let me show you how this works. I brought the baton with me today. I begin by drawing up a pattern that musicians in the orchestra can read. These patterns are generally very consistent among conductors, with some slight aesthetic variation to show your personality. Four pulses per measure looks like this. And this is how 6 pulses per measure look like. Conductors aren’t the only people that use symbols of influence like the baton. Pastors use stoles and robes. I’ve seen some wear their doctoral robes with three bands to signify their attained academic degrees. (From a layman’s perspective, I think this is unnecessary).

Let’s go back to the idea of reacting vs. responding. I want you to try to react to my pulse by clapping each time you see each beat in my 4/4 pattern. Ready? Now I would like for you to try to respond to my pulse. In order to do this you will have to anticipate the next pulse in such a way that you can meet me at the inflection point. Do you notice the difference? Which exercise yielded the best ensemble?

I think it is obvious that the second try was the best. Rather than reacting to the pulse you engaged in a conversation with me. You read my gestures in such a way that could predict the right timing of each clapping sound. Now let’s make this exercise a bit more sophisticated by adding nuance. This time I will give you a melody in 4/4, “Joyful, joyful we adore Thee.” Your job will be to read my gesture in such a way that can anticipate where I am going with cadences and dynamics of the melody line. Let’s try.

I want you to be aware that I am aware that this might an exercise of manipulation. This is where the role of a conductor becomes challenging. But to dissipate any conflict of interest, one can always refer to the score and try to follow it as faithfully as possible. Now, saying that the conductor plays a manipulative role is a rather cynical approach. Each conductor loves the music so much that she is willing to take these risks.

Something that was very interesting today is that I did not instruct you to listen to each other as you clapped beats or sang the melody, but you did it anyways. You took the risk of succeeding (and failing) together and you emoted a sentiment of trust at the same time. And this is something very important that we can learn from the orchestra because ultimately the roots of good conversations in the orchestra or elsewhere stem from trust.

The paradox of conversations lies in the idea that successful experiments, especially those that can move us forward into the realm of understanding, come with varying degrees of uncertainty and fear. This fear is natural because we protect what is most dear to us. And to a great degree our own truths are our most guarded and relished patrimony. And to cherish the act of living with others and for others, we must also go to great lengths to protect the truths of all.

Jose Luis Hernandez - October 2016

Executives of Tulsa Speech 10/14/16  

Executives of Tulsa Club Speech - 10/14/16 

by Jose Luis Hernandez

It is an honor to be able to speak at the Executives of Tulsa Club. I am grateful to Tom Campbell for inviting me. Exactly two years ago I arrived here as a new Tulsan. Now I can proudly say that I have embraced this city as my own. And what a wonderful city it is!  We have some much: parks and trails, our annual fair, ballet, and the touring Broadway shows. And of course, we have the Philbrook, one of the most beautiful museums in the world. 

I really enjoy the many options for recreation that the city gives us—every week I get to visit at Lafortune Park to play tennis and then I do a few runs on the Riverside trail, just between 41st and 71st. That distance over and back covers about a 5K. I will be participating in the Tulsa Run this year, my first race ever! (I’ve really come to enjoy running, especially because you can easily gauge progress and with the new technology available you can also track your pace and distance, all in real time.) 

In Tulsa, a lot of people care about education and philanthropy. I’ve gotten to meet so many leaders in the field through my work as director of Sistema Tulsa. Interestingly enough I am part of a new wave of educational, religious, and artistic leaders who have also recently arrived or started new leadership roles in the city. People like educator and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gist, Signature Symphony conductor Andres Franco, Philbrook Director Scott Tullen, or my own colleague David Wiggs, the Senior Pastor at Boston Avenue. Many institutions are celebrating major anniversaries (30 and 40 year anniversaries). So it is time to learn from their accomplishments and move them forward into the future. 

I am glad that some very traditional institutions are now looking to millennials like me for leadership. And that is good, but even better when we can strike a compromise with colleagues who can remind us of the culture and traditions of the institutions where we serve. I am proud to work at the Boston Avenue church, a community that is open to all who would want to experience God’s love. We are lot of more than iconic building and we want to continue to play a role in the progress of our city. Come visit us, we think deeply and let think for yourself as well. (I think David Wiggs would be proud of me for putting in this plug here this morning). 

Now that I’ve touched on the subject of millennials I should say (and quoting data from the Pew Research Group), that this group represents the most diverse population in the history of our country. So obviously this same group will bring about a long lasting change to the American way. 

We are very optimistic in spite of the tragic events that have shaped our generation—9-11, Columbine, Katrina. We are more tolerant of races and other groups different from our own. Unfortunately, as a whole, we have become less and less engaged in the political process. I noticed one of your members today brought in signs regarding one of the questions on the next local ballot. That’s good. Regardless of where you stand on the issues it is good to engage in conversations about our future. 

Millennials also long for more and deeper human relations, but at the same time, in the Age Facebook and virtual realities this has actually become harder to achieve. 

I was born in a small Texas town very close to Mexico. I learned English when I attended a US school for the first time in the 4th grade. I am proud to be a first generation American. My parents grew up in Mexico and met in college. My dad was the book worm, my mom the social butterfly. Opposites attract, right? Here is an explanation by way of physicist David Bohm—when we see seeming polarities, look for the larger truth that contains them both. And so my parent’s larger truth fell into the realm of fear of God, hard work, respect for others, and the belief that strong families are pillars of successful communities. 

My early experiences as a volunteer at church and at the local Lion’s Club led me to discern the responsibility to care for others less fortunate than I. At the same time my journey as a student musician taught me how to harness my own imagination. I remember fondly the eye-care crusades that we led for very poor families through the Lion’s Club. I also remember my first piano recitals, how I felt so special because people cared about my work. 

I don’t mean to make this autobiographical speech, but I think it is important that I share at least a little bit of my own story because ultimately our stories and experiences clamor to become intertwined. By invoking our shared stories as a metaphor for community, we honor the ultimate goal of our citizenry. The Founding Fathers called this building a “more perfect union.”  And yet in spite of our progress, this public “union” is still both the greatest virtue and challenge of our times. 

Our personal stories also shed light on why we do what we do. Eric Booth, a teaching artist active at Lincoln Center and a mentor of mine, often quotes an idea that affirms that 80% percent of what we teach is who we are. You can substitute what we teach, with what we think or what we care about. As leaders it is important for us to be mindful of how we conduct ourselves, what we feed our mind, body, and soul. It all makes an impact in how others perceive our influence. Hopefully this 80% analogy is a golden nugget for you to take home. 

About 5 years ago, I took a sabbatical and moved to Boston to take part in a special training program for young musicians who are passionate about social justice. (Taking a sabbatical makes me sound like a professor on the verge of retirement, but I was only 27!) I would call this training program a music educator’s version of AmeriCorps. For a year I studied methods to nurture human development through the practice of music alongside fellows from across the US. Together, we became missionaries of the social mission of art, as our sponsor Dr. Abreu would call us. 

Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu has been a boundless source of inspiration and energy for me. His educational philosophy, which was first applied in Venezuela is known as El Sistema (or the system). It is thriving in 25 countries around the world and now in Tulsa.  There is a new book called "Playing for their Lives" that chronicles the expansion of this important thinker's ideas. I would say that El Sistema works as a living and breathing experiment of how the learning of music can nurture the individual and how the individual can transform his community and lead a fruitful life. And because it is an experiment, there is room for leaders to model each chapter after the needs of the community they serve, and as a natural consequence, after their own aspirations for shaping the common good. This is something that is very appealing to me. 

In Tulsa, I am now working with close to 100 students and families who attend the program as members of orchestras and choirs. Each orchestra and choir is a public space that brings students from across the school district to form a diverse community.  We do not charge tuition or require an audition. Everyone is free to attend the program if they make a commitment to put in the work (and it is hard work!). 

An orchestra is a community that comes together for the sole purpose of agreeing with itself, says Abreu. And what is it that they need to agree upon? They agree to make music together. And what does that imply? That is a question that I constantly ask myself. 

Let’s elaborate on a few ideas—in practice, making music together in an orchestra makes you accountable to the group. You are responsible for the success of the overall music and you cannot let your peers down. This is a quality that is important to succeed in the workforce. Robert Putnam, an academic who has studied the demise and revival of American communities wrote that trust is the dominant predictor of success in any community. If one is reliable; you can surely trust him or her. And if we can trust each other we can make progress. 

There are also the physical and metaphysical properties of music. Music is sound but what is sound and what is there? As a musician I have observed several things. First, that sound can move you emotionally—it can lead you to experiences that are sometimes difficult to explain. The fact that you can’t see the sound makes it almost mystical. 

I also heard Dr. Abreu refer to the phenomenon of sound as an invisible language. What makes sound so powerful in the context of building community through music is that one does not have talk about the need to work together because integration is already explicit in the goals of music. Voices and instruments in tune and playing in unison or harmony are perfect examples of this same integration. What music does is that it provides a platform where these voices and instruments can meet, without empty rhetoric getting in the way. 

When I think of orchestras, I think of the virtues of public spaces. Let’s take parks for example. I am amazed at the new local project called the Gathering Place led by banker and  philanthropist George Kaiser. Of course, this will be more than a public park; it is also going to be a platform to bring people together and to interact with each other. When you visit our public parks, whether it is Riverside or Lafortune parks, you can feel the pulse of and celebrate the diversity of our city. These spaces are vibrant and colorful where many languages are spoken and people can experiment with the idea of togetherness. We often hear progressive politicians talk about how we are stronger together; but these promises fall short of ideas for the actual practice of becoming stronger together. Why? (There are no cut and paste formulas that will work for every single city or community.) 

Because of this same challenge, leaders must develop opportunities to help people enter into the stories of others. In my case, let me give you an example from a teaching moment at a symphonic rehearsal. There is now a growing anxiety regarding immigration to our country. Our Community Youth Orchestra at Sistema Tulsa was rehearsing a work by Dvorak. Every time I introduce a new work, I like to give a short lecture about its origins, why the piece is important, and what it can teach us. The New World Symphony was composed by a Czech immigrant who in the late 1800’s landed in a small rural town in Iowa. While in America he discovered African-American spirituals and other Native American musical expressions. One of his new friends, a man named Harry Burleigh, sang spirituals to him and he internalized the style and weaved it into a very sophisticated creation that transcends borders and has stood the test of time. “These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil,” Dvorak said. As they play this work, our students are entering into the chronicles of history, negotiating their own identities through the stories and ideas of others. And that is the beginning of a process to discern the potential that we have as a “union,” or at least to begin useful conversations about who we are and what we can become. 

What I see as a way to bring us closer together is to learn from experiments like the Gathering Place or Sistema Tulsa. Our orchestra is a microcosm of the entire Tulsa community. We are African, Native, Hispanic, Asian, and White Americans working towards one goal, one ideal. We are also converging or meeting in a church with a membership that has been historically homogeneous but is now slowly establishing a new identity. Of course, these shifts of purpose happen very slowly and gradually, and they can come with certain amount of tension and anxiety. 
To alleviate the burden of change, one has to think very strategically and lead by example. One can also apply the rules of public policy. During a professional development course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I learned that people will not only support most what they help create but also what they can clearly understand. I also learned a useful technique that perhaps you could also apply when trying to enact change in your companies or work areas. It brings visioning and public-policy thinking together to bring people into the core of your idea and then invite them to develop and model it after the place or community where it will be implanted. It is called the “Eight-Fold Path” by Eugene Bardach. 

The “path” includes several steps: a definition of the problem to solve, collection of evidence pertaining to the problem, identification of alternatives that can solve the problem, criteria by which to weigh the best course of action, a projection of outcomes, examination of costs vs. benefits, and documentation through storytelling. 

This is speech is an example of storytelling. 

Not everyone knows this but before we started Sistema Tulsa we worked for an entire year to define our mission. We sought out key leaders in the community who could teach us about how to best position our program as a change agent.  (Looking for moral support is important.) We looked at resources that were already available in the community, we set up a timeline, and looked years ahead. We asked many questions like – How would we know that the program was actually working? Or how would we know our investment and energy was being put to good use? 

After our first year of operation and through early independent research done by OSU-Tulsa we affirmed our program’s ideals—Sistema Tulsa is inclusive of all races and socio-economic groups, it is giving children a better love of music and broadening their horizons, it is teaching lessons in discipline and community. 

Also, 100% of parents would recommend the program to other parents. 93% of parents believe that the program has taught their child to work hard to reach his/her goals. And my favorite stat – 97% of students want to get better at playing their musical instrument and 87% of them believe they have made their families proud. 

Most importantly, we are learning how to work together and how to build a community that is constantly aspiring to better itself.  One of our students said it best: “We learn important things here, and we have the opportunity to do something very special.” 

So my friends, all it takes for steady and systematic change is that we bring the best of ourselves to each opportunity and to make sure that those opportunities can also motivate, inspire, and nurture others at the same time. Also, most ideas for innovation can already be found right in front of you.  Take what you know, take what you love, and make something out of it. Ideas abound, our job is to experiment and practice connecting the dots to come up with something entirely fresh and new (They call this simple formula genius). 

I hope that my message this morning spoke to you in some way. I hope that you can begin to think of music as a metaphor for community building and most importantly, that we can continue to aspire to be good friends, colleagues and neighbors as our communities grow and evolve over time. 

If you or people that you know can help me take my work to the next level please let me know. I would be happy to continue the conversation. More about Sistema Tulsa (its mode of operation, funding, and goals) can be learned from our annual report which is found our website

Thank you all. I am so glad to meet you. 

Sistema Tulsa Faculty to Hone Skills at Carnegie Hall  


Tulsa, OK – July 1, 2016 

Sistema Tulsa Faculty to Hone Skills at Carnegie Hall 

Music teachers selected to attend a Music Educator’s Workshop in New York City 

Sistema Tulsa music educators will travel to New York City and hone their skills as part of Carnegie Hall’s prestigious 2016 Music Educator’s Workshop. The Music Educators Workshop is a community of ensemble directors from around the country who come together to learn from each other and from top-notch guest faculty, to attend concerts at Carnegie Hall, and to explore their important role as purveyors of musicality and creativity. 

The music workshop will be focused on studying and choosing effective literature and repertoire to motivate students and awaken their artistic sensibilities. 

Four teachers, including Sistema Tulsa Director Jose Luis Hernandez, will be in residence learning at the Resnick Education Wing at Carnegie Hall from July 13-16. Hernandez said that this opportunity will bring the faculty closer together and provide them with skills that they can utilize in Sistema Tulsa rehearsals and in their own school contexts. Best of all, this opportunity is free of cost to them. “This is a win-win for our program and our schools, he said, “teachers will bring back new tools and knowledge that will benefit Sistema Tulsa students and many more throughout our local public school system.” 

Kelsey Rooney, a General Music teacher at Grissom Elementary and Lead Teacher for Sistema Tulsa said, “I hope to become a better teacher at this workshop so that I can continue to teach and inspire students to the best of my ability.” 

Teachers attending: Amy Clark (Chouteau Elementary), Lauren Harper (Holland Hall), Greg Dorst (private studio), Kelsey Rooney (Grissom Elementary) 


Across the Americas  

My recent guest column for The Ensemble, a monthly newsletter reporting on the U.S. and Canada Sistema-inspired movement. 

April 1, 2016 

"Across the Americas" 

What began as a simple spaghetti dinner with Maestro Abreu in New York quickly turned into a continental mission – as things tend to do, with the Maestro. “We are going to generate a continental project with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela,” he told me. I had just heard him give a lecture about unifying the Americas through music, and we talked about the mentoring relationship between two Mexican musical giants, composer Carlos Chavez and conductor Eduardo Mata, and the Simon Bolivar in its early days. It’s imperative, Abreu told me, that the spirit of this once-thriving alliance be rekindled. 

In short order, I was in Caracas with two of Mexico’s top young musicians, bringing a new piano concerto to the Bolivars. The piano soloist was Abdiel Vazquez; the piece we premiered was Piramide del Sol, by Juan Pablo Contreras. 

Working with the orchestra, I experienced firsthand the total commitment to music and the generosity of spirit that contribute to their distinctive greatness. I got used to hearing the brass section continue to fine-tune intricate passages long after our rehearsal ended. (The power of the string sound was a treasure to behold!) It was common for me to receive words of encouragement from orchestra members. Right before the performance, many wished me well. 

What can we learn from the Bolivars, we who work with young U.S./Canadian Sistema programs? First, we need to do everything we can to nurture the feeling of interdependence in our orchestras—you are responsible for others and they are responsible for you. We need to think in terms of inspiring motivation in our ensembles so that they can take ownership of their own learning and outcomes. 

The second lesson is about the “continental project.” We need to keep generating links with programs beyond our own geographical domains. The Bolivars’ path to becoming one of the world’s leading orchestras involved a diligent exchange and confluence of artistic cultures from the Americas to Europe and back. By actively listening to the sound of others, the orchestra was able to find its voice. If we listen closely across continents, we too will begin to find our voices.

Atlanta Music Project Take two!  

Pre-concert gathering with Exec. Director and Concertmaster. Just before going on stage with the Atlanta Music Project!

All together now. Great to collaborate with these wonderful young musicians! ‪#‎elsistema‬ ‪#‎music‬ ‪#‎education‬ ‪#‎AMP‬


Piramide del Sol (Full Performance Video)  

I am delighted to share this video of my performance with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela in Caracas last November. This is a brand new Piano Concerto by Juan Pablo Contreras, a leading young Mexican composer. At the piano is the phenomenal Abdiel Vázquez - Pianist who was also a joy to work with! More music to come… 

Muy contento de compartirles este video de mi presentación con la Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela en Caracas el pasado mes de Noviembre. Disfruten de un nuevo Concierto para Piano de Juan Pablo Contreras, uno de los más importantes compositores jóvenes de México. Como solista el fenomenal pianista Abdiel Vázquez con quien disfrute mucho compartir este concierto. Más música por venir… 

New Appointment - James and Mary Barnes Foundation Director of Sistema Tulsa 

Jose Luis Hernandez is now appointed as The James and Mary Barnes Foundation Director of Sistema Tulsa! The Barnes Foundation Trustees are pleased that their support will "enable the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church to offer children in Tulsa a chance to enrich their lives."

"I am proud of the work we do at the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church and Sistema Tulsa," says Jose Luis.  "Our program focuses on excellence, community, and partnerships to grow a more prosperous youth. I am delighted of this appointment that allows me to share my passion for music and education!"