Los Angeles Notebook, Part I

Reflections from our week at Take a Stand, a Symposium hosted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bard College, and the Longy School of Music. 

A Nucleo in Los Angeles

Immediately after our arrival in LA, we visited at YOLA, an El Sistema program in the heart of east Los Angeles. We were greeted by their nucleo director, Christine Witkowski, a first year fellow, colleague, and tremendous leader. Josue, a young trumpet player, was quick to introduce himself and tell us about his experiences as a student leader there. Emily Kubitsky, a teaching artist on site is always attentive to detail, caring, and ready to serve the needs of her students. I can see that there is a very special connection between teachers and students here.

Members of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and an international camera crew were present on site (as they are gathering footage for a thirty minute documentary to be included in the upcoming cinematic production of Mahler 8th, from Caracas). Visitors from the Gothenburg Symphony were attentive to their every move, learning from them, taking notes and ideas for the development of their own program in Sweden.

The members of the SBOV, all string players, worked through some elements of technique with the youngsters, providing them with inspiration and new tools for their musical development. They were kind and generous, and also very demanding (a testament to their inbred and relentless work ethic). I particularly enjoyed hearing from Claudio Hernandez, a Venezuelan bass player, as he spoke to YOLA parents about growing up in music, the nature of his profession, and what he felt being in an orchestra meant. "It is like my family, my everything, my country," he said. The feeling of bridging both musical and national aesthetics is of particular interest here. What can we do in this country to reclaim art and music as a national endeavor? An iniative for a national youth orchestra has been recently announced by Carnegie Hall, perhaps, this could be the beginning of new ways to think about youth in classical music as a source of national pride.

My friend and colleague Joshua Dos Santos, Dudamel Fellow and resident conductor of the SBYOV also worked with the YOLA musicians. His approach to the rehearsal was unique in his use of metaphor and story, bringing the music, (a Brahms Hungarian Dance) closer to the imagination of the young musicians. He was conducting, but also demonstrating by actively participating, singing, and even playing alongside the percussion section. This kind of involvement, beyond traditional baton technique, is a trademark of Sistema conductors. I look forward to exploring this more in depth when I travel to Venezuela later this month.

At a concert in Lafayette Park,  families were proud of their students and shared in their joy of playing music. "Seeing all those people gathered around the students is so beautiful, it is a perfect picture" Gretchen Nielsen, the LA Phil's Director of Education, said. Later, the HOLA Development Director, Elizabeth Curtis, explained to me that part of the vision of HOLA (the social services center that hosts YOLA) is to expand beyond its own buildings and into public spaces to create new opportunities for families to experience the power of community in the context of positive experiences. The center provides many other offerings for at-risk youth, but music has already made a profound impact, in a very short time. As Maestro Abreu, the El Sistema visionary has said, "music has the ability to unite an entire community." And this is clearly happening here.

My fellow Fellows Jennifer Kessler and Christine Witkowski share a moment with the students of YOLA.

Ser, no ser.

Josbel Puche, the director of Nucleo La Rinconada in Venezuela offered an enlightening lecture alongside first year Fellows Lorrie Heagy and Rebecca Levi, where they discussed various El Sistema pedagogical tools and ideas. Josbel, known for her work as the creator of the paper orchestra (a concept that grew out instrument scarcity in her own country rather than pedagogical intent) discussed how this idea has now evolved into a sound and much desired orchestral education tool.

The concept, now known around US nucleos and adopted by YOLA at HOLA faculty, consists on building papier mache string instruments from scratch. An entire community of teachers, students, and families will convene to build and decorate them (an elaborate process), giving each instrument a unique personality. Once in hand, musical exercises are built upon concepts leading to actual orchestra rehearsals. How to hold the bow, respect the instrument, follow the conductor, and interact with their peers are all lessons that can be learned throughout the process (one that in average lasts about 4-6 weeks).

When American educators in the room, asked Josbel if she had brought her own method book so that others may follow accordingly, she responded, “we don’t write anything down, we create every single day.” Of course, for many educators and artists in the room, this was a baffling statement. Our traditional approaches to pedagogy dictate elaborate lesson plans, faithful adherence to established method books, and process. Maestro Abreu’s idea of being not being, is at work here.

As with technology, pedagogy becomes obsolete as soon as it has been unpacked. The Sistema teaching artist is focused on the individual student and the context in which she resides. Every community is different, every orchestra develops their own personality and sound. In striving for excellence, adjustments are made along the way. As artists our work is never static, it is always evolving. This is something we can learn from our colleagues in Venezuela.

Gustavo Dudamel leads over 1000 musicians for Mahler's Symphony No. 8

The Olympics of Music

In the spirit of continuously creating and evolving, Gustavo Dudamel and his orchestras--the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela--have come to embrace challenges as necessary for growth. Playing the entire Mahler symphonies in the span of four weeks, twice, is simply, madness. But if we conceive music as universal, it should also encompass the notion of defying the limits. This is also true in sports, as we often hear the stories of athletes as people, and later witness their triumphs as heroes. 

As in the symphonic output of Beethoven (my favorite composer), experience-constants are also present in Mahler. Because music encodes real-life experiences (sounds of discord, passion, joy, and transformation) it is also a conduit for encouraging aspiring to the highest of human potential. When Maestro Abreu conceived his youth orchestra program 36 ago in Venezuela, he defined his young musicians as heroes. He told them, “with this instrument, you are going to change the world.” And that is the reason why we are here today. As I was sitting in Gustavo’s rehearsal of the “Symphony of a Thousand” it became clear to me, yet again, that music is more than just notes. And that Tocar y Luchar means, simply, to believe that anything is possible.

Eric Booth sets the stage at the first West Coast Seminario.

Pasadena Seminario

What do you think a seminario is? Eric Booth, a leading teaching artist convened all participants (in orchestra formation) and in the spirit of El Sistema as a space of inquiry, facilitated a lively conversation of ideas. Participants shared a myriad of actionable frameworks for proceeding through the day ahead. A seminario is a “workshop, an opportunity for collaboration, a larger artistic endeavor,” were some of the participant’s thoughts. Discovering prime goals for alignment came next. Stephanie Hsu, mentioned the idea of using our day as an opportunity to foster deeper connections between teachers and students. Bolivia Bottome, the international liason for FundaMusical Bolivar spoke about the importance of artistic purpose: maximizing learning and establishing clear performance goals. More often than not, our Venezuelan colleagues will stress musical excellence as the foremost El Sistema ideal.

Others spoke to this practice’s resemblance to our existing all-region and all-state orchestra convenings where a group of high level participants come together to play music at a higher level, beyond what they could master in their own local schools. Indeed, a seminario is exactly that, and much more. It is a an event that combines intensity of purpose with the added value of feeling a sense of community. A performance challenge raises the game, all participants are responsible for the success of the event.

In the first seminario in the west coast, over 200 participants came from Santa Barbara, San Diego, Chula Vista, and Pasadena. Visitors from the League of American Orchestras, Fellows from the New England Conservatory, and Dick Roberts of Take a Stand were witness to the success of the event. I particularly enjoyed collaborating with Adam Johnston (the director of Santa Barbara’s El Sistema program) and also with Tricia Tunstall as part of her book presentation, Changing Lives.

A seminario begins with clear expectations and also a willingness to embrace surprises. It is a space different from the all-state orchestra programs, there are no auditions here, all can participate. This of course, raises pedagogical challenges. In particular, the need for repertoire that caters to mixed-level orchestras. And it was interesting to see how this was solved.

During one of the pieces, Samvel Chilingarian led the 90-piece string orchestra in an arrangement of a children’s song that contained choral parts in liue of instrumental ones. You saw the youngest musicians trading the string instruments for their voices, sitting in the orchestra and singing in counterpoint as part of the ensemble. This is was very effective. Children that weren’t ready to play their instrumental parts felt as important as their violin playing-peers. (in a professional setting, just a few days ago, I also heard at Walt Disney Hall, a piece by Miguel del Aguila, Salon de Buenos Aires, where the composer makes use of his instrumentalist’s voices, creating new textures and powerful moments of aural newness).

I hope to see more choral work be integrated within the orchestra setting. It is also important that young musicians be allowed to recognize the value and potential of their own singing voices. In practicing in solfege, their music reading skills can improve dramatically, issues in instrumental tuning can be resolved quicker; and they can also begin to practice audiation, (hearing the music in your mind) a much needed tool to think of music as expression and narrative.

The involvement of families in the seminario was key to its success. The day’s most impressive moment came when parents, who had been learning a melody on recorders (which they learned in 30 minutes) joined their own children’s orchestra as they played a simple but meaningful musical arrangement. As they finished the piece, the level of excitement grew to such enormous heights that the young musicians responded with an embrace that spoke louder than the music itself. They were proud of their parents and energetically stomped their feet, the same way the members of the Berlin Philharmonic applaud the finest of soloists at the Philharmonie.

At Adam Johnston's request, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of about 60 parents. I told the story of my own entry point into the arts experience. About growing up in music and about my own passion as a conductor, educator, and advocate of the work of El Sistema. The parents shared their own stories of social transformation through music. We delved into exploring and identifying key opportunities for growth embedded in the process of music education. How can parents be more involved in helping realize their children’s potential?  How can teachers, students and families best collaborate for success? These were some of the questions I asked. In turn, many ideas emerged. Parents asking their children to teach them what they had learned in class, building extramusical relationships by singing together, and celebrating their accomplishments every step of the way, were some of the ideas they shared. This was the highlight of my experience in Pasadena. And I was very happy to be able to collaborate in this regard.

Seminarios are central to the process of developing regional and national US Sistema program networks. When we focus on the work at hand and on the musical potential of our youth, everything comes into focus. I saw nucleo directors sharing and enjoying their time together, thinking about how to leverage their resources, and how to find ways to best share their own expertise for collective growth. The Sistema movement in the United States is now ready to move from being El Sistema inspired to actually being systemic. If we can think of ways for programs to come together in artistic terms (with clear expectations and pedagogical goals in mind), we will soon have the processes in place that will allow for the creation of regional and national orchestras that five to ten years from now will also be able to play Beethoven, Revueltas, and why not, Mahler too. Striving for musical achievement is an integral part of the work of El Sistema. Out of the process of collective musical inquiry and refinement, stems social transformation.

With our highly developed expertise in the fields of talent development and musical pedagogy, we can also reach those higher musical goals and at a much faster rate. The connections and opportunities for pedagogical and artistic exchange that seminarios bring will allow for this process to come to frutition. All it takes, is to be open to innovate (and make mistakes too). We must always ask ourselves, as if we were playing an instrument, how can we make it better next time? The pursuit of excellence is part of our work as musicians and educators. Art, as Maestro Abreu describes, "implies a sense of perfection, therefore of excellence, a path to excellence." Couple this idea with the notion of bringing people together on the same path, then we shall have a winning formula. And a much larger family dedicated to bringing music to places where it matters most. >> Los Angeles Notebook, Part II. 

At the LA Philharmonic, shortly after our Fellow's reunion with our Venezuelan mentors.

My deepest gratitude goes to our Venezuelan mentors Maestro Abreu, Rodrigo Guerrero, Gustavo Dudamel, and Eduardo Mendez. To our friends at the LA Phil Deborah Borda, Leni Boorstin, Dan Berkowitz, and Gretchen Nielsen for hosting us in LA. To my colleagues and teachers at New England Conservatory. And to all of our friends of El Sistema in the US and around the world, many thanks for making this a most memorable week!

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