Silence. Eyes. Music.

On silence, sight, and possibility: a new blog post of mine featured on the TEDPrize site. Pleased to share it with you.

on intimacy, and the art of doing laundry

I spent my second Saturday morning here in Venezuela washing my garments by hand. I was missing a few helpful tools, such as a washboard and a drainage plug, but I quickly found a small plastic bag that had previously held apples I’d purchased from a local market to lay over the drain and got to work right away.



I began with thin shirts that I’d packed specifically for ease of washing. The sensation of kneading fabric in cool water, coupled with the experience of seeing dirt fill the sink was surprisingly satisfying. I drained the sink, re-filled it, continued to knead, and watched the water swirl around, clearer already.

Drain again. Rinse. Repeat.

Five cycles later, I was satisfied only the water ran completely clear, and I could see the stitching of the fabric, and my reflection on the water.



My socks came next. Rinse, knead, drain, repeat; rinse, knead, drain, repeat. I discovered in the wringing and drying process that a group of 4 to 6 socks wrings out more water than a single sock. Water from each sock may be temporarily transferred to others, but as a whole, the process is more efficient for each sock involved.

My jacket came next: a thin cotton hoodie that has significantly more fabric than any other item of clothing that I washed that day. It took at least 8 rinses (and even then I wasn’t satisfied with the clarity of the water), and I had to wring it multiple times in multiple sections, by folding left sleeve over the hood and wringing those together, then wringing the body with the right sleeve, then pairing the right and left sleeve–and still, the water just bled onto itself, very little dripping back into the sink. The more I tried to dry each section individually, the more tired I became. So, ultimately, I left the jacket to drip dry by itself, and wore a slightly damp coat in the bus the following day as I rode from Barquisimeto, Lara to Valle de la Pascua, Guárico. That was okay with me, and I learned to give my jacket a few additional days to air dry the next time I washed it.

It’s been years since I have done my laundry by hand. When I use a washer and dryer, I have no real sense of the process, no appreciation for which articles take longer to wash and dry, no sense of how clean or how dirty anything really is. I just tend to throw it all in under the broad category “needs washing,” and it tends to come out under the broad category “generally clean.” By hand, however, it became clearer and clearer to me that a reason to continue washing garments by hand is to express gratitude for the covering these garments provide for me, to undergo a process that grows out of care: not just for my own cleanliness, but for the vivacity and longevity of that which protects and cares for me.

This has not been my relationship to the musical process, per se, but the beauty, intimacy, and simplicity of this experience sent my mind reeling for several hours after finishing my laundry. As I continued rinsing clothing, striving for clarity of water, my imagination brought me back hours of string sectionals in which I and a group of students refused to move on from a single string exercise, practicing and practicing with new creativity and vigor each ‘cycle,’ living and teaching each other the experience of real, gritty striving. As I dried my socks, I dreamed up new ways of balancing individual coaching in group settings–inspired by ideas and experiences from classes I’d already observed and taught–and other ways of working with each instrument section within the full orchestra, a la the drying of the jacket. Brain whirring, I starred even harder into my socks, wrung my jacket even more tightly, as if willing my clothing to instill still more ideas for the next class.

Sidebar: When I taught in Santa Rosa, a beautiful núcleo situated in and around the town square, I taught a string class with about 30 first violinists and violists at mixed levels, who were working on the opening of the 2nd movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. (Think, JAWS!) Surprised by this unusual combination, I asked a string teacher what the rationale was for putting these two sections together for this particular rehearsal. Was it because of the dialogue between those two voices? Was it because these students were at more similar a technical level than students in, say, the second violin or cello section? The teacher gave me a quizzical look as I asked the question, then laughed and said, “No, Stephanie; it’s because we knew you are a violinist and violist, so we wanted to give those students the opportunity to work with you together.” A simple yet beautiful example for me of stretching something ‘fixed’ in new ways. The challenge created provides and opportunity to design new exercises and new ways of teaching and learning.

This trip has been filled with gifts, and though I was not expecting that the experience of hand-washing some fabric to be included in those gifts, it filled me with a sense of spiritual calmness that some get from gardening, trying to fix a broken radio or a fussy car part, perfecting  a certain hit or kick, or working through a musical passage to perfection. The pattern here might be physicality + repetition + the taste of possibility and reachable achievement + a clear beginning, middle, and end. There are more, I am sure. The intimacy of focusing on ‘minutiae’ as a means of changing our lives–and by extension, the lives of those around us, our students, our teachers, our friends, our neighborhoods, our world–cannot be understated here. Hand position, the curvature of a pinky, the insistence from both student and teacher that you can never give up on that little finger–



–no matter how sore it becomes, or no matter how hard it feels to break that habit–



–is another layer of the reason that I am here, right now, savoring in the discoveries and blessings of clear water.

bendiciones en barquisimeto

I’ve died from sheer happiness, gone to heaven, and risen from the dead in order to write this next blog post.

I traveled from Caracas to Barquisimeto, a journey that looked something like this:

Caracas a Barquisimeto

Caracas a Barquisimeto

Or, if you prefer a bit more geographic context:

con un poquito más contexto

con un poquito más contexto

Bienvenidos a la Fundación Orquesta Sinfonica Juveníl e Infantil en Barquisimeto, housed in the conservatory here. Here’s a quick, early-morning snapshot of the foyer before the arrival of the masses. I had a beautifully tranquil few minutes of contemplation here this morning under the sun, before rolling up my sleeves and getting to work:

Calm before the storm

Calm before the storm

A quick tour of the space, now animated:

I am entirely enamored by indoor-outdoor spaces like this, which is perhaps a sign that I should seriously consider relocating to el Carribe! No, in all seriousness though, as much as I love it here, and as much as my 12-hour mega-days are exhilarating from the moment I step in the main door to teach at 9am, to the moment I leave at 9pm after intense rehearsals with the Orquesta Juveníl (the most advanced student orchestra at the núcleo), I remain wholly committed to figuring out how to bring core elements of El Sistema back to the United States, to run a núcleo of my own in a city in need of innovative new social programming for young children. For a fabulous run-down of some of these valued core elements of Sistema programming, check out fellow Fellow Ben Fuller’s most recent blog post on what he’s tracking here to bring back to his home city of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Every day is a meditation here, both invigorating and contemplative, and filled with constant learning. There are a few major gifts so far that I feel I’ve received here, that I want to now offer to you in relation to being an El Sistema practitioner:

1. Individualized Coaching:

Sistema Fellow Julie Davis coaches a young violinist

Sistema Fellow Julie Davis coaches a young violinist

El Sistema is renowned for its emphasis on the ensemble as the central unit for instruction and performance. The benefits of this have been astounding, and the possibilities for developing a collaborative ethos are tremendous. The beauty and the possibilities of individual coaching, however, must not be under estimated. So many of us have been spending upwards of 10 hours a day giving private lessons or doing individualized instruction here, and while the main núcleo in Barquisimeto houses both a conservatory and a núcleo (from 2-6pm, the “núcleo” takes effect, and students pour in from every which corner to play, practice, attend rehearsals, take theory and solfege classes, etc.). I’ve started a “viola clinic” of sorts, with the violists who are hungry for more individualized time to continue developing their technique and musicianship.

Each afternoon, I start with one violist up on a balcony of the conservatory, and the more we play, the more other violists join us. I am introduced to each violist as they come over with a hug and a kiss, and the more of us there are–playing and coaching each other, getting one-on-one or two-on-one coaching from me, or practicing individually in close proximity–the stronger the creative buzz, the energy to get better, and the snowball effect of violists present (WHICH IS THE BEST!!!!). Here’s a photo from the beginning of the snowballing:

Sculpting the opening of the Walton Viola Concerto

Sculpting the opening of the Walton Viola Concerto

Time stops existing when I do individualized and group instruction this way, sans walls, sans the restrictions of a clock. (But once I look at the clock again, I see that these clinics are lasting for upwards of 6 hours!) The individual relationships that we form, and the fluency that we develop on the instruments in this time are transferrable in the most important of ways back to the pinnacle experience of the orchestra.

2. Euphoria through Volume and Speed (Or, the creation and maintenance of passion):A group of us are performing at the end of the week with the Orquesta Juveníl, or the most advanced student orchestra at the núcleo. Here’s a little excerpt of the second movement of  Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony:

This recording is clean, calculated, precise, though still exciting. Nestled within the viola section in the Juveníl, however, I am engulfed by the impact of sound and speed that is entirely ferocious, and makes my heart race (literally). The brass players play as if they have two additional sets of lungs, and lips made of… (well, steel wouldn’t work here, and neither would tire rubber, so I may have to do a little more research on this analogy before I complete it!). The orchestra plays several notches faster than in this recording, and although it DOES feel as though we are in danger of rushing too much, the danger is thrilling, and pales in comparison to other types of danger that any one of us might face. At the end of the day, does it really matter if we ARE rushing, if the experience is transformative for us players, at different twists and turns in the piece?!

One of the viola teachers at the núcleo told me that, despite the fact that he is working on solo repertoire with some of his younger viola students, many of them spend more time practicing orchestral repertoire than his solo repertoire. Why? If you lived inside that sound–the blaring, mourning, yearning, pleading, ferocious, mysterious, soulful sound–you may very well feel compelled to spend hours a day with your instrument and music as well.

To quickly link the orchestral experience back to individualized coaching, before my first rehearsal with the Orquesta Juveníl, the assistant principal violist, a lovely 19-year-old violist named Johander, worked with me for an hour, leading me through practice of the entire viola part for the Prokofiev Symphony. We had met about 5 seconds before. I had only asked Johander for some tempo markings, since I wasn’t too familiar with the symphony. 60 minutes later–which is a lot of minutes, mind you–he had patiently coached me through the entire piece, with extra attention to the trickiest sections, so that by the time I showed up for my first rehearsal, not only did I feel like I had slightly better command on this entirely counter-intuitive piece, but I also had an ally, someone who was looking out for me as a member of his section. He easily introduced me to all of the other violists, who were equally as warm, and each day I am moved by small acts of generosity that they show to me as a guest in their section.

3. Teacher-Artist-Performer-Learner: There have been many linguistic renderings of this concept, so I would simply like to elaborate more on what I see and what I am experiencing here that is making me feel more whole than I have felt in years.

I should repeat that. I feel more whole here in Barquisimeto than I have felt in years. And this is the kind of wholeness that I want to create for the teachers and students at my núcleo, when I start and run a new program in the states.

So many of the young children I have met have ask me what orchestra I play in. The default is this: when you are a more advanced musician in the orchestra, you are not only paid a small stipend to be a pre-professional player in the group, but you are also paid to teach lessons or classes to younger students (formalizing the peer teaching component that El Sistema is renowned for), while continously learning from your own instructors, whether they are formal teachers, or other more advanced students in the orchestra that you seek out.

I have been working with violinists and violists who play in the Juveníl, who have come to me asking for some coaching. I have offered it freely, and as a result of their humility in making such requests, I have also asked others for lessons. At the end of each day, we are equal peers in the orchestra, colleagues and mentors to each other. I continue to receive help from the other violists, when I’ve misplaced some sheet music, or a rhythm has escaped me, or I have forgotten to count the rests in the middle of a movement. There is no animosity, no ill feeling, no pretense, only partnership. And we all perform together on Friday, at San Felipe, rocking the shoes and socks off of anyone who dares to be in our presence.

It has been such a blessing–una gran bendición–to be in this space; to be around hungry musicians making music in all nooks and crannies, indoors and out; to have the opportunity to sculpt young musicians and hear them develop exponentially in the course of just 20 minutes; to be coached by other young musicians, who are helping me develop a stronger and sturdier internal pulse in the face of cacophony and on the frontier of something so dangerous that it has the possibility to become a force with the impact of an explosion that does the opposite of harm, by complete invigoration.

hunger from the center

The center of anything looks and feels different from where you are; how you frame what’s in front of you or around you; how you are positioned in relation to everything or everyone else.

Earlier in February, I had the privilege of being able to attend the dress rehearsal of Mahler’s 8th Symphony (the Symphony of a Thousand) in Los Angeles, played by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, along with several major choral groups in Los Angeles. The performance was, of course, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Some context: this particular rehearsal was part of an epic musical adventure, a major Mahler performance cycle that included 9 symphonies, 2 orchestras, 2 countries, and 1 conductor. (Here’s a great review of Gustavo’s Mahler mega-tour from the New York Times if you’re interested.) The performance was breathtaking, and Gustavo was, in many ways, at the center of all of the action, at the epicenter of the entire room, sculpting the sound and experience of everyone else in that room.

At another version of the center, however, was the Los Angeles Children’s Choir, dressed below in red:

Gustavo Dudamel conducts Mahler's 8th Symphony

Gustavo Dudamel conducts Mahler's 8th Symphony

Or, for the full view:

Symphony of a Thousand in Los Angeles, CA

'Symphony of a Thousand' in Los Angeles, CA

The symphony was absolutely epic, but what was most profound for me in that experience was the image of those children from the Children’s Choir at the absolute center of the stage, embraced from all sides by their ‘adult counterparts.’ It seemed such a beautiful metaphor, a brilliant version of a full choir and orchestra, whose fundamental purpose was, as Maestro Abreu says, “to agree with itself,” and–in the process–to signal its relationship to its young children, which is to situate them squarely in the heart of the magnitude of it all, perhaps both to protect those children, as well as to allow them to serve as the driving force and strength for the whole.

I found myself thinking of this particular concert again yesterday evening, while in the auditorium at the Center for Social Action in Caracas (the center for El Sistema administration). Now, put this on as you read:

I went to hear Gustavo conduct the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra again, in a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (streaming melodiously from your speakers right now, right?!). The experience was almost other-worldly in terms of the beauty and impact of the sound and performance, but it was the fact that students from núcleos all around Caracas were the sole audience members (besides myself and my fellow Fellows, of course!) that made the whole experience feel elevated just a few layers above reality. (We actually recognized many of the children in the audience from our visits to Montalbán in Caracas!) As Gustavo walked onto the stage for the first time, the sounds of squealing children and teenagers created a new, transcendent musical layer in that space. Following the performance, they flocked to him, and to the Concertmaster, eager to connect with their musical heroes.

Despite the immense sonic and spiritual impact of the music being made that evening, at the center of it all wasnotthe Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, nor was it even necessarily Gustavo. It was pulled further back, from within the heart of the audience, comprised of children and parents whose deep love and hunger for the music paralleled–if not supeceded–the hunger and love that emanated from the stage. (If I had a panoramic mega-camera, this is where I’d insert a full concert hall shot!)

In previous experiences in my life, such as when I went to hear the New York Youth Symphony perform at Carnegie Hall when I was a junior in high school, my intense desire to be on the stage felt like a desire to be within the center of the creation of something extremely and insanely potent. I almost fell out of my seat when I was at that particular performance, and that hunger to be within that orchestra propelled me. This time, from within the audience at the auditorium at the Center for Social Action, I felt that I was in the center of something in which I was absolutely needed; that I was nestled within an audience filled with as much hunger and power as had the performers; and that that power and hunger would continue to drive me forward.

I’d love to share with you the wisdom of Sistema Fellow Julie Davis, in a post-concert interview:

Part of the quest, I think, in figuring out how to bring major elements of El Sistema back to the U.S. is to figure out how to tap into and grow that hunger, both within young children (an idea that fellow Fellow Julie Davis has inspired me to explore deeply) and across ‘communities.’ There’s a national hunger that certainly seems to be bubbling, and certainly no one right combination of ingredients or nutrients that would make it work: it is so entirely context-specific. But that is precisely the mission here: to gather fluency with central ingredients here, and to bring them back, cull them together, and follow the course of a major chemical reaction.

al núcleo Montalbán

Aaattt laaaaast…!

Okay, I couldn’t help myself, and Etta James happens to be one of those brilliant people whose memory deserves constant and regular tribute. But, melodrama aside, WE’VE MADE IT! We’ve finally arrived in Venezuela: the land where all things are possible; the land where violins and trumpets grow on trees; the land where musicians from around the world come and bask in the magic of El Sistema.

I did say melodrama aside. I must be re-greasing my blog-writing wheels.

So here I am, in Caracas, on a music-education Mecca of sorts, here to visit the venerated El Sistema, an anti-poverty social program using youth orchestras that was conceived 26 years ago by the equally–if not more–venerated Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu. It might be fair to say that I have been waiting for this opportunity for my entire life, born with the desire to be here to understand how music is used as a tool for radical transformation on numerous social levels. I have visited two núcleos (or music centers) in Caracas so far, one in Montalbán and the other in Sarría. More about Sarriá in a later post. Each one truly feels like a núcleo, a nucleus, a central safe haven and gathering place for children, families, and teachers in the midst of a complex, often violence-plagued, barrio. Each one seems to function as a heart in a larger system, though that system within each barrio is something I’m seeking to understand more deeply in the coming weeks: 4 more, to be exact.

Núcleo Montalbán is nestled between rolling green hills.

A group of parents wait outside the núcleo in Montalbán

A group of parents wait outside the núcleo in Montalbán

It has its own beautiful building, complete with rehearsal spaces, practice rooms with whiteboards, a small kitchen for teachers, students, and other personnel. I asked three vivacious young string players to give me a tour of their núcleo on our second day there, and they were thrilled and so proud to explain every last detail, from the location of the reception desk to the specific happenings inside each practice room on the ground floor.

I’ve seen numerous núcleos in the U.S. so far, and none of them has functioned as its own community center; they are often attached to schools (over 70% of our current 54 Sistema-inspired programs are actually affiliated with schools, with the majority of those being after-school programs, and about 2-3 of them being in-school programs). There’s a certain magic about having a space dedicated only for the pursuit of one specific thing – yet within that specificity, there is a huge range of adventures happening within.

A sample, of wind and brass players, whom I was told have been playing their instruments for between 2 and 5 years:

My personal favorite thus far: the advanced choir at Montalbán:

The variation is beautiful, and though I’ve never been a bee–and you have likely not been one either–imagine the experience of being a bee in a beehive, contributing to and feeding off of the buzz of productive excitement and directed energy, toward a specific shared goal. The sounds and movements all around are varied and cacophonous, so much so that they could be overwhelming, but there is a soothing blend of just enough of everything happening around you, that the cacophony is actually harmonious–even symphonic–and is the thing that catalyzes and makes possible the production of sweet, delicious, succulent honey. Or maybe that sound is the honey itself.

It was thrilling to be able to be in the center of the musical action:

Rehearsing with the violas of the Caracas orchestra at Montalbán.

Rehearsing with the Caracas orchestra at Montalbán.

As well as to experience the joys of connecting with new faces and new energy, even outside of a musical context:

It is so beautiful to be at the núcleo, at the center, at the heart of something so sweet. Y este es solamente el principio de nuestra aventura aquí.


The central theme of the year, my life, your brain, El Sistema, the Abreu Fellowship, the universe:

Dictionary definition (and etymologies!) threaten to pull me into abstractions and outer space…and so I will focus on the audiovisual over the proverbial–resist the impulse to wax poetic–and offer more of that which “speaks a thousand words” (and then some).

Okay, but not before I briefly share an etymologic “breakdown” of “ensemble” (ha ha), which is awesome:

from L.L. insimul “together, at the same time,” from in- intensive prefix (meaning in, into, toward, inside) + simul “at the same time,” related to similis (see similar)

Huh! Ensemble as in+simul…juicy. Love that. So these are two frames offered to you by our friends Merriam Wesbter and Now go forth and make your meaning.


I. The New England Conservatory’s first ever African American Roots Ensemble: a fabulous ensemble that I had the pleasure and privilege of being “considered in relation to its whole.” (Translation: I was in it. It was awesome.) You can read an article I wrote with Aisha Bowden (Abreu Fellow ’12) about the power of being in that group, featured in the New England Conservatory’s school paper, The Penguin. A video here from our end-of-semester performance:

A group of talented musicians–the majority of whom are instrumentalists by training–under the phenomenal, communalizing-and-fierceness-inducing leadership of Nedelka Prescod, a talented and visionary musician and a Masters student in NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation Department. Thirsty for more? (Me too.):

Rock it, fellow Fellows David France and Aisha Bowden, ROCK IT!

II. “Experience first, intellectualize later.” Bringing the ethos of ensemble to Harvard’s Kennedy School for an Arts and Leadership Symposium at their Center for Public Leadership was intended to do just that: bring people new to experience of musical ensembles right into that feeling and that sound, and allow intellectualization (new ideas and new questions) to grow equally from both.

It takes a strong ensemble to facilitate and sustain an impromptu ensemble of non-musicians. Props to the Abreu Fellows for really honing this ensemble-facilitation workshop/presentation; we’ve since done this presentation for several other groups and audiences, including NEC’s Board of Trustees.

III. Phenomenality^2 (at the very least). Play On, Philly! (POP) boasts musicians that are sight-reading like maniacs and ensembles that you would never guess have only been playing for 15 months. POP is led by Stanford Thompson, fearless Executive Director and Abreu Fellow ’10. I will let these young musicians will speak/play for themselves, and you will be stunned. The String Orchestra first:

And the Winds and Brass:

Could you play like this after 15 months? Didn’t think so.

IV. Connecting strangers, creating collaborators. Alysia Lee (Abreu Fellow ’12) organized the third annual Music in Charter Schools (MICS) Festival, bringing students from Philadelphia Charter Schools together to for intensive ensemble experiences. Charter School students are barred access to powerful ensemble experiences created for musicians in public schools, and Alysia’s work is a powerful addition to the realm of ensemble-cultivation for young people in Philly. Alysia Lee and Aisha Bowden conduct the MICS Concert Choir:

…while Avi Mehta (also a fellow Fellow) leads the Band in a part-choral-part-band rendition of the Black Eyed Peas’ “I’ve Got a Feelin’ “:

Extra points if you can spot Abreu Fellows Ben Fuller and Jennifer Kessler in the mix.

V. Transition point. Back to ensembles, definitionally:

[noun] all the parts of a thing taken together, so that each part is considered only in relation to the whole.

This is a fascinating notion to reflect on at this point in time, because there are many “wholes” of which I feel a part, from which I am currently transitioning into a brief hiatus (known as Winter Break). While I will physically spend some time separated from the whole of my Abreu Fellows cohort, the whole of NEC, the whole of 2011 (ah, yes, cue time of year when I start to get nostalgic and sentimental), there are other wholes that will follow me, and I them (e.g., the “whole” comprised of El Sistema lovers and advocates). And, separations–both literal and symbolic, temporary and permanent–are important in so many ways as well.

So, as a way to send wishes of joy and inspiration to the world in this symbolic transitioning point between one year and the next, here is an offering, by way of Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

Sonnets to Orpheus, Part II, XII

Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
where everything shines as it disappears.
The artist, when sketching, loves nothing so much
as the curve of the body as it turns away.
What locks itself in sameness has congealed.
Is it safer to be gray and numb?
What turns hard becomes rigid
and is easily shattered.
Pour yourself out like a fountain.
Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking
finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.
Every happiness is the child of a separation
it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, becoming a laurel,
dares you to become the wind.


Next stops: Chicago and Cincinnati. I miss you, Juneau, JAMM, and Lorrie Heagy, but I do graciously accept the 60-degree-weather welcome gift that I was offered in Chi-Town upon landing. And, I stepped foot into two fabulous núcleos in different stages of their lives, armed with more teaching tools than I ever thought possible, thanks to Lorrie’s brilliant coaching!

YOURS in Chicago, IL:

The YOURS Project is a program of the People’s Music School, which is one of the nation’s only tuition-free community music schools. (Brilliant, I know.) One of the longer-running Sistema programs in the U.S., YOURS was founded in October of 2008 by Deborah Wanderly dos Santos and a team of passionate teachers. Milan Miskovic, a fierce violinist and ardent conductor, is currently leading the charge at the YOURS Project’s central núcleo (at William H. Hibbard Elementary School in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood), with the support of Bob Fielder, the Executive Director of the People’s Music School. When I arrived, YOURS had just launched its second site at Monroe Elementary School, with Sylvia Carlson (trumpet teacher extraordinaire at both the YOURS Project and the People’s Music School) at the helm. As a program that aspires to create and sustain a city-wide network of núcleos, the launching of a second site is a huge occasion to celebrate!

At its first site, the YOURS Project has 3 full orchestras across levels and 180 students to fill those orchestras. I don’t have information yet on the newest site, but if I learned any basic math ever, that would bring the number of orchestras and students UP. Now, my perspective is that scaling up isn’t a positive thing in and of itself, but when what you’re doing is working on a number of strong levels, that’s when scaling up is more likely to enhance the impact of your programmatic outcomes.

Not only was it was absolutely glorious to hear the sounds of a full orchestra (playing Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus, no less: a Sistema staple!), but it was even more glorious to be met with continuous sounds of music and practicing, well after rehearsals had ended. Videos forthcoming, but here are some photographs as placeholders:

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When love and support infuses outward from the time and space in which it is formally contained, the beauty and magic that is created–and the skills and lifestyle that it can foster–promises a different level of transfer and impact. This is the kind of thing that really jazzes me, so I found myself really seeking out signals of this type of learning, where formal and informal start to bleed together because it all matters so much. The work and support of the YOURS Project’s Parent Council (headed by Milan and a core group of parents) is also a strong indicator of this type of thing. Parent volunteers choose to assist with essential elements of making the program run: form fundraising and logistics-management at performances to T-shirt orders and concert tour management. (Yes, the oldest YOURS Orchestra tours: LEGITIMATE BIG DEAL!) Parents in action:

Parent Council at YOURS Project

There were over 40 parents present for the Parent Council meeting at Hibbard Elementary when I was there, engaged in the planning processes for the upcoming concert. For those who follow the research that closely correlates parental involvement with academic and social success for young people, this is all music to the ears / beauty to the eyes / deliciousness to the mouth / fragrant aromas to the ears! And, for a Title I school with 97% of its students living below the poverty line (I could insert here the myriad studies that correlate low income levels to academic attainment and social mobility) that also serves a high recent immigrant population with specific academic needs related to language and cultural mediation…I can’t even finish my sentence. This is just exploding with possibility!

MYCincinnati in Price Hill, OH:

MYCincinnati, founded and run by Laura Jekel (Abreu Fellow ’10-’11), was in its 5th week of operation (EVER) when I arrived. As is the case in Venezuela, the arrival of any new guests warrants a performance! So, check out the MYCincinnati orchestra, performing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” after only having played their instruments–individually and collectively–for five weeks:

Some of the many interesting facets of MYCincinnati:

  • “Never place limits on what a child can do.” Lorrie Heagy shared this as one of her biggest take-aways from her time in Venezuela, and after spending intensive time with three incredible Sistema-inspired programs over the course of 4 weeks, I am blown away by just how many definitions this simple notion can take on. Does “not placing limits on what a child” mean starting children on their instruments as early as possible? Does it mean pushing children quickly, so that they are playing pieces slightly more difficult than their level, thus positioning them to constantly strive for more? What is the role of patience as juxtaposed against limitation–and how does tough love factor into it all? There is obviously no right answer, but the more I think about this idea, the more different interpretations rub up against each other.
  • Economic revitalization as implicit in its mission. MYCincinnati is a program of Price Hill Will, a community development corporation (CDC) that aims to “create systemic change in Price Hill through economic development, community engagement and physical revitalization.” If Sistema programs are both social programs and music programs (using music as the vehicle for social transformation in a variety of arenas), then the economic development piece is a massive piece of the puzzle that makes or breaks the success of our work. (Sidebar: For all you numbers geeks out there, check out the InterAmerican Development Bank’s 2007 report on the social impact of El Sistema in Venezuela, using a cost-benefit analysis to estimate monetized benefits of funding El Sistema nationally.) This is an interesting partnership possibility that has also been on my mind before–and now especially after–my MYCincinnati visit.


Possessive pronoun overusage aside, this is actually a pretty neat coincidence. (To be fair, YOURS is an acronym for Youth Orchestras United Rita Simó, named after the founder of the People’s Music School. And MYCincinnati stands for Music for Youth in Cincinnati.) But that is precisely why this is interesting. There is a huge amount of ownership (“MYne!”) needed to make any program successful. This begins from the very basic level of a young musician’s ownership over their playing and their growth, expands upward to more seasoned students’ ownership over the success of the ensemble (in a way that facilitates natural peer teaching), expanding outward still to a teachers’ and administrators’ ownership of the success of their students and of their program, and outward even more still to the ownership of parents and other community stakeholders in the success of their children and their orchestras. Despite the fact that “ownership” is implicitly colonial and linked to conquest (check out the best ecard ever, poking fun at the colonizing impulse), this matters HUGELY for its relationship to fostering responsibility (individual and collective) and deep–almost familial–care. If this instrument is mine, and this orchestra is mine, than I will put myself on the line–and throw every ounce of passion in the process–to contribute to its ability to thrive.

But this can also pave the way for over-possessiveness and self-centeredness, neither of which is necessarily helpful for a healthy youth orchestra and a thriving núcleo. This is where YOU[rs] come in. My mind jumps to Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and his notion of the I-Thou relationship, explicitly contrasted against the I-It relationship. The emphasis here is on the nature of the living relationship. I-It relationships objectify one–of not both–parties involved, often resulting in a more transactional quality of relationship. Wikipedia explains I-It as “referring to the world of experience and sensation”–relating back to the idea of MYne and the dangers of over-self-centeredness. (And yes, I just quoted Wikipedia–what of it?!). To call something YOURS has the possibility of negating ownership, and also has the possibility of separating an I from a YOU. But, the balance of the two together moves us more toward I-Thou, which “describes the world of relations,” and also blurs the material separations between two beings. I could feel an intense I-Thou connection with a complete stranger: an intense connection where our souls might suddenly feel intertwined after only 5 minutes together, perhaps even more intensely felt than a connection with someone I have known my entire life. This, is the reason for bringing the YOU/THOU back toward the I/MY, toward the relations between and the collective responsibility demanded by the simple word:


JAMMin’ out in Juneau

Welcome, my friends, to Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM), an El-Sistema-inspired music program that offers Juneau’s youth early access to instrumental instruction through in-school musical programming. Three Abreu Fellows are currently working here–myself, Alysia Lee, and Julie Davis. A greeting for you from a group of eager JAMM violinists who’ve begun their studies on paper violins that they created with their families:

Check out these lungs! Not so shabby for 5 years of age, eh?

JAMM is designed and run by the brilliant Lorrie Heagy (Abreu Fellow ’09-’10; Alaska State Teacher of the Year; JAMM Director; Teacher Extraordinaire; and Teacher-of-Teachers Extraordinaire; the list goes on!). JAMM’s musical programming takes place 5 days a week–before, during, and after school–at Glacier Valley Elementary School:

Glacier Valley Elementary, Juneau AK

Glacier Valley is a K-5 public elementary school with a demonstrated commitment to artistic programming for its students during the school day. It is also a Title I school, which means that the school receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education that is specifically allocated to schools that serve a high percentage of students from low-income families.

JAMM programming was integrated into the school last year, extending the number of hours and types of programs that the school offers to its students. Now, in addition to the current array of Glacier Valley musical offerings (Beginner Band, Advanced Band, Rock Band, Guitar Club, Tlinget Drumming, and General Music Classes), JAMM adds:

  • 30 minutes of Violin Class during school, 3 days a week for Kindergartners;
  • 45 minutes of Violin Class during school, 4 days a week for First Graders; and
  • 120 minutes of Musicianship and Bucket Drumming Class, 2 days a week after school for First Graders.

Lorrie’s goal is to build JAMM up, grade-by-grade, so that all of Glacier Valley’s students will have access to intensive music classes as a social and academic intervention. It is absolutely critical to note that these music classes are specifically aimed to enhance community development and parental involvement in their children’s educations and to promote young children’s cognitive skill development to strengthen their short-term academic performance and long-term academic futures. And all of this happens in a most palatable way, that keeps kids coming back for more, and more, and more. Beth Babcock, our non-profit strategy teacher and the CEO of the Crittenton Women’s Union, likens El Sistema music programs to “the sweetest kind of medicine” to use in addressing social ills and community problems.

Being a musical and/or artistic student here is really like being a kid in a candy store. At recess, students come to Lorrie’s room to practice, hang out, and share their joy. This is one of the beauties of an in-school model, as it allows for the creation and maintenance of a sacred spaces for a specific kind of energy throughout spare moments in the day:

It isn’t just Lorrie’s room that exudes a love of music, and the creation of harmonious sounds and luxurious rhythms. When you enter Glacier Valley Elementary in the morning, you will likely be greeted by a clarinet or trumpet player practicing “Hot Cross Buns.” When the school has pretty much emptied out by 3:30pm, Alicia can be found practicing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on her flute on the bench by the front doors of the school. And even during lunch and recess, you’ll hear students like Vaipuna and Iveena (whom you met in the video above), jammin’ out on drums and bass guitar to “Brown Eyed Girl” in a classroom, as they practice for Rock Band. After one rehearsal, they sound pretty fantastic, especially with Alysia singing lead vocals:

My journey here is tightly intertwined with the journeys of Lorrie, Alysia, and Julie. It is a real blessing to learn in a setting that fosters collaborative learning, by very nature of the fact that we are observing each others’ teaching and planning throughout each day. We have essentially turned Lorrie’s classroom into an educational laboratory, where we are trying out new technique, strategies, and lessons (including those of John Feierabend, a renowned early childhood music curricula specialist, whose lessons Alysia has been teaching with aplomb), designing new lessons, giving each other feedback regularly, team-teaching, and observing other teachers at the school. Formal and informal learning are tightly connected in the dynamic and routine we have fostered here, and I am learning tremendously from everyone I encounter–from my fellow Fellows, to the students at Glacier Valley, to fellow teaching artists I have been working with through the Teaching Artists Academy at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.

I’ll leave you with another few snapshots of our teaching and learning adventures here so far:

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…with a promise of more to come–in image, video, and reflection.

meet my muses

Seminars are in full swing. Site visits to incredible young people’s music programs have been plentiful, inspiring, question-inducing.

And I have encountered many muses. Their inspiration must be shared. The following are photographs from:

  • El Sistema at the Conservatory Lab Charter School, (run by Rebecca Levi and David Malek, Abreu Fellows ’09-’10), where we spent a one-week residency developing as strong El Sistema educators from Rebecca, David, and Lorrie Heagy (Abreu Fellow ’09-10 and founder of Juneau Alaska Music Matters);
  • Corona Youth Music Project, (run by Alvaro F. Rodas, Abreu Fellow ’09-’10), which we visited and taught at during our New York City residency, and which I taught at briefly earlier this year while I was teaching and administrating at Chinatown Youth Initiatives and CITYterm, both in New York;
  • Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s first and only public high school for the visual and performing arts, run by Linda Nathan, the school’s founding headmaster and a renowned author, educator, and administrator. Two fun facts: Linda Nathan visited El Sistema in Venezuela with a team of NEC administrators and was involved in the formation process of the Abreu Fellows Program. And, she sends BAA students to CITYterm (where I used to teach) is a CITYterm parent! The Abreu Fellows have been coaching BAA seniors in their Senior Grant Projects, in which they design and propose projects that apply their artistic media toward impacting social change in their communities.

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The Abreu Fellows have been exploring central themes that have emerged in our studying of El Sistema so far in the U.S.: fun, intensity, excellence, performance, and community-building. You may see these principles emerge through images, so I offer you a small sampling to start.

After one more full week of programming (including presenting on El Sistema at a workshop at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership through the Kennedy School), the 10 Fellows will be headed toward separate locales for self-designed intensive learning expeditions. Some might call this an internship. Others might call it an Abreu Fellows MEGA-TOUR.

Abreu Fellows '11 - '12 @ New England Conservatory

Call it what you will, but do know that we’ll be taking the following places by storm: Juneau, AK; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; New Orleans, LA; Boston, MA; Baltimore, MD; Camden, NJ; New York, NY; Cincinnati, OH; Philadelphia, PA; Providence, RI; Cincinnati, OH; Austin, TX; Dallas, TX; and, last but not least, Costa Rica and Scotland!

We’ll return with new insights, new questions, new projects, and new ideas. Bon voyage, Fellows!

painting the bigger picture

On a recent adventure to Boston’s North End, I stumbled upon this:

Puzzled in the North End

Puzzled in the North End

The beauty of this image lies in its simplicity for me, and in its symbolic resonance at the beginning of an intentional journey.

SIDEBAR #1: I told myself I’d try to stay away from metaphors for this post, but I just can’t control myself! Indulge me one more time, and next time, I will seriously go for something new.

The last two weeks of the Abreu Fellowship have been spent flipping over various metaphorical puzzle pieces, examining them closely, and piecing them together in various configurations to figure out (a) what they look like, (b) how they fit together, and (c) where the heck they go in the bigger picture. Underlying all of this is my urgent sense of wrapping my head and body around the big picture: what is it, anyway?! We’ve been regularly exploring the umbrella question: “What is El Sistema?” We have an urgent need to also explore: What does El Sistema do? And what can it do that it isn’t doing already? We are already burrowing our way through all of these questions in our various seminar discussions, readings, site visits, independent projects, and all of our informal learning opportunities (of which there are so many!).

Specificity: For those who are interested in the nitty gritty details, here is a sampling of the juicy puzzle pieces the Abreu Fellows have been examining. We have had seminars on:

  • non-profit strategy with Beth Babcock, President and CEO of the Crittenton Women’s Union;
  • sociological perspectives on poverty and social mobility with Dr. Tom Shapiro, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Brandeis University, and Director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy
  • public benefit systems analysis with Dr. Randy Albelda, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts;
  • an ongoing public speaking seminar with Tony Woodcock, President of New England Conservatory. (The public speaking seminar is more like a puzzle piece that you pick up and realize is a mirror, for better or for worse, but it clearly fits together with the other pieces.); and
  • a set of seminars on the fundamentals of El Sistema education and organization with teaching artist and author Eric Booth; our fearless program director Erik Holmgren; Executive Director of Play On, Philly (and former Abreu Fellow) Stan ford Thompson; and most recently, Dan Trahey, Director of Artistic Program Development at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids.

PHEW! An interdisciplinary whirlwind, yet it all so beautifully fits together–in many different configurations, too. My brain is on overdrive–just the way I like it. We also just took our first expedition together out to visit Community MusicWorks in Providence, RI. (Post on this expedition forthcoming.) I’m really itching to get into some real music-making and music-teaching soon though, which is on my docket for this week!

Zooming Out: This bigger picture on the face of our metaphorical puzzle box is the ‘El Sistema movement’ in the U.S. There is indeed a movement that is emerging and rapidly developing across the country. What this movement means and looks like specifically is still yet to be clarified. One of the exciting projects that the Abreu Fellows are undertaking is a needs-assessment research project, aimed precisely at clarifying the work being done in ‘núcleos,’ or music centers that run El-Sistema-inspired programming in the U.S. We will be doing this in conjunction with the LA Philharmonic and the Longy School of Music. We will present our research findings at a Symposium in LA in January.

SIDEBAR #2: Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra will be performing at this Symposium as well. If your stomach and heart just flipped and fluttered with envy at that announcement, you should book it to LA for the symposium and to experience them in action. You will never be the same. If your stomach and heart experienced zero movement and sensation, you should watch this, and then you should spend the next half hour obsessively watching other clips of their performances on YouTube. Really.

Common Denominators: There are tons of ideas to unpack here related to an El Sistema philosophy and movement. All involve a continuous act of toggling back and forth between theory and practice, specificity and big-picture-context. With all of this toggling though, common denominators are helpful to consider as lenses or frames, while also remaining open to exploding old categories and creating new ones.

I highly, highly, highly recommend Eric Booth’s essay “El Sistema’s Open Secrets” for an analysis on philosophical elements that drive the success of El Sistema’s programming in Venezuela, across sites. Eric describes “four under-the-surface aspects of El Sistema that give it such power”:

  • Sustaining the dynamic tension between polarities.
  • The inquiry of continual improvement.
  • Embodying the mission—80% of what you teach is who you are.
  • The power of beauty, craft and community.

In what ways do these ideas apply–and not apply–to the work that you do? As a student, educator, activist, organizer, family member, or any other role that you play in your life? I’m always a firm believer that these ideas can have real resonance if you try them on for size, transfer them in different contexts, and test their limitations in new situations. In fact, many of the organizations that I’ve worked with in the last several years (e.g., Chester Children’s Chorus, Chinatown Youth Initiatives, CITYterm) are continually striving toward these ideals as well. These overlaps are telling, I think, and critical to keep in mind.

In terms of common denominators, I can also offer you a working definition that Dan Trahey of OrchKids and the Abreu Fellows generated today: El Sistema is a reaction to the decay of equal access to music education. It is accessible to ALL. It is ensemble-based. It is inherently and undoubtedly collaborative, with the ultimate goal being the well-being and success of the group. It embodies and promotes joy. It seeks to build an orchestral society that is a model society, propelled by love, struggle, intensity, and passion.

And yet, flexibility and spontaneity seem also to be critical components of El Sistema’s success, making common denominators helpful, but never definitive Gospel. Ultimately, no discussion of common denominators can be had without a focused emphasis on outcomes. This brings me back to our framing questions, that I’d like to think of as truly being in competition–NOT as rivals, but in the etymological sense of questions that “strive together.” (Thank you to Eric Booth for bringing this etymological definition to our attention at his fantastic seminar last week. A beautiful portrait of questions and ideas in Jennifer Kessler’s blog post on that particular seminar.) These live questions, again:

  • What is El Sistema?
  • What does El Sistema do? What can and will El Sistema do that it isn’t already doing?
  • And where do these principles already exist in ways that are live, dynamic, and transformative for all kinds of people?

And really, all of this discussing and thinking is helpful only to a certain extent, as a way to begin to paint one version of a bigger picture, in very broad strokes. Our outcomes need to be lived, achieved, done, experienced. If I could jump into a massive pool of puzzle pieces and swim around in them to get a better feel, that might be a neat way to take those small puzzle pieces and experience them newly, in turn creating a new bigger picture with new sensory components.

Itching for our next steps. More to come!