Monday, October 31, 2011

My Blue Butterfly / Mi Mariposa Azul

Happy Halloween Everyone! What an amazing place to be for Halloween, and I will be heading to celebrate with some of my dear friends who have, for the moment, settled in New Orleans. Tonight, the focus is not only on building a new community, but also on strengthening what has already been built. Well, that and not getting eaten by a werewolf.

I received an email today from Mercedes Rodman, an individual who is a great supporter of the Abreu Fellowship and the vision of El Sistema in the United States. She has written a book, which is not only lovely, but ingenious in concept. I truly love it, and cannot wait for it to be on shelves.

Hi Abreu Fellows near and far!!!

Hope everything is well!! My name is Mercedes Rodman and I'm a member of Abreu Fellows Friends Committee. We are so proud of what you're doing!!
I wanted to share with you that I have written a children's book, My Blue Butterfly/Mi Mariposa Azul, that deals with bullying and features El Sistema and the Abreu Fellows. Actually, the teacher in the English version of the book is an Abreu Fellow. I wanted to find a way to spread the word about the movement in both English and Spanish.The book will come out in the spring.
Below is the blog written by my editor. The cover you see in the blog is for the English version of the story (when you turn the book over and open it again, the story will be in Spanish and has its own cover). Hope we can do wonderful activities for the kids together!!


Posted by Jan Pogue 

Work comes to me in many ways. I don’t really advertise what I do, so I have to rely on my books to be my ambassadors. And I need to evaluate each book to make sure I can do the story justice, as well as have the book further the Vineyard Stories’ brand.
So it’s always surprising when I find myself saying “yes” to a book I know isn’t really a Vineyard Stories’ book.
Such is the case for My Blue Butterfly, which will come out next spring. The author, Mercedes Alvarez Rodman, approached me last year about this book. It was, as every book is, a labor of love for her. It wraps up a lot of how she feels about life — about childhood bullies and girls who worry too much about how they look and her home country, Venezuela, and the music program El Sistema that was spawned there and has since moved to America.
Mercedes, who lives in Bourne, MA., had visions of what was both an intriguing and difficult book, really two stories in one. One story is in Spanish about a girl named Isabel who lives in Caracas. The other is told in English about a girl in Boston named Elizabeth. Both girls play cello and are involved in El Sistema, which uses music as a form of social work, offering free music lessons to children who could never afford them. Each story is completely self-contained within a single book; the English version is named My Blue Butterfly, and the companion story — which has its own cover on the flip side of the book, is Mi Mariposa Azul.
The girls get to know each other through email, and they meet in the center of the book, when both versions come together, as do the girls’ lives.
The girls have nothing to do with Martha’s Vineyard, and Martha’s Vineyard has a limited Spanish population — so the market for this book really isn’t here.
So why do it?
I’ve come to believe that small publishers have a certain obligation to seek out and publish worthwhile books that won’t get into print other ways. I believe this is one of those books. Just the very design of this book, with its upside-down dual format will teach me a lot; and I believe there’s a market out there for something like this. It’s just up to me to find it.
Besides, it’s just plain darn fun.
original source:

Questions of the day:
How is a young musician introduced to music? 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Harry Potter and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra

Today, I had the great pleasure of attending a concert given by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the lively and charismatic Carlos Miguel Prieto. This concert took place mid-afternoon in a high school auditorium. It was a family focused, Harry Potter themed halloween concert, and the audience was full of children and parents in all sorts of magical garb. The repertoire for the afternoon consisted mainly of familiar themes from the many Harry Potter films, composed by John Williams and Patrick Doyle, with one exception: Mussorgsky's 'A Night on Bald Mountain'. The music was played well, with great energy from the performers, and the applause was abundant and well deserved at the end of the performance. 

However, the reasons I enjoyed the concert to such a high degree had a lot more to do with what was happening around the music, than the music itself. There were elements of El Sistema principles embodied throughout the concert. These are a few key commonalities which I've found present so far in El Sistema programs- 
  • Joy
    • This concert was joyous! Costumes were encouraged, and every other person in the audience was some variety of witch, wizard, or creature- parents and children alike. The orchestra participated too, and wore outstanding costumes- there was a Little Red Riding Hood in the violin section and a ski-masked Jason amongst the basses. The fourth wall, which normally separates the orchestra from the audience, was already down before the first note was played- we were all having fun together. Joy is an essential element in El Sistema philosophy- the goal is to create an intrinsic motivation to be involved. It should not be a force from outside saying "you should be doing this'" but a force from within saying "I want to do this". El Sistema ensembles are created through a pull, not a push. 

  • Excellence 
    • Prieto turned to the audience frequently throughout the performance, each time  claiming ignorance of all things Harry Potter and inviting members of the audience up to give background and context for each of the musical numbers on the program. He always expected excellence from his volunteer, setting the bar clearly, asking for a confident and knowledgable contributor. If you set the bar high, your expectations clearly, and you support the pursuit of those expectations, they will be reached. In Sistema, striving for musical excellence nurtures individual growth which in turn enables higher pursuits of musical excellence which encourages individual growth etc. etc. 

  • A Culture of Contribution 
    • As the concert continued, Prieto invited audience members to speak often, and soon a culture of contribution had been established. The audience knew they would be expected to give background on each piece, and hands would shoot into the air as Prieto turned to face them. He would invite a child or two up from the audience, always being sure to ask their names, and then he would ask a question about the work about to be performed. An individual orchestral musician works hard to master their instrument and develop themselves in order to contribute to their community, the orchestra. This is a model for life. 

  • Opportunities to Succeed, often 
    • Prieto frequently asked his volunteers to explain the title of a work and how it related to the film, creating opportunities to succeed,  and they almost always answered excitedly and accurately. Recognition can be a rare thing in many children's lives. How often does someone applaud for a child in underserved circumstances? How often are they told they've succeeded? This is a reason why frequent performances are so important in Sistema- applause is like water to musical talent, and sunlight to self-worth. 

  • Peer Teaching
    • The volunteers were presenting their knowledge to an audience made up of individuals close to their age- they were teaching their peers. In an El Sistema program, you'll begin with one teacher, but as some students learn more quickly than others, you will soon find yourself surrounded by teachers as the students begin to teach each other. All you need is to know one note more than your friend, and you can become a teacher.  

  • Family Involvement
    • This was a concert geared towards families, particularly those with younger children, so it was no surprise there were families there. But these parents were not only present, they were participating. They were costumed, answering Prieto's questions, and raising their hands along with their children. These parents actively encouraged their children to participate, answer questions, and run to the stage when they were asked to speak. Sistema is about transforming the whole of a child's life- not merely transporting them during a rehearsal. The entirety of a Sistema community is called upon to participate and help embody that transformation- the foundation of which is the parents of the children in the orchestra. 

  • Performance: immediately and often
    • Towards the end of the concert, a few children were chosen randomly and invited up a to conduct a piece. I don't believe they had received any prior instruction in conducting, and clearly they had had no rehearsal time with the baton or the orchestra. Nonetheless, they were expected to give a performance, immediately, and they didn't shy away from it at all. Bravo! This is seen throughout Sistema- performances happen as often as possible, no matter the level of preparation of a particular work. The emphasis is on the process, not the final product, and everyone performs together, no matter their skill level. 

  • Community
    • The community in the room was evident. Everyone was there in costumes- the orchestra and the audience. Almost everyone knew the repertoire being performed, including the youngest children. Normally when I refer to the sense of community, I'm referring to being a member of the ensemble. But the sense of community today was not just for orchestral members within the community of the orchestra. It was a feeling of the orchestra as a contributing member of the community of New Orleans. In Venezuela, the nucleo orchestras are central to their communities, each supporting the other. Usually a nucleo's community is a neighborhood, and though the LPO's community is much larger, they are still striving and pushing the bounds of community engagement, moving towards a rich and sustainable 'community entanglement' - where the orchestra supports the community supports the orchestra supports the community ad infinitum. This is the goal. This is El Sistema. 
You can see why I came away from the concert energized and enthusiastic about the work the LPO is doing, humming Harry Potter tunes as I walked back to my car. As I explore the community of New Orleans, I feel more and more resonance each day with the questions I'm asking. I'm excited about what already exists, and even more excited about what could be. 

Questions of the Day: 
What does 'community engagement' mean? 
Why should a community support an orchestra?
How can an orchestra support a community? 

Saturday, October 29, 2011


I got lost today, trying to find my way to the Don “Moose” Jamison Heritage School of Music- a Saturday youth jazz program. I traveled first to Xavier University, exploring their campus, relatively devoid of students on a Saturday. I found my way to their music building, which was mostly deserted and prepped to be a haunted house that evening, so it was particularly spooky. I was listening intently for the sounds of instruments, and eventually heard a piano lesson taking place- stopping briefly to talk to the director of Xavier's Junior School of Music (which I'll visit next week) before I realized I was at the wrong location. I then drove to Dillard University- once again listening closely for the sounds of children making music as I walked into their fine arts building. This time I found what I was looking for- I heard brass and winds coming from one room, and snare drum coming from another. I sat in on the drummer class briefly as they discussed notation and drum-set technique. I then moved to the piano class, where students were learning jazz scales and modes and the difference between comping and soloing. The entire class of 11 would comp and pass solos around the room- these kids seemed to be between the ages of 11 and13- very impressive. Eventually, all the instruments congregated in a large lecture hall to review and learn theory and notation together, chanting note names and clapping rhythms. This transitioned into a giant group jam of the tunes they had been working on in their 'sectionals' earlier- a sense of community and accomplishment was palpable. 

This model of youth jazz education feels very appropriate to the culture of New Orleans. Some of the city's great jazz musicians on the current scene have passed through the Heritage School, among them Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Sammie “Big Sam” Williams and Shamarr Allen.  Personally, the idea of jazz as a vehicle for this work is exciting because of the inherent presence of improvisation. If the ability to read, write, and speak a language implies literacy, then improvisation is the ability to speak. There is a larger question here, which hopefully we'll explore further- Can the rigor and discipline which has made El Sistema so successful both socially and musically in Venezuela live side-by-side with the creativity and freedom of improvisation and composition? 

Questions of the day:
How many people do you need to share experience with to foster a sense of community? 
Can rigor and discipline live side-by-side with creativity and freedom? Can they nurture each other?
Will sistema work with genres other than classical music? With ensembles other than orchestra?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Po' Boys and Sweet Tea

There is a story that is told of a young Chassidic man who grew up studying Torah and praying with a community in a Bet Midrash, a house of study. Over time, he felt confident that he could competently learn and pray on his own, and did not need the community to have a strong relationship with God. In fact, he was a bit of an introvert, and preferred time alone anyway. He approached the Rebbe and announced that he would be continuing his learning and spiritual life on his own. He would no longer be returning to study and pray with this or any other community.
The Rebbe, without saying a word walked over to the fireplace where a mound of coals were burning giving off intense heat and light. He moved one of the coals apart from the mound so that it was off to the side by itself. The two of them watched as the singular coal got colder and colder, nearly extinguishing. At that moment, the Rebbe pushed it back to the mound, and once again it ignited into a bright and productive flame.
The student didn’t say a word. And he showed up the next day.
I met today with a local community organizer who listened closely to my hopes and thoughts regarding the potential of an El Sistema nucleo in New Orleans. She had invited me to lunch with her family, and we all ate po-boys as her son's cute 3 month old puppy was petted by every passerby. We talked about a lot of things with her family, mainly the amazing baseball game last night and her son's burgeoning career as a writer. When she was driving me home, our discussion  centered around the amazing abundance of quality musical performance around New Orleans. This led to the point that even though most communities have access to music exposure, there are many in the city that have no access to music education. And beyond that, many children in these communities have no access to a community of peers- to a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. Without a sustaining understanding and flame of community, like the story above, it is much easier for these children's light to diminish and burn out.  I expressed my desire to connect to social programs who would be interested in El Sistema as a unique form of intervention. After lunch, and our conversation, this wonderful woman expressed interest in being an ally and advocate for the work within her community, offering to connect me to others that might be interested in the work and the questions I was asking. Then we hugged, I took the left-over half of my giant shrimp po-boy into the house, sat down, and smiled. 

Questions of the day: 
What communities are you a part of? 
What benefits does being a part of community bring?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Do You Define Community?

I found myself caught in the current and multi-colored swirl of students from all over New Orleans in different school uniforms rushing around me to get to class. Today, I visited the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a regional pre-professional arts training center that offers secondary school-age children intensive instruction in dance, media arts, music (classical, jazz, vocal), theatre arts (drama, musical theatre, theatre design) , visual arts, creative writing, and recently, the culinary arts. 

These students have found themselves in an excellent and unique community. There is no other community like this one in New Orleans. The most exciting part of that idea for me is the fact that the school is created from a dazzling array of of other schools. In fact, students from over 100 public, private and parochial schools in the Greater New Orleans area attend NOCCA in the afternoon, late-day, on Saturdays or during the summer session. Each of these students have a community at their home high school, which I would imagine could be very different than NOCCA, yet without them, neither community would be the same. 

When thinking about what El Sistema looks like in New Orleans, today in particular, the concept of 'community' rises to the forefront of my thoughts. What does 'community' mean, really? Is it proximity- the people in your neighborhood? Is it religious- members of your church? Is it ethnic- all the people who look like you? Is it based on income- all the people who can (or can't) afford the same as you? How about interests- your baseball team or your debate club? Isn't 'community' each of these things? 

So, you're thinking of building a social service organization to address the need of a specific 'community' using access to intensive musical ensemble training as a vehicle to individual growth and social change/mobility. How do you pick which of these many, many ways to define 'community' you will use to assess a need in that 'community' and begin to build towards addressing it?

NOCCA is a community made up of many different communities. 

Questions of the day:
How do you define community? 
How do you focus in on the need of multidimensional communities? 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The City of New Orleans

Dear friend I haven't met yet, 

I hope this letter finds you having a great day!
My name is Albert Oppenheimer and I am a composer and educator from Starkville, MS. I have spent the last 6 years in Boston studying at the New England Conservatory and I am now a member of the Abreu Fellowship at NEC. The Abreu Fellowship is dedicated to studying the Venezuelan social/musical program, El Sistema, and exploring how its pedagogy and principles can be applied here in the USA. I am working in partnership with UNO, Artist Corps New Orleans, the partners of the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium's Central City Pilot, to assess how an El Sistema inspired music program could be envisioned in NOLA. At its most basic level, El Sistema is a program that uses intensive musical ensemble training as a model and a vehicle for social mobility/change. For the moment, I have returned home to the south and am spending the next several weeks soaking up New Orleans. One of the goals of my time here is to make contact with as many of the individuals and organizations involved in the educational/musical/social scene that supports the city and make it such a remarkably vibrant place. I would love to learn more about you and your organization and how you work with and within the community of New Orleans. Would I be able to attend a rehearsal/concert/event at your organization at some point in the next two weeks? If you have the time, I'd also really appreciate the chance to sit down and talk about the history of the organization and its role in the rich and complex landscape of New Orleans. 
Thank you so much for your time. I'm excited to get to know your organization and you!

Looking forward, 
Albert Oppenheimer
Musicoppenheimer @

Having grown up in Mississppi, I'm used to smiling at strangers, and waving at people I don't know. I was raised with an attitude which has become one of the foundations of who I am: "Strangers are friends I haven't met yet". In exploring a new community, this is an invaluable way to look at life. What it means right now, is that I am in a city full of friends- and that is a fantastic feeling. If you know of anyone in New Orleans who might be interested in or excited by my journeys, please forward them the introduction above.

I have already corresponded with SO MANY passionate, committed, inspiring people since arriving in the city! Each person I talk to has at least three additional friends/colleagues/contacts that might be interested/helpful regarding the questions I'm asking and the thoughts I'm thinking.  I reunited today with the New Orleans Jewish community, through the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, and they set my mind (and heart) whirring. Many great collaborators were proposed and thoughts of how the Jewish community might be involved with Sistema in New Orleans were discussed. Turns out that this community is more entrenched in the city's music scene than I ever knew:

Questions of the Day:
What is the need in New Orleans? 
Where is the need in New Orleans? 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Every Journey Begins With A Question...

"It is important to be able to live in questioning, in not knowing, without impatience.
Often one is tempted to grab onto an answer in order to end the pain of not knowing. We are surrounded by people clinging to their certainties in order to avoid the work of living the questions that perplex them. It is a great gift and a high duty to live in what we do not know, patiently working toward answers that may or may not ever come. 
May we receive the gift of living patiently and confidently in unknowing."
-Paul Oppenheimer
Albert's Internship
New Orleans, Louisiana 
On Tuesday, October 25th, I will return home to the south and spend the next month or so soaking up New Orleans and exploring how an El Sistema inspired program might fit into this vibrant and complex city. During my time there, I will be immersing myself in the city's artistic/educational/social ecosystem, identifying and forming initial relationships with the organizations and individuals that support New Orleans. In order to help me connect with the community and to give me a foundation, I'll be working in partnership with UNO, Artist Corps New Orleans, and partners of the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium's Central City Pilot. I am making the attempt to enter this journey with no preconceptions, open to all opportunities and experiences which present themselves while I'm there. 
In addition to the relationships built and the experience garnered, there are two additional projects I'm planning to begin while in the city. 
  • Improv/Comp Survey
    • I will begin an initial survey of how El Sistema inspired programs around the U.S.A introduce the language of music to their students. The survey will focus specifically on the presence of creativity and ownership when a student learns to speak, read, and write music. Can improvisation and composition be intrinsic parts of El Sistema? Is that possibility exciting?
  • Commissioning Project
    • I will structure and initiate a commissioning project involving various composers and challenging them to create pieces tailored to tiered nucleo development. The goal will be to have a single work with interchangeable parts written for at least 3 levels of ability- beginner, intermediate, expert. This will allow every participant in a program to play in an ensemble together, no matter the level. These pieces will also be particularly suited to seminario gatherings of a number of nucleos. 
I will be recording and reflecting upon my experiences through this blog, which I aim to update daily while in NOLA. If any of what you’ve read excites you, or you would like to get involved, please contact me at
 *musicoppenheimer @*

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Foundation of Thought

My name is Albert Oppenheimer and I am a composer, educator, and social entrepreneur from Starkville, Mississippi. I am a member of the 3rd class of Abreu Fellows at the New England Conservatory of music. The fellowship was formed in response to a TED wish made by El Sistema founder and TED Prize winner Jose Abreu in 2009. Our mission is to study the Venezuelan social program, El Sistema, and apply its pedagogy and principles here in the USA and the rest of the world. We are being trained as non-profit strategists focused on poverty alleviation and the infusion of upward social mobility in underserved communities- all through music. This is an applied program, where theory is only useful as a pilot light, and the real flame of passion is ignited through practice. I will be blogging here about my journey through the fellowship. Join me?

Q: Describe what El Sistema means to you
A: You always need a destination farther down the road, so that you travel. Even if you change your destinations, you keep up your speed and your momentum. We give children a goal of playing an instrument, being part of an orchestra, being a fantastic musician. No matter where they go, they have developed momentum. They have a solid foundation of discipline, accomplishment, and contribution which can be universally applied as they move into the future. 
*Our entry point is musical access and our outcome is social mobility*

I've been involved with the fellowship since I gave the first group of fellows their campus tour in Fall of 2009. The fellowship combines many of my life passions- music, youth work, and social justice. My personal goal within the fellowship is to research and encourage the possibility of working with the concepts of improvisation and composition from the moment musical education begins. The potential is enormous, and is but a subtle shift of the understanding of musical language. Music is not just a language for one to speak, like speeches to be read off the page via the violin, much like one might perform Shakespeare. It is also a language of creation, of personal expression and exploration. Every pitch, every rhythm is another tool/ingredient/option to potentially be re-imagined into a unique composition. If music was taught with the understanding that it is also as malleable as language, as fluid as finger paint, perhaps we could nurture a generation of composers.