Wednesday, March 21, 2012



I am writing to you from the backseat of a van full of fellows. Yesterday was our last day in Calabozo, and today we are traveling to the Caribbean coast, to a nucleo in the gorgeous city of Coro. I’m looking forward to a full week imbedded in another nucleo, another fabulous community, and some beautiful beaches. 

Throughout the past many weeks, I’ve been focusing on staying open and wide-eyed, allowing myself to soak up the experience, the atmosphere, the pedagogy, the structures, the friendships, the youthful exuberance, and the joy that I’ve encountered in every site we’ve visited. Processing the full depth and breadth of this experience will take a considerable amount of time, and I imagine learnings and realizations will continue to appear long after I’ve left this place, brought into focus by some resonating future experience, an insight blossoming into existence without warning. Invigoratingly, a few glimmers have already begun shine. 
One of my favorite spanish words is “todavía.” It means ‘yet’. As in: 
“I haven’t seen the beaches of Coro… todavía.”  or
“I don’t eat arepas at every meal in the U.S. … todavía.” or
“There isn’t composition in El Sistema… todavía.” 
Try saying todavía after every seemingly negative statement. It’s fun! Recognizing the possibility inherent in every blank page. “But I’ve never written music! ... todavía”
I entered the fellowship with a personal quest to learn about and envision the possibilities for composition and improvisation within El Sistema inspired programs. When we started, I knew very little about what the composition world looked like within El Sistema in Venezuela. Now I’m starting to get a better idea. 
As we travel, I’m talking to teachers, students, and administrators, attempting to begin to draw a picture of composition from a few different points of view:  
  • Curricular point of view
    • Is composition a part of the theory curriculum?
    • Are there independent composition classes (private or in a group)? 
  • Cultural point of view 
    • Do you play new music? In an ensemble or otherwise?
    • Do you or your teachers talk about composers? 
  • Individual point of view 
    • Do you write music? 
    • Do you have friends that write music? 
    • Do you want to write music?
So far, throughout our journeys, I have found very few programs that include a composition element as a part of their theoretical study. Also, I haven’t visited a nucleo that has a separate composition class or private composition lessons. Though there are forms of composition instruction in nucleos imbedded in ‘conservatorios’, what we might call arts high schools, but usually only for older students. I have yet to visit a program that is playing works by living composers other than Hollywood tunes. That being said, in every site we’ve visited, I have been approached by some student in the nucleo who wants to share their music with me. Or the nucleo director or a teacher hears I’m a composer and excitedly points me towards the 7 year old who just wrote a string quartet, or the 13 year old who is puzzling out how to harmonize the melody he just wrote for violin. I have been approached by so many young, excited composers, scores in hand, eager to show and tell. These encounters bring me to a realization:
Composers are everywhere in El Sistema. 
There just isn’t a structure within the system to nurture them… todavía. 
While I was studying composition at New England Conservatory, I moonlighted as faculty for the preparatory school at NEC, teaching theory courses to children ages 5-18. I worked with a lot of kids. Yet, there seem to be exponentially more young, budding composers in these nucleos than there were that sprouted out of the fertile musical environment at NEC Prep. In fact, I have encountered more young composers here than anywhere else I’ve been. It makes sense, in way- there are large numbers of youth that understand the language of music, and all their friends do too. Implicitly, they are introduced to the idea of composers and composition through the music they play. Intrinsic to the act of playing classical music, they have composition role modeled for them. And they are immersed in that environment for 4-6 hours a day, 5-6 days a week! I am excited by this potential. I am invigorated by the questions.  
Questions of the day: 
Is the concept of composition intrinsic to an El Sistema environment? 
How could composers be identified and nurtured within El Sistema and El Sistema inspired programs? 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Santa Rosa

I have spent the last two days at the Nucleo Divina Pastora, Santa Rosa. I can’t express in words how much I love this nucleo. Located around a large public square in front of a beautiful Catholic church, sunlight streams down and gentle breezes blow as birds flock to the music. The site overlooks a rolling verde vista, hills spotted with distant houses, and an easy mix of youthful possibility and deep history permeates the air. Every space surrounding the square is utilized by the Nucleo – there are lessons taking place in nooks and unexpected alleys, a violin lesson against a wall here, 3 guitarists in a corner there. 

There are about 35 teachers employed by the nucleo serving about 600 children, ages 3 and up. Non-teaching staff includes the nucleo director, Jose-Luis, an assistant administrator, and 4 security guards. Of the 600 children involved in the nucleo, 350 or so play in one of two orchestras (Orchestra A, for younger children, and Orchestra B, for the older children). The remaining 250 at the nucleo choose among studying their instruments privately, participating in chamber music, singing in the choirs, and studying the language of music.

The sunny central square is bright and bustling with families socializing as their children swirl around them from activity to activity, the Nucleo running from 2pm-6pm Monday-Friday with additional ensemble time on Saturday. 
The nucleo schedule includes a diverse catalogue of musical activities and instruction, engaging students in many different ways. 
  • Monday
    • Large Sectionals by instrument 
    • Musical Language (theory/ear training/solfege)
    • Individual Lessons
  • Tuesday
    • Individual Lessons
    • Small Sectionals by instrument
    • Chamber Music
    • Musical Language
    • Ensembles 
  • Wednesday
    • Full Orchestra
    • Musical Language
  • Thursday
    • Individual Lessons
    • Small Sectionals by instrument
    • Chamber Music
    • Musical Language
    • Ensembles 
  • Friday 
    • Full Orchestra
    • Musical Language
  • Saturday
    • Full Orchestra or Large Sectionals
      • 1st & 3rd of the month: 9am-1pm 
      • 2nd & 4th of the month: 9am-1pm & 2pm-4:30pm
In regards to my focus on linguaje musical, the language of music, I found an exciting synthesis of pedagogy at Santa Rosa. Every single student in the nucleo takes a separate, hour-long, scaffolded language of music class twice a week. However, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, there are small sectionals of 4-5 students where instrument specific, repertoire related, language of music training is interwoven with technical specifics, meant to be complimentary to the independent language of music classes. This is very exciting. A hybrid of what I’ve seen so far at Montalban and Sarria, this method utilizes both instruction of theoretical concepts in the classroom and applied instruction of theoretical concepts on the student’s instrument, in an ensemble! Qué interesante! 
If you're following this blog, consider also following my fellow fellows!

Stephanie Hsu writes a fabulous log of our journey from caracas to Barquisimeto with initial reflections and insights: 

Ben Fuller gives an update regarding what he is hoping learn from his time here with some great videos!

José-Luis Henádez-Estrada ponders what effects living in and through sound can have:

Here is some media from my time at Santa Rosa!

Cello in the square

Petite Timpanist 

Linguaje Musical - Musical Language Class

Monica, the young lady front and center, is a 7 year-old I worked with on reading and clapping durations - quarter (negra)  and half (blanca) notes. She approached me the 2nd day I was at the nucleo to introduce me to her mother and grandmother, both of whom were spending time in the sunlit square while the nucleo was in session. 

The Divina Pastora- Holy Shepherdess - The Santa Rosa nucleo's name-sake  

I came across a group of students from the nucleo taking a break from rehearsal :) 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Language of Music

Lenguaje Musical
Musical Language 
Today finds me in Barquisimeto, the fourth largest city in Venezuela. The fellows are all about to hunker down and begin to delve into the work here, connecting, observing, teaching, and learning with and within the many nucleo communities to be found in this area. 
While I am inundated by the rich deluge of experiences, one of the few particular aspects of the work I want to focus on is how the nucleos interact with the language of music. How is it taught to the students? How is it spoken about? Is it learned independently of their instruments? In a group? Is improvisation a natural part of the process? Is composition a unique occurrence? 
I have already encountered two very different ways that nucleos might introduce and nurture the language of music. In the Montalban nucleo, they have a curriculum scaffolded and structured around the Lenguaje Musical, Musical Language. Once a student picks up an instrument, they begin classes on sightsinging, dictation, and theory concurrently with their ensemble studies. Every student in the nucleo attends a musical language class at least once a week. They attend class with others who play the same instrument, and the nucleo has a musical language guide book for each instrument. Typically, whole sections will study theory together as they progress through the nucleo. This seems to be familiar to me. Separate theory classes are the basis of musical training in the states.  
In the Sarria nucleo, reading and theory are taught completely ensconced within sectionals and private lessons. There is no additional class, and all theoretical teaching is driven by repertoire, as are the technical skills. This repertoire based technical and theoretical curriculum calls for a very intentional, scaffolded series of pieces chosen for their musical and pedagogical value. It’s all taught with instrument in hand, never in a class. This is more unfamiliar, yet very exciting. Are there others who teach like this? What repertoire could be used for the first week? The first month? The first year? 
I move forward, hopefully encountering many more nucleos along the way, excitedly exploring the relationship other programs have with the language of music. There is no judgement, only intense curiosity. 
Let’s take a moment to reminisce about the very first post on this blog, remembering my excitement regarding the potential for creativity within the discipline of Sistema:
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. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Caracas, Venezuela!

Hola! Today finds me in Caracas, Venezuela!

In my last post, I was spending Thanksgiving in Chicago with family, and concluded that trip by visiting the YOURS project, one of the oldest El Sistema inspired programs in the United States. Since Thanksgiving, I have spent the winter in China with the Youth Orchestra of the Americas as part of the administrative staff as they toured the country. In February, I presented, along with the other fellows, at the first ever national conference for El Sistema in the united states, hosted by Take A Stand- a partnership of Bard College, the Longy School of Music, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Here is a link to the slides we used assisting our presentation: - wait for it to load, and then click through!
Now, a month after our presentation in LA, the fellows are starting their 5 week residency in Venezuala! We are so excited, estamos muy emocionados, to be studying the inspiration at the source. I am striving to enter this experience with an open mind and heart, ready to observe and absorb. I will attempt to blog regularly throughout our time here in VZ, so please check back in and travel with us! 
Here are some videos created from the experiences of the first 2 days by my fellow fellow, David France. 
Day 1
Montalban Nucleo:
A montage with reflections on the experience- 

Also, fellow fellow José Luis Hernández-Estrada wrote a beautiful post on his experience in Montalban: 
Day 2
Sarria Nucleo: 
Rafael Elster, now a national level administrator of El Sistema, worked with the Sarria Nucleo for 10 years and has been working within El Sistema for 30 years. 
A violin teacher’s thoughts and reflections: 
Another fellow fellow, Aisha Bowden, sharing her thoughts on video- towards the end of the video she engages a number of the students at the nucleo in conversation, ending with a song! 
Also, Jose-Luis’s reflections regarding his experience at Sarria: