At TED2009, Maestro Jose Abreu revealed his TED Prize wish, asking that a special program be created to train gifted young musicians so that they could recreate the highly successful El Sistema program around the world. Those young musicians, the Abreu Fellows, have just finished the first semester of their program at New England Conservatory, and are preparing for the second when they will spend two months at the original El Sistema in Venezuela. This amazing video conveys their journey so far, and the Q&A that follows was completed as an exclusive bonus for the TED Blog at the end of their semester.
How has this semester affected you? Has it changed or solidified any of your ideas, thoughts, plans and why?
Rebecca Levi: This semester has made my nebulous definition of a movement concrete: We are the movement! The relationships that the ten of us are forming will strengthen the web that El Sistema USA needs to thrive. In addition, I have been thrilled to indulge in some of the “deep thinking” I did during my literature degree — we’ve been searching for themes, making connections, seeing patterns, and it’s all for a cause that we deeply believe in!
Stanford Thompson: The semester has been full of hope and possibilities for the future of the music education in the United States and beyond. The fellowship has solidified my passion for bringing music education to children (especially those in need), helped to focus my thoughts about what an ideal music program could look like, and directed those thoughts into theories of action that I am working to implement in Reading and Philadelphia, PA, Atlanta, GA and Meru, Kenya.
Who has been your favorite professor/ guest lecturer over the semester? Why?
Jonathan Govias: We had a fantastic session with Elizabeth Baback of the Crittenton Women’s Union. She’s an amazing model of someone who’s both passionate and extremely well informed — rare qualities in combination.
David Malek: This is an impossible question to answer considering all the amazing people that have been put before us. That being said, one of my favorite presenters has been Larry Scripp. Larry addressed the issue of musical literacy, but within the larger context of redefining the role of the artist from that of a performer or teacher to that of a citizen/artist/teacher/scholar — it is really a complete paradigm shift.
What’s something specific that you’ve learned from another Fellow? Tell me what you learned, who you learned it from and the story of how you learned it.
Dantes Rameau: I learned from Stan (and his parents) the importance of having a family or people that support you when you’re growing up. I went to Atlanta with Stan to look into starting El Sistema there and got to spend some time with his family. They reminded me a lot of my parents. On Stan’s family’s basement walls, which are plastered with photos of the great jazz musicians, his father hung these wise words on a piece of paper: “Those that enter here are slated for greatness. You are in the company of the best musicians alive.” So I learned from Stan, by way of his parents, that it’s important that growing up, every kid hears things like that as much as possible. As a nucleo leader I will tell them this and the music we play will show them.
Lorrie Heagy: It’s no secret among the fellows that I am very new to Facebook. They laugh that I can create webpages, iMovies and detailed blogs, but don’t know how to add photo albums to my Facebook! Needless to say, I haven’t done much in the way of updating my Facebook page because of it. Imagine my surprise when I click on my page and find movies, photos and links related to the Abreu Fellowship added weekly, sometimes daily! How’d this happen? Dante, who has been responsible for most of the additions, had to sit me down and explain the art of “tagging.” Thank you, Dante and the other Abreu Fellows for making me look so Facebook savvy!
What do you plan to do during your break?
Katie Wyatt: I will be home in North Carolina, touching base with my board, and drinking many cups of coffee with teachers, community leaders, and supporters of KidZNotes — the El Sistema nucleo I will manage in Durham, NC. In January, I will join New England Conservatory student musicians in a string quartet presentation at the Panama City Jazz Festival, where I will give a masterclass for music students on the potential to pursue their passion through careers in music and social change.
Alvaro Rodas: I want to continue my exploration of the Corona neighborhood in Queens, New York. I became interested in this neighborhood and hope to start a couple of stand-alone choral projects. First, I want to establish a strong link with the community — leaders, parents, teachers and authorities — and have them own this initiative. I hope to organize at least one meeting with people in the community where I can talk about El Sistema in general, and El Sistema USA in particular, to measure the interest of those leaders in moving ahead with projects in the near future. At the same time, I want to use these break to engage potential allies and supporters among my network of friends and colleagues in the city.
What are you most looking forward to about your time in Venezuela? What are you hoping to experience while there?
Christine Witkowski: First, I am most excited to see how the nucleos in Venezuela function within their communities at large. How does a music school actually become the center for the community? How have they gotten so many people engaged and excited about el sistema? Second, I am SO excited to play horn with the kids in the nucleos! Music will have to be the primary form of communication for me, and I know I will learn the most about these programs and people by playing with them. Sharing music is so meaningful and sincere. And we’re brass players, so we will have a lot of fun!
Jonathan Govias: I’m very eager to witness first-hand the social change wrought by music there — this is the heart of everything we do, and much like music, I imagine it will be expressed most profoundly in ways other than words or numbers.
Dan Berkowitz: Our Venezuela trip provides an opportunity to be totally immersed in the nucleus of this movement. Two months of exploration and study will enhance each of our visions on every level.
What’s one thing you hope to accomplish by spreading the El Sistema program? What impact do you see it having on young lives and/ or communities in the US?
Katie Wyatt: I hope to change the minds of young people. I hope that after being members of an El Sistema community, they will make different decisions, better decisions, about the way they treat each other, the way interact in their communities, and the future they feel they deserve. I hope they will develop empathy for those they are touched by and those they reach through their music, and thus join a global community of tolerance and understanding.
Stanford Thompson: I want to get communities fired up about life and possibilities by spreading the El Sistema program. If music can change a person on an individual basis, I know that music can change a community. If music can change a community, I know it can change a city. If music can change a city, I know it can change a state… and you know the rest.
Christine Witkowski: In Dr. Abreu’s words, I hope to facilitate a great “affluence of spirit” in disadvantaged youth through music. The music school becomes the center for the child’s support network — it is here that the student, family, friend and teacher congregate. From this support network, a child-centered community is cultivated, creating a safe and supportive space where music nurtures the whole child. The self-esteem, creativity, responsibility, cooperative learning skills and self-expression acquired gives each child the ability to contribute fully and gracefully within the life of her community now and in the future.