The  National Children’s Orchestra of Venezuela spent their semana santa living, breathing and eating Mahler 1. Quite literally, the 357 piece orchestra of auditioned 8-15 year olds from around the country even ate meals in front of a projected Mahler 1 performance. The week long seminario was the first of several to be held in preparation for a major July workshop and Venezuelan tour, which Sir Simon Rattle will direct.

While national youth orchestras have been created regularly in the past, this is the first time in 12 years that young children from around Venezuela have been rounded up for a national children’s orchestra. The last time this happened, the seeds for the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra were planted. Therefore, the expectations and demands are high for these young musicians. With wind sections filled out (16 bassoons, 18 horns, 6 tubas, etc) and four rotating concert masters, the room is packed with students working from the early hours of the morning until late at night.

And of course, the level is mind blowing. The commitment to the music from the teachers and students is unshakable. The bar is set to the highest possible artistic standard- even the 8 year old bass player who stands on top of a box to play his instrument is accountable for every nuance in Mahler 1. No one places limits on what these children can achieve, so they achieve the impossible.

The horn section is a good example of this.

I met this ten year old horn player in Calabozo- she was selected for the National Children’s Orchestra

I sat through their second round auditions that took place towards the end of the seminar and was shocked. The majority of the students were 10 or under and could hardly play a single requested passage. But, only a few hours before, I had watched them play a full orchestra rehearsal at a high level. I turned to the horn professor after the auditions, baffled.

“It is incredible. There is something like magic that happens to them when they are playing in a section. They find a way to communicate, to understand. You heard them, most of these students couldn’t play anything- the level was very low- and yet when they come together, they play years beyond their ability. Most of these young students will not be invited back- we will audition more horn players- but they will go back to their nucleos knowing how to work hard and how to hold themselves to a high standard and they spread that energy.”

If you think of music as a language, it makes sense that these young horn players could not function alone, but sitting next to me in a sectional played Mahler 1 well. Full immersion. There was no way these students were ready to play this piece of music and yet… they did. And did it well.

The National Children’s Orchestra has managed to beautifully balance trusting children with maintaining the highest standards.  The students who are not ready will not come back to the next seminar- they need time to grow and share their experience back home. But many students will return, and the stakes will be even higher. As Dudamel commented on a surprise visit to the orchestra, “when I was in the National Children’s Orchestra we were playing Marche Slave… you are playing Mahler 1!”

Trusting our students to achieve things we could not conceive of at their age is essential. It is how they will surpass us.

Last week, master special needs teachers from around Venezuela came to the city of Calabozo to give clinics to the special needs community at Nucleo Calabozo I.

Jhonny Gomez, the national leader of the special needs movement in El Sistema, was included in the visiting teacher group. He taught “Braille Musicology” alongside Gustavo, a composer who grew up in the Barquisimento special needs program for blind children.

Diosa learning to write music in braille

This musical braille pedagogy is based on a method from Colombia; Pedro Andrade: “Orientaciones para la Enseñanza de la Musicografia Braille”, Instituto Nacional Para Ciegos. *Many thanks to my colleague  Alvaro Rodas for this information* The method is a combination of braille “dots” that represent the note name and rhythm.

Braille reading technique

Braille writing technique

Students had an ear training session after the music notation session. Visually impaired students advance much faster than non-visually impaired students in ear training because their sense of hearing is much stronger. To demonstrate this point, the composer Gustavo accurately identified multiple chords and tone clusters played on the piano. Gustavo did not always have perfect pitch, but has trained his ear.

visually impaired students enjoying ear training

Jhonny expressed that in first starting a special needs program, it is best to begin with visually impaired students first. “They will have the fastest success with music, and it is empowering for them and for you.” From here, after you have gained success with your first special needs group, you can branch out to hearing impaired children and then other special needs.

Two of the visually impaired children- brother and sister Jose and Diosa- performed for us in the back of the choir room after some encouragement. Both were shy to sing at first, but once they began, incredible.

Music education gives a child a stronger sense of self. This is especially important for special needs students who often suffer from low self-esteem. At Calabozo I, the special needs students I met were confident, articulate and ambitious.When I asked hearing impaired students why they enjoyed being in the white hands choir, they answered:

  • deaf children can also sing through signing”
  • “I love the integration that happens between special needs and non special needs”
  • “Collaborations with the orchestra, large choir and other nucleos are incredible”
  • “We develop ourselves personally through sign language and through music”

“If Beethoven were alive today, he would write for the white hands choir”- Jhonny Gomez

My kids can see the sound, clean and clear”- Jhonny Gomez

One of the most beautiful things at Nucleo Calabozo I is how effortlessly the special needs program is intertwined within the life of the nucleo. Special needs students have the support, pedagogy and curriculum they need, but the program does not feel separate; hearing and non-hearing students joke around through sign language before rehearsal begins, seeing and non-seeing little girls laugh and sing together while waiting for their parents at the end of the day.

El Sistema is an integration tool for special needs students, with music as the vehicle. Through the program, students feel welcome by their peers, fully participate in the community and gain self-confidence through their art.

This past weekend, I was able to observe and teach at the el sistema conservatory in Calabozo, Guárico. The conservatory is held every other weekend and serves 12 nucleos from three regions with students from eight to thirty years old.

Outdoor patio area at the conservatory where students eat, practice and hang out- photo credit to Dan Berkowitz

Students from these nucleos must pass a practical examination (scales, arpeggios, etudes and a concerto) to enter the conservatory. There is no cap on the number of students who attend- all who pass the exam are admitted. Currently, there are 461 students enrolled from all three regions.

Private violin lesson in a classroom- the conservatory is housed at a catholic school campus

The conservatory is split into 4 hour sessions; a two hour block for private lessons with 30 advanced teachers (many from Simon Bolivar orchestra and the Caracas conservatory) and a two hour block for music language classes (theory, ear training, etc.). There are two sessions on Saturday, and one morning session on Sunday.

Private clarinet lesson: You can see that another student has come in to observe- this is very common here

Conservatory students take the knowledge and skills gained back to their home nucleos to teach their peers. These talented students are getting attention and training they otherwise would not have while also being empowered as leaders. They take the privilege of attending the conservatory with a sense of responsibility to give back.

Percussion lessons outside, under a mango tree, in 107 degree heat

Students are made to feel at home at the conservatory. The outdoor campus and open doors and windows (Calabozo is very hot- it was 107 degrees on the day of these photos) creates an ambiance of constant music. A student feels comfortable wandering in and out of her peer’s lesson or practicing outdoors between her classes. Students from nearby who had Saturday morning sessions stayed through the afternoon just to hang out and practice. They also came back Sunday morning with their instruments to be in the environment, listen, and play with one another.

Here, you can see how the classrooms are connected outdoors on this campus

snare drum practice room

Like everything in El Sistema, the conservatory is incredibly open and inviting to new teachers. So a group of horn students waiting for class was rounded up for me to teach an impromptu group lesson. I was also warmly invited to teach alongside the regular horn teacher and share my ideas and knowledge.

8 year old beginning horn students- the horn was too big for all of them, but each had a perfect embouchure!

What struck me most at the conservatory was the balance struck between intense music learning and a laid back environment. The kids who attended were serious about music and playing and the teachers were of high quality and had a pedagogical plan. But, this deep commitment to music did not manifest itself into “seriousness.” Everyone worked very hard– in fact, some students had driven over night in a van with no air conditioning just to be there– but no one took themselves too seriously. Everyone was enjoying playing and having fun while learning. There was no spirit of competition or self deprecation, but rather a community of learning where kids are just hanging out, having a good time, and playing music.

All in all, a very good way to spend a weekend.

El Sistema is all about access. The program is free so money is not an issue, instruments are provided, transportation is secured and nucleos are set up so they can be reached by children. Access is a part of how El Sistema empowers children and their communities.

This ideal of access is extended to students with special needs. Knowing this, I was not surprised to see special needs students included at the Guárico concert put on for us this week. I was, however, amazed at the number of special needs students served, the integration they had with their peers and the wealth of curriculum and opportunities provided for them.

Watching the white hands choir- a choir of deaf students- gracefully sign the words their peers with special needs sang was remarkable. How unlikely that these students should come together to create such beautiful music. Whatever seems impossible, El Sistema does.

The woman singing the solos has used the special needs choir to become an incredible adult leader in her community. As the nucleo director explained, “she has never let her disability slow her down or stop her from becoming an incredible leader and inspiration to us all.”

Those who teach special needs El Sistema students are musicians who go to college to study special education and special needs. They come back to El Sistema and combine their music training with their extensive knowledge of special needs to create a new pedagogy and curriculum.

This video is from the white hands choir theory class- students must spend some time learning to read music and internalize rhythm before they join the choir. The teacher explained that it is difficult for deaf students to internalize rhythm without a reference, so each rhtyhm is assigned a word. For instance, four sixteenth notes becomes “mariposa” (butterfly). Notice that they are performing the rhythm on the board through body percussion and speaking.

Lastly- the clip below is from our concert at Guarico when two blind snare drum players performed a duet. This concert was a combination of kids from all over the state, from choirs to orchestras to folk music. No ensemble or performance was placed higher than another- all were seen as important and valuable. The El Sistema students themselves though were especially and sincerely supportive of their special needs peers, as you can see and hear in this clip.

This is orchestra building community. Students learn to have empathy, understanding and respect for one another and to see potential rather than barriers. Everyone is an asset.

A few notes:

  • Montalban (nucleo in Caracas) early childhood musicianship class (“Initiation” class).
  • Students are 4 years old and come 2-3 times per week
  • One child has the egg maracas and plays along with the teacher, responding to the music.
  • Some of her peers have been invited to dance along with her playing and keep the rhythm.
  • Children are not inhibited in this class- they have fun, sing loudly, dance freely and are encouraged to participate freely and joyfully.
  • You will see two children with Simon Bolivar Orchestra jackets on, looking up to their role models.
  • The teacher is using the Cuatro, a popular folk instrument in Venezuela, to teach.

When El Sistema initially began, people criticized the program for taking kids away from traditional Venezuelan music. However, since the start of El Sistema, more children have been playing folk instruments than ever before (music breeds music). El Sistema has a cuatro program and also gives cuatro groups space to rehearse and perform.  The group in the video below is called C4trio. Some of the members actually went through El Sistema. This is a clip from a performance we heard last night from their version of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Some amazing musicianship.

Before leaving Boston, I held several concepts as essential to the best possible adaptation of el sistema to the United States. After a week in Caracas, many of these have been affirmed.

“Ser, No Ser” (being by not being)

- Dr. Abreu

Never be a finished product. El Sistema is always operating under the assumption that more children can be reached and the quality can improve. There is a great sense flexibility and openness to everything.

“The system itself is a non-system. That’s the essence of it.”

-Dr. Abreu

Over the past months, the fellows have been hearing “the secret to el sistema is there is no ‘sistema’!,” which is incredibly difficult to swallow when you are trying to fully understand the system. But, for some time, the meaning of this has become clearer. El Sistema is a set of ideals through which the program is designed. It is not a model and no “manual” can be created. Each community, set of teachers, students and circumstances informs how El Sistema is implemented. The uniqueness of each nucleo is pivotal to its effectiveness within its community. The ideals are essential and found in each nucleo’s structure. El Sistema is also deeply centralized (teacher training and pedagogy are as unified as possible, the nucleos are all linked regionally and to Caracas, etc.) so there are incredible similarities. But, each nucleo has a very distinctive touch.

Ironically then, if El Sistema were in fact systematized, it would no longer function in so many communities around Venezuela. As we adapt El Sistema to the United States, there will not be one “model”: after school, in school, extended day, community center, symphony orchestra partnership, universities, etc., will all have a place. Students in Alaska will need different things than students in Miami. Each nucleo will be distinctive. And yet, each nucleo will be linked with a common set of ideals and a common mission. The centralization of El Sistema in Venezuela is more than unlikely in the United States, but the opportunity to open a dialogue, share best practices and learn from one anther’s unique experiences cannot be missed.

“There may be other artistic programs, but this is a social development program through music.”

-Dr. Abreu

The intention with which we create and design our programs is incredibly important. The point is to help children gain an “affluence of spirit,” an understanding of their incredible self-worth and a sense of pride and responsibility with which they can contribute fully and respectfully within their community. If this intent remains genuine and informs every aspect of our program, we cannot fail. It is the core of our work.

“Culture for the poor cannot be poor culture”

-Dr. Abreu

Human development is the core of this program– but that cannot be done without the highest quality music program possible. As Dr. Abreu put it, you need the best educators for the poorest children, the highest quality instruments for the poorest children, the most state of the art building  for the poorest children. They need quality the most.

El Sistema is teaching three year olds”

- Frank di Polo

In creating a program for children with the fewest resources and greatest needs, it is essential that a tightly knit safety net is created, following the child from birth through entering college. There are no cracks for the child to fall through, no chance for them to fall behind their advantaged peers. This is how we can achieve social change and human benefit in the most substantial ways.

The students involved in El Sistema from the time they are toddlers until they turn 18 have an incredible network. Not only are they spending hours after school stimulating their minds, developing within their community of friends and becoming amazing artists, they also have several adults consistently there who care about them and monitor their well being over several years. All children need consistent, caring adults in their lives to succeed.

The benefits of starting young are pedagogical, social and developmental. Exposure to music at a young age ensures the child can access all of their innate musical abilities and is essential to their musical development later in life. Children from less advantaged backgrounds are socially and developmentally behind their more advantaged peers as early as preschool (for example, children from less privileged homes know half the vocabulary of their advantaged peers upon entering preschool). The earlier a child is involved, the more benefit they will receive.

“Always keep yourself in the perspective of a musician- you know things inherently a bureaucrat does not. Musicians must run the organization because only a musician knows what another musician needs”

-Eduardo Mendez

Being a musician is what brought us to this work, and being a musician is what will keep us inspired. If anything, the need to improve my musicianship seems more essential now than ever before. How can I ever expect the children in my program and the teachers I work with to hold themselves to high artistic standards if I do not create that example in myself?

Dr. Abreu and Mark Churchill

Earlier this week, I wrote how true artistry is characterized by selflessness in the performance. After meeting Dr. Abreu, I realize that this influence in El Sistema comes from a great leader. Dr. Abreu’s artistry does not end with his musicianship- he lives his entire life selflessly, as a true artist. It is apparent in his very presence.

More photos, descriptions and thoughts below. (Many thanks to my friends in Caracas who took some of these pictures)

An El Sistema choir at The Center For Social Action Through Music

As you can see in this photograph, the age range in the choir is quite large. The idea of “levels” rather than grades is used often in El Sistema so older children have an access point to join the program.

Though El Sistema has largely been an orchestral program, choir is fundamentally important. “Now, it is the choir’s turn” Dr. Abreu said as he spoke of the emphasis now placed on advancing the choral curriculum. In fact, the artistic director of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, Gerald Wirth, was so moved by El Sistema he now has six short residencies a year with the program.

El Sistema students waiting to hear the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra perform on a Saturday

Every single Saturday at The Center for Social Action Through Music, there is a concert. And every single Saturday, students from a nucleo in Venezuela make a trip to hear it. Sometimes the students are from nearby (the students above only traveled 45 minutes to hear “the big kids” they look up to play) and sometimes, for very special concerts, nucleo students from other states are brought in. El Sistema students grow up listening to great performances and aspiring to reach the same level (note the little boy sporting the Simon Bolivar Orchestra Jacket!).

The Avila National Park

Lastly: Caracas is not often painted in a positive light, largely due to the crime rates. However, the Venezuelans in Caracas I have met have been incredibly warm and the city is full of natural beauty. The Avila National Park is at the peak of the mountain range Cordillera de Ávila. A cable car takes you to the top where food stands, shops, music and an amazing view of the ocean and Caracas awaits. I wanted to post these photographs as a reminder of what a beautiful city Caracas is.

The first time I saw Gil Shaham play, I was sitting in the orchestra behind him for the Brahms violin concerto. I had never before seen a musician play with such complete sincerity.  Swaying happily with an opened mouth smile, Gil was in a constant state of wonder before the orchestra- he played every note as though grateful. Not a second of that Brahms was about violin playing- whether perfect or imperfect- no ego was ever involved. Each moment was dedicated to the music.

This  level of selfless artistry is stunning and desired amongst musicians, yet deeply missing in most. The need to “play perfectly” and fear of mistakes is so strong, the beauty of the music is often lost to the orchestra member. It is incredibly difficult for musicians to detach their sense of self (and self worth)  from their art to play selflessly and gratefully the way Gil Shaham can. He does something amazingly exceptional and unique.

Well, at least I thought it was unique- until I saw the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra.

Yesterday, I watched an entire orchestra of teenagers play with the same selflessness and joy as Gil Shaham. While smiling at one another, moving together and communicating across the orchestra, these kids showed no signs of fear or hesitation. And why should they? They are a part of an orchestra- a family- and together they are playing the most beautiful music of the world. Throughout the concert these kids remained intensely focused and passionate, yet also incredibly joyful.

Gil Shaham is one of the world’s greatest artists and is incredibly special. His joy and selflessness is rare, but not unique. In fact, in Venezuela it is quite common.

So, why are musicians in North America taking beta blockers and dealing with nerves while in Venezuela these kids are playing fearlessly?  Understanding that there are obvious exceptions to these rules, it is an important question to ask and answer. There are many pieces that create the final picture of playing without ego, but to me the key is learning and striving not for oneself, but for the music and the group.

In the United States, a musician works very hard in isolation for a long period of time until they have become “good enough” to join an orchestra. Then, once at this high level, they are able to belong to a special community and express art with others. In Venezuela, everyone begins together in a group- the orchestra is not an elite prize hard work earns, but rather a given community in which all students grow together.

This group learning is crucial to cultivating an environment where students develop musically without ego; it is not about the success of an individual, but the success of the whole group. The earliest development of a musician is drastically different in this way between Venezuela and the United States. They begin with the orchestra.

This also speaks to the philosophy former El Sistema nucleo director Susan Siman described; every child is an asset and is needed for the orchestra, but no one child makes an orchestra alone. Both success and failure are shared by the group. From an early age, students are in a culture where they matter and are special, yet know their personal mistake or triumph does not make or break a concert. It is about the whole orchestra, and about playing the music together.

The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra played at an incredibly high level- it seems impossible that they are only high school students. It seems unbelievable once you consider so many of them had so little before joining the orchestra.

The energy of the performance was high and the musicality and technique was impressive and moving. And yet, what I most walked away with is the amount of fun they had playing together. Every child in the world begins playing music with sincere, unadulterated joy. As teaching artists we can allow that child to hold on to this joy for all of her life by creating the right environment.

The Center for Social Action Through Music, located in Caracas, is a stunning building specifically designed for El Sistema. The Center is the only building of its kind for FESNOJIV, but six more buildings like it were recently approved for other cities in Venezuela.

Center for Social Action Through Music

People lining up outside the Center hours before a Simon Bolivar orchestra concert

Each room is soundproof and acoustically designed, therefore making every space “multipurpose.” Even the conference room and office space comes with acoustic wall paneling, ready to be doubled as a recital hall or rehearsal room if needed. There are also spaces set up for academic activities, library study and computers.

Chamber music room that was built as a “floating box” and is therefore completely sound proof and ideal for recording

Lecture hall with a large projection screen for internet master classes from around the world, video viewings, etc. The chairs are easily removed to create risers for a choir rehearsal.

Even the door knobs were designed with a musician in mind; lean against the black knob to open. The bass players and percussionists of the world are especially grateful for this “no hands” approach.

Computers are set up all along the walls of this open room facing the balcony.

Students also have access to sound proof practice facilities, which is very important since many do not have a place to practice at home

Photographs are hung up around the building of El Sistema students and special events. It is a welcoming environment.

View from the open balcony on the seventh floor

The park the Center overlooks on one side

And buildings it overlooks on the other side. FESNOJIV recently bought this lot to expand.

The Simón Bolívar Hall is also located inside this building, with a seating capacity of 1,100.

Tonight, Gustavo Dudamel was in town to conduct the Simon Bolivar A Orchestra (mainly founders and teachers of El Sistema) for the 35 year anniversary celebration of El Sistema.

The applause for Mahler Symphony No. 9 began with a shout of “Bravo!’ from Maestro Abreu in the front row. As expected, it was a beautiful concert– and all the fellows had a chance to meet Dudamel to congratulate him personally.

Abreu Fellows holding concert programs

International star conductor Gustavo Dudamel is famous throughout Venezuela

End of day one in Caracas!

Abreu Fellows with nucleo director Roberto Zambrano

After months of studying, the Abreu fellows are finally on the ground in Venezuela! As guests of FESNOJIV (El Sistema) we are well cared for, staying in the beautiful Eurobuilding hotel in Caracas.

I will do my best over the next two months to blog and update regularly. The writing style and content of my blog may change a bit– in order to update quickly, I will post without as much reflection/breakdown of what I have seen. However, I hope this will be useful to both you as a reader and me for later processing.

Mahler 9 tonight with Simon Bolivar A under Dudamel… and hopefully a meeting with Dr. Abreu himself!


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