Finally kids!

November 15, 2009
Silly face contest!

OrchKids in a silly face contest!

The people I miss the most: children! Finally this week we were able to take all of our learning through the fellowship and previous experiences and get down and dirty with it in the real world! My mother loves digging in the dirt more than she loves knowing the names of all her plants. Me too!

OrchKids and Fellows

OrchKids, Abreu Fellows, World in Motion

We spent the week at Lockerman Bundy Elementary school in inner-city Baltimore, MD. The school is home to OrchKids, the El Sistema nucleo of the Baltimore Symphony. We were fortunate to be there at the same time as a colorful drumming duo from World in Motion,  an outreach program of the London-based Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

This week we were with the kids during snack, tutoring, Bucket Band (a BRILLIANT cheap way to teach rhythm and have fun! It’s exactly what it sounds like, a drum line on buckets), pre-K string class, Creative Ensemble, string orchestra, and their special workshops where we all to the man were banging our hearts out on Samba drums.

Bucket Band!

Bucket Band!

Our questions this week were simple: what do you notice about the children? What programs are working well, and why? Being immersed in their classes, I was deeply impressed by the way the children took care of one another. They corrected rhythm and posture, they encouraged one another to take solos in front of the class and in performance in front of over a hundred kids and parents. The love and attention they were receiving from adults they were imparting on each other.

I had my doubts about the schedule put together by OrchKids, the kids were kept after school until about 6 pm every day, with the school day ending at three. For up to three hours almost every day of the week, the OrchKids are in musicianship classes, exploratory instrumental instruction (this week disguised as a party on drums…), and string and wind ensembles. Every day it wasn’t until about 5:45 that I heard the first “are we done yet?” Impressive attention span these 4-7 year-olds have…

As part of our work this year, we will be the authors of a collection of essays on our “passion points”, the aspect of El Sistema which intrigues us most. I am following El Sistema as a national movement, and how as a grass-roots effort local social change efforts are being “sistematized” across the world. As part of my research, I interviewed the parent liaison and office assistant at Lockerman Bundy, Ms. Shirley Dessesow. She was essential to bringing the OrchKids program to the school, an active advocate for the program with parents and school administrators. She has been touched by how the program is inspiring hope in the community, and that kids are the impetus for this positive change. She hears back about the positive happenings at her school through stories from ministers and people on the street that they heard from their neighbors, who heard from their children that they want instruments for Christmas. The kids’ love of music is changing the family conversation, which is changing the neighborhood conversations. It’s this kind of ground up (well, kid’s height up) change that has given her hope that some of the abandoned row houses across from the school might be converted into an arts space for children, and would bring homeowners back to this abandoned part of Baltimore. Hope and change seems to be working here too.

Me and Jada

Me and Jada, OrchKids Violinist!

Tyrone on bass

Tyrone on bass

Me and Dashae, OrchKids cello star!

Me and Dashae, OrchKids cello star!


Thoughts on Learning

November 9, 2009

All the posse

Here we are in Week Four! The learning has been fast and furious.  I hope to take in much of what we’ve talked about during our plane ride to (surprise!) Baltimore on Tuesday. Tomorrow we will depart for a week-long visit of the Baltimore Symphony’s ORCHKids El Sistema site at an elementary school in downtown Baltimore, MD.



Roberto Zambrano, of El Sistema Venezuela, shared a presentation week with Dan Trahy, of the Baltimore Symphony. The two together shared the intricacies of building an El Sistema nucleo (model/organization) in the United States.

Yo-Yo Ma shares thoughts on learning

A highlight of our time together was a visit last week by Yo-Yo Ma. A Boston resident, Yo-Yo dropped by to share with the group his thoughts on learning, and the strength of possibility for El Sistema nucleos in this country. You can see from the white-sheet his explanation of learning models – the down arrow is much of what we’ve been experiencing these last few weeks: lots and lots of information poured into us! The up arrow is the learning I expect we will revel in next week, figuring things out for ourselves as we build our experiences from the ground up. The circle represents the connection between the two (learning by taking information in, and by figuring things out on your own), in constant motion. The forward shooting arrow is of course the trajectory on our goals, both for this year and for life. (I really like the idea of soaring through life as a shooting arrow!) The spiral surrounding the arrow is the perfect circle of learning, in constant rotation as we achieve our goals.

With Gretchen Neilson, LA Phil


This last week, I loved our time with Gretchen Nielsen. She is Director of Educational Initiatives for the LA Phil, and someone I have admired since coming into this field! She is working hard in LA to support an El Sistema nucleo at the EXPO Center, a program which serves as an inspiring model for founding El Sistema nucleos in this country. With inspiration from El Sistema member and Music Director of the LA Phil Gustavo Dudamel, Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA) is enjoying a blossoming El Sistema program. She helped our group work through Logic Models of our dream programs, and helped me think through some ideas for a strong framework for KidZNotes. Among these ideas is a strong partnership with the East Durham Children’s Initiative, an exciting social and educational growth project taking shape in Durham, NC, where KidZNotes will take root.

I can’t wait to be among kids again this week, being back in college doesn’t afford many opportunities for family contact. We’ll have lots of stories to tell!


Tocar y Luchar (To Play and To Struggle)

October 22, 2009

Abreu Fellowship, day 7.

Wow. It’s hard to believe we’ve only been at this for 7 days! Ensconced in the great halls of the New England Conservatory, I have joined 9 colleagues in the field of music education and orchestras to discover, challenge, analyze and champion the birth and growth of El Sistema in the United States.

Me, (middle left) and my fellow fellows, guests of Ben Zander

Me, (middle left) and my fellow fellows, guests of Ben Zander

El Sistema is the Venezuelan musical movement in social change that is sweeping Latin and South America, and has the music world on the edge of its seat trying to keep up! For a brief rundown, 60 minutes did an excellent expose on the program and its superstar champion, Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema alum and newly appointed Music Director for the LA Phil. If that doesn’t get you hooked, check out this “youth” (I would use heroes) orchestra at the BBC Proms.

Graduates of El Sistema provided an insiders perspective

Graduates of El Sistema provided an insiders perspective

The Abreu Fellowship is named for the father of El Sistema, Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu. Maestro Abreu has received many honors for the mission and success of El Sistema, including the TED prize which granted his wish to create a fellowship program for young musicians to study El Sistema and bring the ideals back to their home cities. Abreu TED talk.

So here we are, and loving every minute of it. We are steeping in passion, activism, social justice, kids, and music music music.

Jamie Bernstein's Documentary Project Camera Crew

Jamie Bernstein's Documentary Project Camera Crew

Every day we have the great privilege of sharing in discussions and being challenged by leaders in arts and education including master teacher artist and philosopher Eric Booth, He asked us to wrap our minds around the following questions. These questions (and my responses) are just the tip of the iceberg. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to consider the iceberg beneath the surface!

1. Why use the experience of learning deeply inside complex music (classical)  as an effective way to support and develop of urban youth?

Complex music requires an understanding of how parts are put together- and it requires participation by a community of people, all striving together to reach a goal that is more beautiful than is found in common experiences. Performing in orchestras creates a “now” (a world in a separate / parallel reality) that insists that everyone is in it all at the same time in order to get to the most deep experience of the music. Urban youth face challenges in their realities every day in which they are alone, and standing their ground in defense of their freedom of movement, or thought, of their families, of their right to live care-free lives. Asking urban youth to join you and work with each other to create a complex “now” that is beautiful, unique to them, and beyond their current realities can offer a new liberty that is important to them and worth defending. Once their minds find this new pathway of thinking and potential, my hope is that this new identity as musicians and creators will empower them to make different realities for themselves and their neighborhoods.

If El Sistema’s priorities are social change first, and becoming a musician second, what does that mean in terms of curriculum, and tasks….

For me, focusing deeply on complex music and the necessary steps to becoming a musician which involve deep consideration, noticing how we improve, making decisions about expression; these steps translate to becoming more reflective people. I THINK THIS IS SOCIAL CHANGE! My observation now is that social change is happening in Venezuela because they are making armies of thoughtful, collaborative, supportive citizens who are inspired by the life they find searching for beauty and the truths available in music and creativity. To maximize the impact of these citizens- I would begin to engage the orchestras of El Sistema in their communities- by capitalizing on their now natural inclinations to work together toward common goals, and in being excited about creating moments of great beauty.

Katie Wyatt and David Malek, Abreu Fellows

Katie Wyatt and David Malek, Abreu Fellows

In our work, we are striving to hold the aspects of the El Sistema motto Tocar y Luchar close to our hearts. Every day, we remind ourselves of the two most important elements driving the success of El Sistema:

1. Every child is an asset.

2. JOY!

I for one am proud to be a new member of the system. Let me introduce you to the board of KidZNotes, a group of wonderful and generous people in Durham, North Carolina.

KidZNotes Supporters! Kathie Morrison (center) is chair

KidZNotes Supporters! Kathie Morrison (center) is chair

We are working now to plant the seeds of El Sistema in our community. More on our adventures soon!