Children from The Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston

Children from The Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston

Sunday, December 12, 2010

News from the End of Semester One!!

of this incredible journey is almost OVER!

I am joyfully and utterly overwhelmed by this year and can't WAIT for the time in Venezuela to put this all together...mainly my BRAIN!

What's been going on???

In house, we have had the most informative seminars: Beth Babcock on non-profit start-ups and inner city issues and Greg Kandel on strategic planning. They both came to us again with the best energy in the world: Get going, think ahead, plan well, so that you can change your plan, know that sh....t will happen!
Slowly but surely, the idea of going out and starting a bold project seems not only thoroughly do-able but natural. There will be no perfect path, no clear directions to follow. But one beginning leads to another. The genuine excitement people feel when hearing how quickly El Sistemesque programs affect even society's most challenging kids will surely be a motivating energy source.

I have upped my commitment to the
Conservatory Lab Charter School.
The 200 children at this music based charter school in Boston are new to El Sistema. I have posted about this program beofre, not to bore you. It was started 11 weeks ago by two of last years Abreu Fellows who are doing an amazing job.
Last week, I went there 3 times!
It was hardly planned that way, I just have trouble staying away! Most motivating to me are the changes in the kids themselves. Please take a moment to watch this video. You'll see David Malek, one of last years Abreu Fellows, with his 3rd and 4th grade orchestra of beginners after only 12 weeks of daily work at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston:

Consider this: these children are complete beginners to everything involved in this rehearsal.
They have learned to play together, to watch a conductor or listen to his beat, to sit still, to read music and sing a part other than their own (they are learning the Beethoven 9 melody off the score, every child singing and playing every part.) And also new, by the way, is playing their instruments. I say this LAST on purpose!

This might give a glimpse into what is unique about this kind of teaching: it is less about the individual child learning to play an instrument, and much more about developing ensemble skills as they relate to being successful citizens in the world: for a good rehearsal to happen, you need: patience, respect, listening skills, encouragement, a belief in the process even if it is sometimes slow and you have to think as team: the progress is defined by the least advanced link. If your group should excel, each child must help the least advanced progress.
For my ways of thinking, which are rooted in individualism, this was very foreign and I had my serious doubts those first weeks as I watched horrible bow-holds and saggy violins. I still see some straight pinkies, although much less of them, and far less saggy violins. Why? The kids are becoming the


But we don't see them trying to skip, go home early.....not at all! There is pride, there is peer mentoring, there is the sheer joy of being with so many friends and adults that take this quest so seriously. They must feel how much we care. And, by week 12, EVERY child can tell that there has been enormous progress and this excites them: we identify with something we do well, we then love doing it, praise follows, and we are hooked. This is human nature.

I was A SCEPTIC about how this might work here in the US.
I thought maybe it's too serious, too Classical, not cool enough. Honestly, I don't even think the kids are aware that this is Classical music as opposed to other music. This is what they do. They love David Malek (who is stunning with them) and their teachers who come every day to be with them, there is something else going on that is much deeper than the type of music on the page. All the kids are playing Beethoven 9, the theme, very naturally, no questions asked. I asked a kid if he had an idea of who Beethoven was, and he said, simply, "no", and I thought, that's just fine! Does he need to know about Vienna and that B. is long dead and was deaf and all that, or is it more powerful that this music has become a part of his day?? For 2 hours every day this child is with Beethoven, singing, learning the harmonies, listening, feeling the silence that David makes them pay attention to before and after playing. That's a lot more Beethoven knowledge than a few facts, right? Do Twinkle kids know who Mozart was or do they just love Twinkle as part of their lives first and then meet Mozart the (dead) man? What's first, love for music or love for decomposing composers? Surely the former!!

Could this program be about Chess or Hula-hoops??

Maybe. Let's say: Chess or hula-ing would be a whole lot better than nothing, and if you wish to give to children who are, for whatever reasons, not motivated to learn, by all means, gather those children and start a program that is fueled by your desire to create a passion for learning. If they are inspired by your passionate energy, they will love what you do and they will want to please you by doing it well. This is maybe the #1 most important truth about teaching: when we are not motivating our students to WANT to do what we are teaching, they are not learning but rather just complying. (Eric Booth). Boy, have I often messed that one up!

Why, then, Classical music?

That is where self-expression and being in a group rhythm comes in. Chess is not expressive, and it's war. Hulahooping is a sport, by nature competitive. Music is expressive and the way it is taught here, and this I LOVE, non-competitive.

Here's another video of a class in New York City's Harmony Project. The trumpet teacher is Julie Des Bordes, a french woman with extraordinary teaching skills. Her students are brand new to trumpet. Notice how she has them hearing the note in their head first, how fast her pace is and how positive the feedback. Not one criticism in the whole clip! This class was fabulous!

Tomorrow we go to NYC to watch the Harmony Program in it's 3 locations: Harlem, Bronx and Brooklyn. Anne Fitzgibbon will show us her masterpiece: her NYU affiliated program that is 3 years old and already has 3 sites!
We will visit the TED offices, we will see the Harlem Childrens Zone. I am hoping to have a Jeffery Canada sighting.....he's so cool. I am super excited to see all this, and I am deeply committed to going to sleep early tonight! It will be a busy busy time in the Big Apple.

What are your thoughts about this style of orchestra based learning? I'd love to hear from you!!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A trip to Outer Space: our week in West Baltimore

Our concert with the "ORCHKids"

See a slide show of our week in Baltimore:

This was the week we were waiting for: getting out and doing it ourselves! We just spent one week at the Baltimore OrchKids program, working with about 100 children and their teachers for 5 afternoons to create a concert with them.

I am in shock at what we saw there.

Our thoughts were traditional in the planning stage: what to teach them to play, what they would sing, how to teach our content, how to control the crowds. Advice was given, scripts were written, ideas debated, we prepared for our kids!

The arrival in Baltimore was normal: a sweet hotel (complete with a vast population of indoor little furry roommates, and to think: we had been worried about bedbugs!) close to the fabulous buildings that comprise the incredibly beautiful Peabody Institute, which bears all the signs of Baltimore's past grandeur . A testament to our familiar world of classical music, generously funded by those who love what we do. All is as expected.

We board the van to the school and are driven to
the ORCH Kids neighborhood, a mere 2 miles west of Peabody:

Imagine the kind of neighborhood you are told not to drive in. Conspicuous lack of traffic, commerce, even absence of busses and gas stations. Lonely people idle at street corners with an absence of purpose or direction. I had seen this, I do come from Cleveland, and have played for groups there....always great kids, we hope they like what we do, then we pack up and leave.

What I was not prepared for is this: by working so closely with our small groups of kids (we had 20 string players) for 5 days, we had a taste of how it would feel to be embedded in this community, to get to know the children and families closely, working with them through their hard times, seeing them grow up under these poor conditions. What glimpse 5 days afforded me, made me sick with fury that we can have our children growing up like this.

Meet Ashanti:

Ashanti is 8 years old, plays the violin with great care and is very very eager to learn new things. Around 6 pm every night, after her incredibly long school day, she and I went to a back corner and figured out notes on her little violin. She wanted so badly to learn the harder version of the song we played! She has a great violin set-up and, despite a disconcerting ear infection, wonderful hearing and sings beautifully in tune.

I spent 2 hours per day with Ashanti and her 5 violin-playing friends, and in this week I got to know them a little bit. Ashanti is featured here not because she is my favorite, but because she has, like many, has a real fire to learn and a strong desire to get better and be praised for that. OrchKids might just be her answer as it can give her a framework in which to express this side of herself, if she has the kind of teaching that will keep her fire ignited.

I hope she keeps finding those that are willing to light her up. She loves being challenged and praised!

We also had a young girl who, on the first day told the whole group her early memory of dad being arrested and taken away. What to say? She was very affectionate to me on that day and, to an almost worrisome extent, the next day. The 3rd day she did not come to lessons but did come to the free dinner, and on the last day she did not play the concert but did come to the group photo we all took afterwards. Huh.
Her explanations were fuzzy, my week too short for me to make complete sense of this.
Perhaps she shied away from violin class because on the second day during our class another violinist attacked her physically and was suspended for the week?? This was my first time seeing a child being truly violent and I was afraid.

Do you see what I mean by outer space?
a world outside of anything most of us expect life to be.

The neighborhood has no grocery store, no fast food, no doctors, no dentists, no post office, and no transportation out. I did not see a bus and there is no train or subway there. I saw no newspaper stands, no gas stations, not even fast food. We brought our lunches every day as there is only pizza delivery available to the school. The school food is absolutely terrible, a bag of sun chips and chocolate milk were called "supper".

Most families have no cars, certainly no computers or cell phones, information travels by word of mouth. School is a pretty safe place to bring kids and also offers free food and also a free after-school music program that serves free food. Yesterday morning, the power was out during the morning drop-off hours. Many folks came to school, saw it was dark and took their children home again. I would have done the same: how can you trust a dark school in an area like this? The principal at dismissal every day, thanked the children for coming to school and asked them to come again. Crazy. The schoolrooms were either way too hot or too cold, very outdated with hand-written signs in bathrooms about plumbing problems, had broken chairs for kids to wobble through class hours. .....there are absolutely no transluscent windows downstairs, many painted with black magic marker, for safety, I guess.

In light of that, this picture taken on the front steps of the school, seems miraculous and almost incredible, doesn't it?

OrchKids has added a vibrant musical life to this depressing school. Upon entering you immediately see the wonderful mural project: over the summer, OrchKids painted all along the hallways their depictions of people playing musical instruments in bright colors. It is beautiful.

To the children it must seem that they have two lives in that one building: one that is familiar in the classrooms until 3:30 and then another life full of shiny instruments and plans to go perform in places far away, people coming to take their pictures, coming to give workshops, giving them lots of attention.

I will not lie to you: the challenges facing the bold people leading OrchKids are considerable.

Watching the OrchKids staff foster the trust they are slowly building to the children in their care, I get a glimpse of what it could mean both to the children and the adults to commit to each other daily, to tackle the challenge of musicianship together, so witness them becoming more comfortable in a more care-free world outside of this ghetto, for the world to see what possibilities there are for children like Ashanti if she can develop what I believe lies inside her.

Unless we spend the time to interact intensively with those living in poverty we will have absolutely no idea what these children and their families are up against. I will certainly not claim to be a specialist now, but these 5 days were so impressive because the director of OrchKids had the fascinating and intimidating idea of putting us in charge for the week. We were leading them through hallways, making their lesson plans, explaining to our classes what we planned to do and decided what they would or would not do on concert day. We were also deciding who goes into time-out for how long, dealing with tears, anger, also joy and pride. It was for this reason that the kids really interacted with us and we with them.

Why music then, why not karate or ping-pong or quilting? How is this so different from other orchestra or band programs?

The age range of OrchKids is K to 4th grade now, remarkably young compared to any public school music program. K and 1st grade do not stay after school, but have wonderful ear-training during the school day by OrchKids staff member Erik Rasmussen. He has them hearing seventh chords and predicting cadences at 5 and 6 years of age! OrchKids in grades 2-4 stay 2 hours per day after school to sing in chorus for 45 minutes with a stunning teacher, and then play their instruments in groups until 6 pm.

I predict that 5 or 6 years from now, many OrchKids will be making music on an absolute even playing field with kids from other parts of town! The ability to bring large groups of people together in a common passionate endeavor is unique to orchestral playing.

El Sistema is magical for its' ability to lift the isolation
caused by poverty.
Many ORCHKids are regularly leaving West Baltimore to be noticed by the outside world while holding instruments in hand.

Can musical excellence be easily achieved when working in this world? Absolutely not. For some children, maybe the biggest benefit will be the ability to sit still and focus for a time. But in that ability lies future magic, too, right? Those who look at a program such as OrchKids without looking at the whole geographical context will miss a lot. If you have time to dive deeply into the children's world in a poor American urban area, you will see things very differently upon your return to your own planet.

By targeting such young children with such an intense program, the benefits should be nothing short of miraculous but it is very tough work and happens in tiny increments one day at a time.

I must say a huge bravo to the staff of ORCHKids in Baltimore!

These kids really love you!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fascinating Stage

Erik says I am way behind on blogging! Hmmm, I must now confess to you, mysterious reader, that I am uncomfortable blogging! There is so much type in our digital lives! How could my silly thoughts be of worth to you? Yet this journey is extraordinary and just as I was curious about the fellowship last year, you may be that next fellow thinking about applying! Or a teacher wondering about El Sistema. For you I keep blogging!

I pasted below a painting, a favorite of mine, "Clairvoyance" by Rene Magritte, which describes exactly what I feel this year is: for many years, I have been looking at an ideal (an egg) that lived inside me, namely teaching musical literacy to children in a way that is unencumbered and joyful. (I wondered how I could feel all year long the way I always felt at summer camp)

The egg has been shown to have a real model (=has been placed on the table) by

Abreu and El Sistema.

This fellowship is the very difficult task of designing the bird inside the egg without ever having seen it. We have the Venezuelan model, but for the US we are feeling our way with very different conditions.

1936: Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels

A very happy day was going to the Community Lab Charter school, my place to get my feet wet and work weekly, in the astonishing program directed by 2 wonderful Fellows from last year: David Malek and Rebecca Levi. It is only in week # 8 with 120 children, that just learned to play their instruments. They study 3 hours per day, after school, 5 days a week!! Today, I will work with violin teachers and explore how to refine violin set-up issues using Mimi Zweig's brilliant ideas in the next couple of weeks. Head tall, and round fingers, those are our goals! In group teaching you must be such a different teacher! Kids need clear commands: one two ready go, bend your pinky on your bow. Tap pinky tap pinky, now I'm feeling really slinky! I just made that up!
This is completely new to me, but those teachers who lovingly and rhythmically, (the fabulous drumming teacher taught me), throw out one easy command after another have happy children succeeding, and not squirmy children unsure what to do, which is a lot less happy.
I heard a most touching rendition of Beethoven #9 by 11 4th graders getting ready for their first concert. They were so excited to perform in a mansion!
Now, many children have given up part of their daily lunch break to practise and hopefully be the next ones chosen to play in a mansion! Amazing! To read, watch films, listen to seminars is great, but to see a child glowing in anticipation, inspired by a mansion, to try her very hardest to reach a new level !! Stunning! Peer mentoring is a huge part of the work: David tells us of a 10 minute session where they simply told the older ones to help the younger ones, after which time all the kids could play Hot Cross buns. Before this session, many little ones could not. 10 minutes! This is certainly not rocket science, but it is not the way I was taught. It takes me some courage and much feeling of trust to ask a peer for help with anything. To just make this so natural is already a huge part of where I think El Sistema taps into previously unknown energy fields. People love to help!!

Most often people critical of El Sistema say:

1) It will never work w/o Gov'ment support

2) this has already been done, for years, with success, in public schools, why the hype?

1) think of the things in we have without Government support! Think of partnerships in the past: Andrew Carnegie's libraries, privately initiated, then publicly funded. Think of our museums, orchestras, theater, ballet, Universities....funded without much or any government support. I believe, El Sistema (or let's call it "public orchestra programs= POP USA) will start small. POP will grow and prove child by child, family by family, community by community what it can do and make itself relevant. In Venezuela it took 35 years to reach the Heights of today. Our big challenge will be to start small and create, in not too long a period, outstanding results. That term can be defined in many ways, and not every child must become a Heifetz. But somewhere in POP USA's future there will have to be an orchestra of Excellence to show what the work can do for those youths ignited by it. This may lie years and several generations of teachers away, but we must keep this as a goal, I believe. This will justify the broader work of teaching kids to be good people through orchestra playing, at any level.

2) Yes, this country boasts incredible youth orchestras! Most large cities have one or several that do the work described above, beautifully. Let's strengthen these by teaching many more and much younger kids to play (K and 1 in most El Sistema inspired programs starting now). POP USA (my new name, do you like it?) is REALLY not trying to put anyone out. It is seeking to bring excitement to the children, esp. to those children the least served by our existing youth orchestra programs. (in Boston alone, I have heard 3 youth orchestras, each so good, right at NEC! )Many of our highest level youth orchestras are, let's be honest, serving kids with parents who care to provide private lessons to their children and who make it a priority to take them to other places on Saturdays.
In some public schools we have great orchestra programs, but they do not teach the amount of hours POP USA is striving for and therefore cannot become the community to the children that we are hoping to create.

So, the number one difference is the idea of teaching large groups of very young beginners for many hours per day in groups. It makes us dizzy to see so much work that would take months of private instruction to "fix" in one room. But here's the beauty: the kids are focussed on each other, and, unless you get in their way, they will EAGERLY learn from each other, and are happy to be a little bit better than the kid to their side and feel GREAT about helping them!! Adults, don't mess it up! The kids will take us there. They will support each other and every year the younger ones will learn a little bit quicker, if we just guide them a little bit! They'll have peers to look up to and watch. We will need a few years to become these outstanding flexible teachers that will do this work. We must shed much of what we thought about teaching and learn to trust the process of child learning from child. With loving and flexible role models like David and Rebecca, we should be ok!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A new Fellow (barely) getting her bearings in Boston

Dear Friends!

Where to even's the end of week 2 in Boston. I can tell that someday I will love looking back to this time: "Remember being lost in Boston all the time those first weeks? At midnight not finding my host-family's house? Calling Frank and asking him to navigate me home from his desk in Cleveland.....?" Eijeijei. For now, I am completely overwhelmed and overloaded and really looking forward to looking back, but in a very happy way!

The program is FANTASTIC. Every day from 9:30 to 4 pm, all 10 fellows are seated at our huge table in our home room at NEC, listening to seminars from leaders that bring their entire life force and experiences to us. I wish I could just have a big slot in my head to stuff in all this valuable information.

We had full and energetic days with Eric Booth and Anne Fitzgibbon (Harmony Project, NYC), and Greg Kandel, who is an expert at Non-Profit Start-ups. All 3 are on the El Sistema USA advisory board. Eric focused on the high energy we see in the Venezuelan El Sistema programs and encouraged us to look deeply at what we see once we are there. Anne humbly shared how she created her huge and thriving project in greater NYC. She now manages 3 sites! Greg quickly showed us how to make a strategic plan. Easy!
Today, a very impressive Beth Babcock, founder of a center in Boston called "Liveworkthrive" (which succeeds in helping women raise themselves out of poverty), spoke to us with incredible passion, giving us many incredible resources to use when researching a possible site. Data is abundant, but you have to know where to look! She knows we will need much help and, along with everyone else, generously told us how to reach her anytime!

I am speechless also at the amount of time NEC President Tony Woodcock has spent with us. He has given us two fantastic seminars on public speaking, complete with watching ourselves on video, (yikes), and treated us to one evening of intense wine-drinking and fabulous eating with his warm and interesting family at his wonderful home. I have been humbled by how much I need to learn when speaking publicly about topics I know nothing about(!!). Let's just say, my career in speaking publicly about Pakistani literature or tourist attractions I have not seen, would not be lucrative.

I sadly had to miss dinner at Ben Zanders house, but will attend his class tomorrow.

Back to a more serious note: the group of fellows is outstanding. They are all experienced in areas in which I am not, which is so interesting, and we all laugh a lot, at least so far.
There is:
Graciela, who lived and taught violin in Kenya
Steve who worked at the El Sistema inspired YOLA program and has a collapsible string bass!
Andrea who grew up in Panama and has energy for 10
Marie from Haiti who has lived and taught successfully in an El Sistema nucleo in Venezuela
David who can read anything on piano, is from Spain and has worked with kids in NYC.
Patrick is only 22 but you can't tell, plays percussion and has worked a lot in Chicago music programs for underserved kids
Adrienne, is so poetic, loves coffee and worked at the Storefront Quartet Project in Rhode Island
Laura loves Brahms and is from Boston, thinks clearly and quickly and gives great directions!
Liz the bassoonist who is so funny that she seriously needs her own TV show, worked in Manhattan public schools and plays a fierce bassoon!
She has taught me that you cannot rush soaking a reed. This may well become my metaphor for this year......

Eric, our wonderful program director, is very calm and thinks of us as a very interesting and somewhat chatty bunch. I think he may be right!
Next door are Stephanie Scherpf and Mark Churchill, generous and open, both of them. One big difference to orchestra life is the lack of feeling a distinct "us" vs. "them". This is a great joy for me.

We realize with each day more, that great hopes and expectations rest on our collective shoulders. (10 or 20? Whatever! We will need more!)

By late November, the outline to a Strategic Plan for a hypothetical (and hopefully someday real) program is due. We are stretching our brains to imagine ourselves as Leaders in a movement that is rolling at a furious pace. When I think of a room full of kids exploring their instruments, I feel unbelievably excited. Public and charter school education is being re-evaluated nation-wide, new approaches beyond only testing are being considered....I feel that the timing for this could not be better.
I see now, that I will not leave here with all the answers, but with fabulous resources and with contacts to many outstanding experts that feel very passionately about helping us design successful programs.

A highlight for me was the brief visit by Tavis Smiley from NPR. A quote from Tavis is:
"If you want to lead, you have to love, if you want to save, you have to serve."

He truly cares deeply about children, and I really liked his shoes!

There are many stories in the media about last years' Fellows, most of which have now started El Sistema inspired programs in their US cities. I will attach a front page article from the Philadelphia Enquirer about 09-10 Fellow Stanford Thompson's new program. It interests me especially, because it is in partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

I believe with all my heart that teaching kids to play instruments will make a HUGE difference for them AND for us in the Classical music profession. If they learn to play in a cheerful group of friends, they will enjoy it, and chances are much increased that they will be hooked to the power of the music. From this, there is so much gain.

A statistic for you: 75% of all medical students in VZ are graduates of El Sistema!!

It is absolutely time to go to bed, class begins in 7.5 hours---I truly wish I did not have to waste time sleeping this year!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Boston Globe Article

On Last Sunday's front page of the Boston Globe, this article and video were published.

It is still very hard to imagine myself doing all that, but the thought is "mega cool", as they would say in Germany. I just can't wait to meet so many people that are sooooo full of beans about music!!


Monday, July 12, 2010

Abreu fellowship

In October I will be temporarily leaving my perfectly wonderful life as a violinist in The Cleveland Orchestra to become a student again, to live in Boston and go to school, learning all about the miraculous El Sistema movement in Venezuela.

Why would I do such a crazy thing? Right, I wonder that myself many times each day. I LOVE my job, my friends, the many extras, like chamber music projects and teaching my students, my dog and my very cute house.

But I saw El Sistema and I feel hungry.

For many years now, I have gathered proof that Classical Music will deeply affect most people that are close enough and comfortable enough to be open to it.

In El Sistema I see clearly that Classical Music can reach anyone anywhere if the situation is right. I hope to gain from the year in Boston/Venezuela insight to how we can create many more "right" situations to reach people in a deep way through music right here in the US.

Today my thoughts are:

This can be done very effectively by teaching children to play instruments and via that route will teach them many more life skills, such as patience and concentration. If under-served youth can be affected this way, as the model in Venezuela shows, then all sides win. Through music, we will hope to transform young children and improve their chances to lead healthy lives.

With a quartet, we visited a Juvenile Detention Center last week. The audience were some of our hardest-hit youth in Cleveland. One boy was only 11 years old! Imagine that, 11 and locked up!
They were enchanted by the music, cheered for Beethoven, loved Puccini, made up opera stories....the music transformed them into the most incredible high-school audience I have ever played for. Think how incredible it would be if they could be taught to play themselves?

The core of my dream is to reach many more people through the awesome language of classical music because it can give so much and can answer so many questions about life's biggest mysteries in a way that nothing else can.

Why do I think orchestras could easily go this way?

Maybe it's time to eat lunch and continue this later.....