Upon completing the Sistema Fellows program at the New England Conservatory, the world’s preeminent training program for “gifted young musicians passionate about their art and social justice,” graduates are required to dedicate at least one year to establish a social change through music initiative following their formal studies in Boston and Venezuela. I chose Oklahoma City as the place to commit my energies to the cause. I knew in my heart that, if I was able to fashion a space where people could dream big and work together in a spirit of generosity, extraordinary things would happen. And they did. I would like to share aspects of this experience as a tribute to my friends and colleagues who offered their generous support throughout my tenure; and to the students who inspired me to give my best each day.
Any project that aspires to generate a systemic change will require the participation of an organized civil society. The Stanford Social Innovation Review refers to this as collective impact (broad cross-sector coordination and not just the isolated intervention of individual organizations). In imagining El Sistema for Oklahoma City, it was important to bring a variety of institutions and people in a symbiotic relationship. Two local institutions welcomed me as part of their ministry and academic staff. I received a full-time position at St. Luke’s UMC and an adjunct position at Oklahoma City University. The church and its moral credibility in the community were instrumental to cast a vision. The university and its record of academic excellence and service-thinking was the right vehicle to grow an initiative from a scholarly and research-based standpoint. Others joined us along the way. The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools as a facilitator of community-in-education affairs made it possible to reach out to many of my colleagues and stakeholders in the field. My good friend Jamie Bernstein, the daughter of the great American conductor, helped me introduce El Sistema to state-wide leaders in the arts during the first Music Transforms Symposium. The stage was set. A working group was ready to announce El Sistema Oklahoma as an after-school program to bring hope and social change to children through the collective practice of music. Over one hundred students and families would be invited to join the inaugural Children’s Orchestra. A structure would gradually be formed to multiply this program indefinitely.
After months of careful planning and organization, a flagship orchestral nucleo was launched early in September. Teachers on-site were chosen on the basis of artistic merit, their potential for professional growth, and ability to inspire and influence others to do good work (over 50 teachers applied for positions). It was also important that everyone grapple with the fact that there was nothing glamorous about this work. The work of education is complex and highly demanding. Helping to meet the needs of others is a mission that requires us to invest our industry in extraordinary ways and with a deep and almost spiritual commitment. When it came time to choose our students, we weren’t looking for those that the general population might deem as musically talented. We spoke to school principals about the importance of identifying students that they cared deeply about and wanted to see turnaround and blossom as successful students. Some other people asked, “How will you do it?” “How will you bring them up?” The answer—you believe passionately and wholeheartedly that your contribution can make a difference (and you empower others to believe the same). I am grateful that Mr. Springer, the now retired Superintendent of the Oklahoma City Public Schools district, rallied strongly behind the project and saw it working well as part of his own strategy to bring about much needed attention to urban schools (many of which have ongoing challenges due to poverty, language barriers, or cultural dissonance). The Abreuan idea that programs are meant to serve as a system to grow citizens and not just musicians resonated strongly with school and civic leaders in the city. I remember telling Heather Hope of News 9 that “we were not aspiring to produce virtuoso musicians but rather citizens of virtue, young people with a new confidence and tools to be able to succeed in life.” In order for this to happen, our mission of helping students “share the joy of music and grow as responsible citizens” needed to be embedded deep within our budding organization’s social action philosophy. “It has to be a learning and service organization,” I proposed. In other words, it had to act as a laboratory to help shape new habits of minds that would help responsible and caring adults articulate the ideal of believing in a new and blossoming youth that could achieve success no matter where they came from or what futures others assumed for them. I was very clear about this from the very beginning. This also had to reflect on the quality of their musical training and experience. El Sistema teaches us that culture for the poor should never be a poor culture.
Having worked with many orchestras throughout Venezuela, I knew the kinds of miraculous artistic feats that could be achieved. Naturally, I asked that we also aim very high—to the point that some of these visions were sometimes met with a friendly skepticism. Deep within the culture of El Sistema is the idea that in order for a social transformation to take place you must both nurture and expect extraordinary artistic results from all participants. The social change that we aspire to stimulate is directly proportional to the success that is being envisioned and achieved through a collective lens of music-making. I would tell our students every day that if you could learn a piece of music with all its intricacies and complexities then they could achieve anything life. Perseverance is one of the most valuable transferable skills one attains from the serious study of music—this alone might literally change or even save your life. For their first concert (at 12 weeks of regular instruction) the children’s orchestra was to play an ambitious arrangement of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It was generously provided by one of our Project 21 composers-in-residence, a university based group that will provide arrangements and original compositions for other El Sistema-inspired programs through their own publishing house. (Those compositions will also aid in the development of a scaffold system of teaching and learning where students will also be able to interpret as well as create music with the help of their teachers.)
Our program beneficiaries came from six inner-city elementary public schools representing students and families of a rich cultural diversity and socioeconomic backgrounds. I quickly realized that our orchestra would be emblematic of an inclusive community that could begin to see themselves reach higher and claim the admiration of their fellow citizens. What better vehicle to articulate and empower these voices than through the orchestra? Every student had an opportunity to try each instrument. Assignments were made according to personal affinities and through an assessment of potential success in particular instrument families. By the end of the first week, we were ready for our first rehearsal. The first note was not a pretty sound but it was exciting nonetheless. There was a spirit of transcendence and celebration in the air (now after each rehearsal, stand partners shake hands in recognition of each others’ work, it is their tradition). Surprisingly, the following Friday I had over fifty parents show up at the full orchestra rehearsal. Our students inadvertently told them that we would be hosting concerts at the end of every week! When it came time to for the real concert one parent came to me crying after seeing his son play. “I see him there, focused, smiling, and making these sounds, he makes me so proud.” That same parent later told me that he had lived in fear that his son would not be able to succeed because immigrant families still lack the opportunities that others might take for granted. Another parent pointed out that, unfortunately, urban public school children "don’t get a lot offered to them." Now the program is changing that and the experience of music is already helping create an ascending social dynamic. A student’s accomplishment in music can fill a home with much needed hope. Music also has the ability to strengthen family and interpersonal bonds. This was clear to me as grandparents, uncles, and cousins came with flowers to cheer upon their students at concerts or as one violin student hand-crafted an elaborate card to tell his teacher how much he appreciated her. In a few years time, research currently in progress will show that beyond achieving a musical proficiency superior to the norm, our students would have also achieved a proclivity towards discipline, kindness, truthfulness, and generosity as fundamentals of a moral and ethical life.
I was fortunate to see our teachers give so much of themselves to others. Every new lesson was an opportunity not just to teach something but to literally be present in the life of our students. Many went out of their way to prepare additional teaching materials, offer extra lessons, visit with parents, and even help students with homework or cope with an issue that needed mending. This communion and exchange from the heart brought our students a sense of value and recognition. Serving our children were also a group of dedicated volunteers from all walks of life. Some were retired educators, former businesspeople, and even military men. St. Luke’s church members helped serve a daily dinner; employees from local companies came to share their time; a Justice of state’s highest judicial court made sure that each chair in the orchestra was at the right place before I gave the first downbeat at each rehearsal (Judge Gurich would later tell me how much she enjoyed doing this. “It was an opportunity to witness people enjoying the best time of their life,” she expressed). To see these men and women contribute so much on a daily basis was incredibly humbling. The most remarkable thing for me to see was how they also benefited from the experience of being in service to others. They too found a place to belong; they formed a community of optimistic peoples, and found joy even in the simplest administrative tasks or logistical chores. I know that their example is going to pay huge dividends in the lives of our students. I fervently believe that positive role models are essential to building up success. Inspiration can work wonders.
As a leader, or even more importantly, as a teacher, one’s goal is to ultimately inspire towards the understanding and application of knowledge so that it might be used wisely to benefit others. Every Monday morning at the university, I taught a course on social action through music (the nation’s first undergraduate level course on the subject). In it we explored how public value might be fashioned through a sharing of the experiences inherent in art. Central to the discussion was the work of El Sistema and other related frameworks of action. In thinking about the elements of my course, the concept of cultural agent came to the forefront consistently. Throughout the semester, the idea of engaging in “an inter-face between academic learning and civic engagement” became a model for my students. I first learned about this idea through an encounter with a colleague at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. During my Fellowship year, our Boston-based cohort was invited to present to scholars at the center as part of a study group which explored the arts and humanities as a vehicle for social mobility and agency. In that same spirit, my students explored the role of composers as moderators of student creativity and the role of teaching artists in the classroom to effect transformational change. These were all practical assignments intended to engage and encourage their awareness as artists who could serve simultaneously as active participants and proponents of public affairs.
The idea of building up citizen artists merits a special mention and further elaboration. One of my favorite experiences was to be able to ask our program faculty members to share a story or two about successes in their everyday work. "What are you observing in your own classroom or domain that is changing or evolving? How can you articulate this in terms of moving towards achieving the mission which we are all part of?" Every Wednesday night as our faculty and staff gathered for dinner these anecdotes became our reason for being (and not yet being). We learned about what could be improved, who needed special attention, and where we should channel our energies in pursuit of our program’s goals. Beyond the practical pedagogy or even the operational structure of any El Sistema-inspired program, knowing and embodying your mission well is of utmost importance. Good work lives in authenticity. And it must always be focused on the mission—“the social mission of art,” as Maestro Abreu would contend.
Someone recently expressed to me that she couldn’t imagine the Oklahoma City program without me. What is important to know is that this community, even before I arrived, already had the necessary ingredients to build a world class program. My job was simply to encourage them all. The teachers of Oklahoma are extremely talented. The students are hungry to learn; many influential people already care deeply about their own community and are willing to invest resources and time. I think the key to building systems that work lies in communities finding a purpose to act boldly and the passion to work together to achieve more. With some many assets and talent available it would be immoral to let any student fall behind. Education is not the work of a few idealistic individuals, it is the responsibility of all people.
I am on lifetime mission to share the joy of music. I also believe that engaging in artistic endeavors is crucial to understanding the human condition and to help us rescue the truest essence of the beautiful and the good in life. Music is essential to grow people who are constantly striving and becoming. This is why I am hopeful for the future of my students in Oklahoma City. A seed was planted for them. I will always remember them as people of infinite promise. They were an extraordinary inspiration to me and the driving force behind my work. I am also grateful that this journey led me to meet and collaborate with so many wonderful educators, families, volunteers, church leaders, journalists, and public servants. Together we were able to create a model for the kind of support systems that our societies desperately need to grow a new generation of achievers. My heart is full of joy.