El Sistema Diary: Servant Leadership

Barrio Las Panelas, is one of Coro’s most perilous areas of town. We are told there is an implicit curfew, no one is to roam the streets alone after six. Jose Maiolino, El Sistema’s courageous founder and leader for the state of Falcon, has invited us to visit a nucleo there. It is based out of a humble home, an unassuming space, re-imagined for music.

As soon as the Fellows walked in, a group of thirty young musicians began playing a German Dance. It was a beautiful welcome. They played from memory, focusing and sculpting every note. At year one, their sound is characteristically El Sistema. The string players are following on a tradition of playing stemming all the way to Maestro Abreu’s own original concept of sound, I am told. A smaller, beginner equivalent of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela; they too have developed a keen sense of ownership and pride, in and through their playing. Isandra Campos, the nucleo’s founder is no stranger to El Sistema. Her daughter, Ana, is a member of the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the program’s flagship high-school level orchestra.

Their conductor, Gerardo Reyes, a trumpet player, is one of those directores brillantisimos planted across the country that Maestro Abreu often speaks about. A young music director: part musician, part social worker. And member of a larger group of musicians that grew up in the movement, and now charged with added responsibilities of sustaining and expanding El Sistema in Venezuela. It is not an easy job, yet amid dire working conditions, he leads from the heart. "We will soon be playing the Telemann Concerto with our own in-house violist." "In less than three years, we shall do Beethoven's Fifth," he says.

Because they lack music stands, his children play, literally, by heart. That is by no means a deterrent for learning. On the contrary, it is another reason not to give up on the dream of playing well together. To them music is always about joy and that same feeling is never dependent upon having enough material resources, but rather, built upon the idea that through music an entire community may see themselves blossom and become enraptured in a state of continual perseverance. Being, not being, as Maestro Abreu describes.

Gerardo knows that many of his children come from the poorest strata of society, many of them have never met their own parents. Because he is deeply committed to a mission of social rescue through music, there are no limits to what he can produce with the youngsters. “A nucleo is an engine for societal change,” says Teresa Hernandez, another brilliant maestra: a former politician, and trainer of conductors as artists and social changers for the national movement. “A children’s orchestra conductor does only conduct music, but rather actively constructs and models new paths for success.” “He listens intently; finds the balance between intonation and rhythm, corrects posture. In doing so, the conductor also helps introduce social values to catalyze new life trajectories; he makes students feel proud about themselves.” A conductor is part of the engine of El Sistema. He leads the pedagogical planning and acts as a fervient advocate for artistic excellence and social change. She must be, at all times, inside and outside the music: playing ambassador, organizing parent meetings, raising funds, and motivating students to succeed.

At Valle de la Pascua, Christian Leal, a seventeen-year-old percussionist in my rehearsals of Tchaikovsky played with an distinctive intensity and commitment to the score. In many ways, he also led the orchestra, with me. It was no surprise that later that week, I would hear him lead a sublime performance of merengues and joropos realized with utmost brilliance. His musicians: eight gifted instrumentalists with diverse and critical special needs. Christian is using his musical talent to conduct lives. El Sistema has propelled him to see himself responsible for the growth of his peers and the development of his own community-at-large.

At the main nucleo in Coro, just before my rehearsal of Beethoven and Wagner with the regional youth orchestra there, I found, tucked in a quiet corner of a courtyard, a group of very young instrumentalists playing recorders being led by a charismatic young girl. I approached her and asked, are you their teacher? "Yes, I am helping them learn their music,” she replied. I managed to pass-along to her some ideas for leading ensembles, and she quickly absorbed many of the concepts. She then began by counting off with confident aplomb, three-and-play! At ten-years-old she is a natural leader, it was a joy to see her teach and give so much to her own peers. In Barquisimeto, Chacin, the talented teenage concertmaster of the Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil Franco Medina, spends her free afternoons working at Santa Rosa, a brand new nucleo just outside of the city. She drills her young students in scales, arpeggios, and exercises leading to mastering the orchestra’s weekly repertoire of arrangements of pieces from the masters. She is an extraordinary musician and a role model. Because she grew up in El Sistema, she naturally knows how to embody and enact the mission to the core. And she enjoys teaching, it is an honor for advanced students to do so.

These stories give us a hopeful glimpse into the future of El Sistema. Seeing young musical leaders in action, expressing a profound love for music and the communities they serve, give us an opportunity to experience the mission well beyond the rhetoric and at its fullest potential. It is clear that El Sistema lives within a space of actionable compassion and transferable servant leadership. Giving young people an opportunity to lead is part of the secret to success. It also motivates them to grow and thrive both as musicians and citizens.

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