Monday, November 1, 2010

Elevator Pitch Thoughts

The ability to present the key points of an idea inside of 60 seconds basically depends on the idea itself.

When the idea is an entire organization concept that has inspired nucleos serving hundred of thousands of children (if not millions when you open up the numbers to non-Venezuelan El Sistema inspired programs)... The task seems somewhat impossible.

At the same time, I've found that an equally valuable skill is instantaneously and continuously evaluating the audience's face (or faces). Reading their poker face if you will. How did their expression change when certain words were spoken? Do those words have any underlying implications? Could you see something light up in their eyes when you talked about children, or under-served populations, or community empowerment, or orchestral music, or free? Was there ANY response at all?

The truth of the matter is that El Sistema encompasses so many powerful elements that I have met VERY few people who don't seemed enticed by at least ONE aspect of the program.

While I believe reducing El Sistema to it's core elements is incredibly important for starting an organization, I am finding it equally valuable to always be aware of the real time adjustments that may need to be made to cater to the audiences' interests.

The fact that there is no prior preparation to speak to a random person you meet on the street, at an airport, at the market, or an elevator makes this "blink" experience all the more valuable.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Free Flowing Thoughts from Week 4

I always feel answering questions is tougher than asking pertinent questions, because most of the time there are several answers that could be "correct." When I was younger I used to believe the world was very clear in terms of right and wrong, black and white, but I've felt myself transitioning to the concept that the world is not black and white - it's filled with vibrant varying shades of gray.

This program is essentially helping us prepare for the task of changing the world with complex orchestral (or large ensemble) music. But in so preparing us for this insurmountable task, so many questions arise...

So what tools will we really need to embark on this journey? Is there only one way? Are there a set of tools/methods that can be applied? What kind of scale and scope should be applied? What would be the best initial target populations? What factors are there to consider for the target populations? Are there comparable programs existing that have the aforementioned goal in mind? Where would can the target population be found? How much planning can be done for all of the variables that could throw a wrench in the wheel? Where will the funding come from? How will an organization like this be viewed by the community and/or existing organizations? What resources are currently available? What other organizations could also be vested in a program like this? What pedagogical techniques will be the most effective for working with this target population?

All these questions are important, and all of which are incredibly difficult to answer. But as the saying goes, "A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step." (Side story: This was actually a quote on the wall of my 5th grade class, which was ultimately given to me at the end of that academic year, because my teacher thought I had made huge progress with my overall attention span and focus. Case in point? Side stories.)

So which direction should that first step be in?

Much like in the style of Socrates, I feel the best answer is found by responding with more questions. Unlike Socrates, I will be writing these questions myself, as opposed to having Plato do it for me.

If we take a step back to grade school and what we learned about learning how to do critical reading and the "5 W's," i.e., who, what, when, where, why, I think we might be able to start this journey much more effectively, despite the fact that each of these questions are screaming with follow up questions.
- Who are you targeting?
- What are you trying to provide/do?
- When do you want this to start? When will these services occur and how often?
- Where is the target market and where will you provide these services?
- Why are you forming this organization to work provide these services to this target population?

For people who are involved with this overall El Sistema movement in the U.S.A., I think we all generally feel confident about addressing the why aspect of this question set. (Which is somewhat ironic considering that is traditionally the most difficult question to answer). Conversely, I am having a much more difficult time actually selecting where and who. The potential of an El Sistema program is immense, and I find myself looking at every group from the fringes of society as a population that could be significantly transformed. Foster children. Juvenile delinquents. Prisoners to be released from penitentiary. Deaf and hard of hearing. Blind. People living in townships. Autistic. Inner city children. Rural children. De facto segregated communities. etc. The list in my mind just gets longer and longer.

Bearing in mind the statistics regarding the success rate of start-ups and new programs (along the lines of 80% failure rate for entrepreneur programs), I simultaneously don't want to create a program that will not be capable of having a sustainable long term developmental effect on a community.

And on that note, I will let these thoughts simmer, and should probably get some rest.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Eager to apply and be in action

The past two weeks of the Abreu Fellowship have been incredibly busy, between bringing in some amazing speakers, think tanking over important issues facing this movement, trying to integrate with the community at NEC, starting at our community placements, and trying to squeeze practice and/or sleep whenever we possibly can.

That being said - There have been so many wonderful ideas and concepts presented to us, that it leaves me feeling mentally paralyzed by the daunting task in front all us.

However, there have been some amazing stress relief periods where we have been able to apply some of the concepts we have learned on a local level (at our community placements), as a "conceptual task force" to address issues presented by a hypothetical situation and/or an organization looking to start a nucleo, and having the opportunity to play chamber music with the other fellows. The therapeutic stress release I feel from actually working with kids, applying the concepts, and playing music with the other fellows has reminded me of the personal balance of time distribution I need to maintain to stay sane.

We've been doing wonderful theoretical work and research. I think I'm just eager to start applying these concepts. I'm really looking forward to visiting Dan Trahey's OrchKids in Baltimore in a few weeks!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What is El Sistema?

During professional development training sessions hosted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Education, we were once posed the question, "Why do we teach classical music to our youth? What do they take away from the experience?" Although there were many great answers that arose out of this discussion, two specifically stuck out in my mind (bear in mind this my understanding of the discussion, i.e., not explicit statements held by the LA Philharmonic Education office):
1. We are trying to provide students with the cognitive and verbal ability to decipher audible information that is incredibly complex.
2. There are many "correct" answers, and it is not possible to fully verbalize what art is encompassing, e.g., "a picture contains a thousand words"
If these two statements are combined, we were essentially saying, "We are trying to develop cognitive and verbal skills to understand and describe something that will never be fully described or understood." Despite the fact that these two ideas seem to be conflicting, we cannot ignore the profound cognitive development that occurs when we literally try to achieve the impossible. This understanding-the-incomprehensible paradox becomes incredibly apparent when discussions occur about El Sistema: We can break down some of the elements of this program, but will find it nearly impossible to fully encompass everything this program accomplishes. Nevertheless, I will present my current understanding of what El Sistema is, with an addendum that my understanding is apt to change with time.

Jose Antonio Abreu has created a program that focuses on social change, i.e., community empowerment. Dr. Abreu has openly acknowledged that ANY after school program could transform a community, especially given the state of Caracas in 1975. However, El Sistema is unique from most programs we know because it implements an orchestra, as opposed to individual lessons/individual tutoring/team sports, to elicit this change. The reasoning for using an orchestra becomes very clear if you consider Dr. Abreu's description of an orchestra: "An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement." He is literally transforming a community by creating a orchestral community. Now many this is where many team sport advocates may digress, because surely that's what a sports team does as well. This is true. However, sports teams are in direct contention with other competitors, whereupon there will ultimately be a trying time for the morale of a losing team. This concept Dr. Abreu presents is an orchestra whose success is based purely off whether or not it is agreeing internally. The ultimate result is the transformation of the participant's self-confidence, the shared pride of families and friends, and an entire community that has come together to celebrate the success of this orchestra.

This core value of social transformation and community empowerment is exemplified by each nucleo engaging a broad range of participants, and achieving a high level of performance. These nucleos are all-inclusive, maintaining participants from every socioeconomic background (primarily less affluent), physically able or physically disabled, and even people who have criminal records. Once again, this in and of itself is not what drives the community empowerment. The orchestra, striving to agree with itself, brings these participants together to form a harmonious community that rehearses and performs at a very high level, which empowers a community by celebrating success. Truthfully, this concept could be applied to any "normal" population as well, BUT there wouldn't have been a dramatic shift in the community dynamics. El Sistema takes the fringes of societal norms and brings them into the societal norm.

This community transformation clearly happens on the local level, but is simultaneously being catalyzed by connecting with other nucleos on a national scale. Any child that has opportunity to be connected with a national, highly publicized, highly celebrated movement will inarguable be elevated to higher levels of potential; let alone a poor deaf/physically disabled/incarcerated individual.

Emma Lazarus's sonnet, New Colossus, once embodied the American dream with the phrase, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me." This American dream represented by the Statue of Liberty is being fully embodied by the El Sistema program Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu has sustained for the last 35 years.