Atlanta Music Project: A Dream Realized

I remember the day I first learned of El Sistema.

It was during a normal meeting of music teachers in D.C. when Ben Hall (Director of Music for D.C. Public Schools) mentioned an amazing music program in Venezuela that was taking the world by storm. He told us how this system of Venezuelan youth orchestras and choirs was achieving social change through musical excellence – and I was immediately sold on the idea! Fast forward to Fall 2010, which found me still teaching music in public schools, but this time just outside of Atlanta, GA. Imagine my delight when I received an email announcing the need for a choir Director (interest peaked)…for a new music program in Southwest Atlanta…(eyebrows raised)…that uses music as a tool for social justice…(now on the edge of my seat)…and is modeled after Venezuela’s “El Sistema“! Ding! Ding! Ding! We’ve got a winner! I could hardly control my fingers as they flew over the keys typing a reply! I would have never guessed that sending that email would bring me to where I am now.

2011-2012 Abreu Fellows

As you can imagine, serving as Choral Teaching Artist for the Atlanta Music Project was an experience comparable to none. I was drawn in by all aspects of the program. I found the leadership of Executive Director, Dantes Rameau, to be refreshing and inspiring. He set clear, high expectations but gave me creative control in which to meet them. I belonged to a group of Teaching Artists that worked as a team from Day One. Our students were zealous learners and our parents supported the program fully. My experience there reignited my dream of communities being transformed through music. Check out videos of our very first concert as a performing ensemble.

It is because of Dantes Rameau and AMP that I am an Abreu Fellow today. How appropriate that my fourth and final week of our Fall Internship be spent here in Atlanta where it all began! I’ve already had a great time shadowing Dantes. It was a proud moment for me when AMP was represented at Monday’s Board Meeting of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Dantes spoke and AMP 4th grader, Chantania spoke and performed. She was such a little lady! I worked with Chantania in Choir last year and let me tell you, her talents are not restricted to violin!

Chantania represents AMP at the ASO Board Meeting

She is just one of many extraordinarily gifted students that visit the Gilbert House and Coan Recreational Center every day. From our “seasoned” students, to beginners on xylophone, I am proud of the work I see here in Atlanta. Thank you for reading! Follow me as I follow the music :)

Abreu Fellows Spread Their Wings

What a whirlwind! After weeks and weeks of discussions, workshops and seemingly endless days together – the Abreu Fellows have parted ways to see El Sistema in action. We have been given four weeks to conduct research and get hands on training in existing U.S. programs.

I can’t tell you how excited I was to plan my internship. Devote four weeks of my life to visiting programs and working with their children? Don’t mind if I do! I began in a city dear to my heart – Baltimore, MD. I spent two weeks going between Baltimore and Washington,DC (my home away from home). In Baltimore I interned with Dan Trahey of OrchKids (an initiative of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) and in DC I met with various organizations that support arts education. For the first week, I traveled with Abreu Fellows Jennifer Kessler and Jose Luis Hernandez – what a team we were!

My time in Baltimore was full of activity. This year, OrchKids will serve FOUR sites and we visited each one! The first site – Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School, is where we spent most of our time. I was touched by the level of commitment the students, parents and staff showed to this program. OrchKids is truly uplifting community in West Baltimore! I was also thrilled to work as a clarinet teacher and guest conductor for the choir. Directing the younger choir brought me special joy as I really miss teaching little ones!

For week 3 I ventured to Philadelphia,PA – home of Stanford Thompson’s program, Play, On Philly! What a treat! My first day was spent on a field trip to Temple University for TedX Philly. Stanford spoke about his program and the Play On Philly! Orchestra performed. They received a standing ovation and rightfully so! The next few days were spent in meetings and rehearsals. Again, I was honored to work with the choral group as they prepared for a holiday program. Way to go, Stan!

From my 3 weeks in the field, I have learned that our programs may seem different from each other at first glance, but that they all possess attributes that make them distinctly El Sistema. These attributes – community building, musical excellence, high expectations, peer teaching, joyous music making, frequent performances – are found throughout the US in our programs. I look forward to visiting many more programs this year as I gain knowledge on what El Sistema looks like at home and abroad!

Stay tuned for updates from my last week of internship – the Atlanta Music Project. That’s right! I saved the best for last :)

Bits and Pieces of Our Journey – New York City!!!

On October 6, 2011, the Abreu Fellows made their first overnight trip together – and what better place to venture than the Big Apple! We had a wonderful time – presenting at the Change Influencers Conference and spending time with friends of the field. And we received a special invitation from the Saatchi & Saatchi! , along with the New York Times and the British Council, to present at “Change,” as part of the Influencer Conference which took place simultaneously in Berlin, London, and New York. “Change” is dedicated to empower creative Influencers who leverage their own specific expertise to make an unmediated impact to better the world  and to collaborate with influencers from other domains to accelerate this process.This conference afforded me the opportunity to speak publicly – a skill I am developing as an Abreu Fellow! Here we are explaining what El Sistema is…enjoy the clip of my very talented children of Atlanta Music Project at the beginning of the speech!

Later that evening we had a lovely time with the one and only Jamie Bernstein

El Sistema through the Eyes of the Talented Tenth

And we’re off! The Abreu Fellows Program has gotten off to a dynamic start! We have had almost two months of fun filled learning in Boston and our knowledge of El Sistema is expanding rapidly. There are four main components of El Sistema that we often highlight in presentations: fun, excellence, performance and community building, so I will use them to share with you what life is like as an Abreu Fellow!

Fun!
Oh the fun we have as Abreu Fellows! Our days are filled with mind blowing seminars and conversations on El Sistema – what it is, what it looks like in the US, what contributions we will make to the field, etc. Our nights are filled with food, fellowship and yes, more great conversations. We spend an insane amount of time together, but we love every second of it!

Excellence!
A standard of excellence is the order of the day with the Fellows. Sessions are led by the brightest minds our country has to offer and the fellows themselves are simply amazing! It is comforting to know that together we have the power to bring great social change to our country through music. W.E. B DuBois wrote of the “Talented Tenth” of society to lead the people through education and social change.
The leaders of El Sistema are a Talented Tenth of sorts and I am proud to join in their efforts. Who knows where it will take me…

Performance!
My favorite part of being a Fellow is having the opportunity to visit and teach various ensembles in the area. The Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton is doing great things and I was honored to recently assist in preparing their choir for an upcoming performance. I can’t wait to go back and see how they’re doing!

Community Building!
As I learn more about El Sistema, I see it as less of a program or organization, but more of a family. Those of you that know me know that I love being adopted into new families! But this family is not exclusive to musicians or die-hard art enthusiasts. After all, implementing social change means bringing along the masses.
Here we are at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, introducing the future policy makers of America to El Sistema and the power of creative thinking. We thought, what better way to present El Sistema to these students than to have them actually experience the joy of ensemble. I was delighted to direct the class/choir in singing partner songs. It took some creativity on our part as well – room not big enough? No problem – move to the atrium! Can’t see the group you’re directing? No problem – stand in a chair! Working with non-musicians? No problem – meet them where they are! I’m a choir director that believes in equal opportunity! It turned out to be a beautiful evening. Special love to the inspiration behind this presentation – Lorrie Heagy

Creating music for social change

When I was six years old, I joined my first choir. I marched into choir rehearsal as a skinny little girl with a big mouth (that part hasn’t changed much) and belted out every tune with all my heart. If you have ever seen the opening scene of What’s Love Got to Do With It, then you have an idea of the level of enthusiasm I displayed on that evening. Thankfully, our Choir Director did not throw me out, but instead had me sit next to her at the piano and sing my part there for a while. At that moment I realized that 1) I must have been singing pretty loud for her to stop the rehearsal and 2)although I really loved sitting and singing with the choir, her seat seemed even better! From that point on, my love for choirs – singing in them and especially directing them – grew and continues to grow.

Working with children within and outside of the public school system as an adult, I truly loved making music with them. We made beautiful music. We studied well, we practiced hard, we put on performances of a lifetime – we had some really good times. In addition to that, I had the pleasure of working alongside some of the hardest working and most amazingly talented music educators ever born. People that created masterpieces with little rehearsal time, fluctuating membership and uncertain support from administrators, families and community. These people simply made it happen…every single time.

This year of my life I dedicate to that effort. I dedicate it to those unsung heroes whose undying passion drives them to fight for quality music education and the children that make it all worthwhile. I also dedicate this year to the future of music education and youth ensembles in America. And I dedicate it to my former and future students – from those who showed up in rehearsal because they wanted to try something new, to those who have stated that they too want to be a choir director. This year I will study the art of creating music for social change – through the lens of a program that exists to do just that.

I am in Boston because of a program called “El Sistema”. To some it is a social movement, to others it is a music education program. It is primarily Venezuela’s nationwide system of youth orchestras and choirs, which has grown from 11 children in a parking garage in 1975 to serving over one million children throughout the nation. El Sistema is a wonder to music educators worldwide – a beacon of hope and an example of what we could do if we (teachers, students and community) were to join together in working towards the same goal.  One feature that distinguishes the Venezuelans is that they are intentional about not just teaching music, but also changing the life trajectory of their youth through ensemble playing- and they succeed! Doing music for social change is impressive enough, but what blows people’s minds about this program is the quality of musicianship. Those children, some in small villages lacking the latest in music education technology, perform in a way that makes your hair stand on end.  These kids can PLAY! 

Three years ago, the founder of El Sistema, Jose Abreu won a TED grant.  His wish to change the world was to create and document a special training program for gifted musicians that were passionate about both their art and social justice. The program, housed at New England Conservatory, cultivates these musicians into leaders of the El Sistema movement here in the United States. They are exposed to pedagogy, non-profit management and the magic behind El Sistema. There are only ten Fellows selected each year and I am very fortunate to have been chosen.

This fellowship is more than a dream come true – it is my destiny.  From singing like little Tina Turner in that first rehearsal, to directing my first choir, then student teaching, volunteering with area choruses and teaching full time – everything I have ever done in my life has prepared me for this moment.

And on that note, my friend, consider us formally introduced. My name is Aisha. I love music, children and the two combined. I believe music ensembles allow us to create something greater than ourselves and I’m here to promote that cause. I believe I will have once in a lifetime experiences this year, and I would love for you to enjoy those moments with me. With that said – don’t be a stranger :)

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