El Sistema in LA, Part II: Professional Development
“We are not robots,” declared Susan Siman, whom I described in Part I of this piece as the guest conductor and teacher visiting Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) from Venezuela’s ground-breaking network of youth orchestras, known as El Sistema.
She continued: "Put your heart into it more. Where is the passion? Where is the heart? Make me cry! Very good, violins. Much better. But it could be even better. I know you would know the part if I asked you to play one-by-one. The hard thing is to play together. Make Los Angeles tremble. Eat a light breakfast the day of the Hollywood Bowl concert. If you have a heavy breakfast you could get nervous and [gestures throwing up]. Don’t look at Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in the front row. Look at the conductor. Have your part learned by memory. Enjoy every moment."
Senora Siman’s jovial fire, her demand for excellence, artistry and pride, her humor and pragmatic advice all exhibit themselves in her erstwhile student, Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Designate Gustavo Dudamel, whom I first saw at work with Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra in the 2008 German documentary, “The Promise of Music.”
While a conducting talent as prodigious as Mr. Dudamel’s hails from the musical gods, his teaching methodology results from a system of professional development that El Sistema’s mastermind, Jose Antonio Abreu, and his legions of teachers around Venezuela, have refined since 1975.
Today – thanks to Maestro Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic – some of our city’s most disadvantaged students benefit from this vibrant brand of artistic instruction. The children, however, are not the only ones who benefit. So do young teaching artists, like the talented classical, rock and hip-hop violinist who currently serves as the Harmony Project’s Program Manager for the South L.A. Expo Center Program – Paloma Udovic, whom I also mentioned in Part I of this post. Extraordinarily well-trained and accomplished musicians in their own rights, Ms. Udovic and her colleague Bruce Kiesling, Conductor for Orchestras at the Expo Center, support and serve as Spanish-English interpreters for visiting artists like Senora Siman. Undoubtedly, they absorb a powerfully motivating teaching style.
However, this style does not propagate by osmosis alone. The LA Phil holds workshops for teachers that model El Sistema’s methods, “unpack[ing its concepts and ideas,” as Gretchen Nielsen, the Philharmonic’s Director of Education Initiatives, said to me last Saturday. Ms. Nielsen then used an endangered word: “ideals.” The system’s ideals can be characterized as:
1. Intensity of Instruction – It is better to learn quickly and consistently, in order to engage and sustain attention and cultivate practice habits.
2. Joy – Engagement before information.
3. Community – Learning in groups
A third and very exciting tier of professional development that the LA Phil has undertaken involves the Dudamel Fellowship Program, beginning in this, the 2009-10 season. Handpicked by Maestro Dudamel himself, four brilliant, young conductors from around the world – two of whom must always come from El Sistema – arrive for respective 6-week stints.
Each fellow not only observes Dudamel and other conductors, but also serves as a cover (or understudy) conductor for the Philharmonic, and a mentor for education programs, including YOLA. Dudamel’s conducting protégés also conduct the Philharmonic’s “youth concerts” (concerts for, not by, the youth). A delightful side note: YOLA learns at least one piece the Philharmonic plays in its youth concert repertoire, so that when children attend a concert, they already have what Ms. Nielsen calls “ownership of the music.”
This year’s Dudamel fellows are David Afkham of Germany; Diego Mathuez of Venezuela; Perry So, originally from Hong Kong; and Christian Vasquez, also of Venezuela.
Thus, El Sistema commences its journey around the world.