‘You’re part of something bigger’ – Venezuela’s El Sistema in the USA

Inspired by a Venezuelan music program, two community activists prepare to bring its benefits to Boston kids


Last year, somewhere in the mountains of Peru, pigs wandered outside an Internet cafe as Rebecca Levi sat at a terminal with an antiquated headset, listening to the speech that first prompted her to redirect her life.

David Malek was working at a community center in Los Angeles in 2007 when he stumbled onto a YouTube video of Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra performing a sizzling, incredibly joyful rendition of Bernstein’s “Mambo’’ — musicians dancing in their seats, twirling instruments in the air — at the Proms in London. It was both thrilling and perplexing, he recalled.

“I had never seen an orchestra — let alone ayouth orchestra — do anything like that,’’ he said. “And I thought to myself, ‘What the hell is happening in Venezuela?’ ’’

What was happening was, in short, El Sistema, the legendary music education program founded in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu, which uses musical immersion to buoy the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelan children. The most advanced students in the country play in the orchestra Malek saw on YouTube. And what Levi heard was a speech in which Abreu, accepting a major prize, called for art to be put “at the service of the weakest, at the service of the children.’’

Moved by what they had seen and heard, Malek and Levi sought out a new organization called El Sistema USA, based at New England Conservatory and dedicated to importing the principles of the Venezuelan program to this country. Last month, they graduated from the group’s one-year Abreu fellowship alongside eight others in the inaugural class.

Now Levi and Malek will remain in Boston to launch an El Sistema-inspired program at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton. Their stories are examples of the way the El Sistema phenomenon is creating what might be called an inspiration bump, for lifelong music educators like Mark Churchill, the director of El Sistema USA, and for a crop of new leaders like Levi and Malek, who are gearing up to start bringing the Venezuelan vision to cities across the United States.

Going rogue

Malek, 41, was born in San Antonio. He was trained as a classical musician, but has always harbored a bit of wanderlust. A clarinetist, he ventured into jazz, and performed with a range of groups, from the San Antonio Symphony to the United States Air Force Band. Still, the trappings of a traditional career in music never felt quite right.

“When I played with a professional orchestra it seemed so fractured, so distant from the community,’’ he said. “We would show up, put on our tuxedos, sit onstage next to someone we don’t really know that well. We’d play some music, but everything was removed. I found it unfulfilling.’’

He remembers something nagging his conscience one night in 2005, after playing a successful show with a big band. As he boarded the tour bus, he kept thinking about the poorer neighborhoods in cities where he’d played, places where the music he loved was rarely if ever heard. He called a friend in Los Angeles from the bus. “We need to get groups together and go rogue,’’ he remembers telling him. “We need to just go and play for these people, bring this light we have and shine it into the shadows.’’

A couple of years later, that same friend contacted Malek with news of a job at the Los Angeles EXPO Center, teaching music to kids from tough city neighborhoods. Malek jumped at the opportunity, but later realized he had just two hours a week to work with his fifth- and sixth-graders, which didn’t feel intensive enough.

That YouTube video was still in the back of his mind when Malek got an e-mail announcing the Abreu fellowship. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is my chance to find out what they’re actually doing in Venezuela.’ ’’

The call from Peru

Levi, 24, is originally from New York City. She sings and plays the piano and flute, but she studied literature at Yale and imagined that one day she might go into publishing. After graduating, she made her way to Peru, where she found a job in a home for abused children.

“I was supposed to be teaching English, but I found myself always teaching music,’’ she recalled. “It was very low-tech. We would listen to the rhythmic patterns of the rain or talk about the music in the mountains or go outside and sing with the dogs. I eventually decided I wanted to do something more music-centric that would still give me a lot of time with kids.’’

She had never heard of El Sistema, its founder Abreu, or its star graduate, the charismatic young conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Then that day in Peru, she clicked on a link that a friend had e-mailed. Up popped a video of Abreu delivering a speech after winning a TED Prize, awarded to global leaders in various fields who are granted “one wish to change the world.’’ He was outlining his vision of how immersion in music can create for a child “an affluence of the spirit,’’ ameliorating the worst effects of poverty. In the speech, he also called for a “new era of teaching music in which the social, communal, spiritual, and vindicatory aims of the child and adolescent become a beacon and a goal for a vast social mission.’’

When Levi returned to New York, she applied for the fellowship and met Churchill at her interview. His clarity of mind and the scale of his aspirations appealed instantly. “Mark said to me, ‘This is not a teacher training program. I want to empower a group of young people to start a movement.’ ’’ She said yes.

‘A kind of arrival’

For decades, Churchill ran NEC’s department of preparatory and continuing education and is now its dean emeritus. He got to know Abreu personally in the 1990s while working to create the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, and they are now very close. Abreu has something of a paternal relationship with Dudamel, his protégé, and a fraternal one with Churchill. Last winter, Abreu donated half of the $100,000 cash award from his TED Prize to support El Sistema USA and half to Dudamel’s Los Angeles Philharmonic, to support its own El Sistema-inspired youth music initiatives.

For Churchill, 60, who is also a cellist and conductor, engagement with the Venezuelan program feels like the culmination of many years spent thinking about the intersection of music and social justice. “As a freshman at NEC, we used to take these long walks through the night, struggling with the problem of elitism in classical music,’’ he recalled. “It seemed like an activity for the privileged few. Of course it was the 1960s and we were all wanting to save the world. So we wondered why we were pursuing a field like classical music, and a lot of people stopped pursuing it. I didn’t. I held out a hope that something like El Sistema could exist. I poked at it for years, and when I saw that it could exist and did exist, it was a kind of arrival. It seems like almost everything I’ve done has led up to this.’’

When Levi and Malek arrived in Boston last October, they quickly became immersed in a head-spinning curriculum, attending presentations on everything from classroom uses of world-music drumming to early-childhood education techniques and strategic planning for nonprofit organizations. Keeping everything on track was the program’s managing director, Stephanie Scherpf, an arts administrator who had founded a grassroots dance project in Mozambique and written a master’s thesis on the pedagogical uses of hip-hop.

After five months of classroom training, they were ready for a glimpse of the real thing. In February, they departed for Caracas.

Music and translation

On their first day in the country, the fellows had a meeting at the US Embassy, where they were told they had come to the most dangerous city in the Western hemisphere. Not long afterward, they were brought by van to an enormous state-of-the-art building in downtown Caracas called the Center for Social Action Through Music. It was their first meeting with Abreu, 71, a deeply religious man with a gift for translating big utopian ideas into concrete action. According to Churchill, Abreu addressed the group of young fellows with a sense of occasion, as if it were his first meeting with his own disciples. He talked about the early days of El Sistema, emphasized the importance of high artistic standards (“Culture for the poor cannot be poor culture!’’), and concluded the meeting by urging them to consider their work in the broadest possible terms.

“This could be the biggest marriage that we could have between the United States and Venezuela, as human beings that come together toward a spirit goal, and towards the good of the children,’’ he told them. “This could be a world miracle. We have had a few years of experience. We already have the people, so with you, we can multiply this by the millions, and really make an international Sistema.’’

For Levi, it was a powerful moment.

“When I met him,’’ she said, “I was expecting to meet someone extremely smart, and I knew he would say interesting things, but I was not anticipating his emotional intelligence. When he speaks to you, you feel at once he’s speaking to you as an individual, and to you as a representative of humankind. What that does is it brings you right into a relationship where you feel seen and appreciated because he’s listening to you. But you also feel like you’re part of something bigger. It was my first understanding of real global community. Even now, at any moment when I’m feeling tired or frustrated, I think back to that inspiring meeting.’’

After a brief orientation in Caracas, the fellows went out in small groups to various music centers or “nucleos’’ across the country. They met with teachers and administrators, students and parents. They witnessed the “paper orchestras’’ of El Sistema, in which young children make their first instruments out of papier-mâché, together with their families, and learn to treat them with respect.

Levi and Malek went to a nucleo in the city of Barquisimeto, where Dudamel got his start and also where El Sistema’s special-needs curriculum was developed. The nucleo prints music scores in Braille for blind students who memorize them and then play in the orchestra alongside children with no special needs. “That part of the program blew me away,’’ said Malek, “seeing the way all the kids are integrated together. There’s a certain empathy in that place that is palpable.’’

Malek does not speak much Spanish, which made for a few hairy moments early on. One nucleo director in the city of Maracay, upon learning that Malek was a professional clarinetist, said he would have every clarinetist in the state brought at once so that Malek could give them lessons. Malek said he blanched at the news, but everything worked out fine with a bit of pantomime and eventual help from a translator.

Levi’s Spanish was impressively fluent from her two years in Peru, and by the end of her stay, she was even mastering the Venezuelan accent. In one Caracas nucleo, she stood up with another fellow, Lorrie Heagy, in front of a chorus of 80 boisterous pre-teens and taught them a catchy, zigzagging song and dance. The kids responded instantly, thrusting their hands in the air with answers to her questions. A seasoned Venezuelan choral teacher stood off to the side. She was filming the scene on her cellphone.

An orchestra grows in Brighton

Before they left for Venezuela, many of the Abreu fellows began fielding queries from US-based community programs interested in hiring them. Levi and Malek met with Diana Lam, executive director of the Conservatory Lab Charter School, which is located in Brighton but has students from Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, Hyde Park, and most other Boston neighborhoods. Lam already knew all about El Sistema and was eager to incorporate its principles into her school’s curriculum. She and her board approached foundations and private donors, many of whom also knew about the Venezuelan program and were willing to help fund an ambitious plan to reinvent the school’s music program.

Previously, all students had been taught the violin, receiving 30 minutes of group instruction twice a week. Next year, the school will expand its day by an hour and a half, five days a week, in order to carve out a three-hour time block every afternoon for El Sistema-modeled training of two full student orchestras. In addition to Levi and Malek, it will hire 14 “resident musicians’’ as part-time instructors to teach an array of orchestral instruments.

“We will be the only elementary school in the country that will have an El Sistema nucleo right within the school day,’’ said Lam proudly. “I think that it will help us to maintain a haven of safety and joy that builds total self-esteem and a sense of value.’’

When Levi and Malek put out word that they were looking to hire instructors for the new program, they were amazed by the level of interest. “There’s now this aura around El Sistema,’’ said Malek, “such that musicians and young people just gravitate towards it and want to be a part of it. We interviewed teachers from morning to night for an entire week.’’

Since they graduated from the program, the other eight Abreu fellows have been fanning out across the country to begin their work in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Durham, N.C. Despite all the excitement, most of the Abreu fellows said they expected to confront many challenges in translating the Venezuelan mission to an American context. Here, arts-education champions are often asked to justify their approach with the hard evidence of improved academic test scores. Levi said she also wonders about translating El Sistema’s process-oriented approach to our fast-paced culture. Other fellows acknowledged that intensive immersion in classical music from a young age may at first feel countercultural in American inner-city neighborhoods. Most said they were willing to begin their programs on a very small scale if that would help them preserve the integrity of their approach.

“Music is creating the good stuff,’’ Levi said simply. “We don’t need to frame music within something else to make it seem relevant or put it next to something else to make it seem fun. It’s in the doing. We truly believe that if we can communicate that — to students, teachers, administrators, parents — we will succeed in getting people on board with this vision.

“There will be times,’’ she continued, “when we’re all at a loss and in a difficult position. But El Sistema in Venezuela had that, too. Before I went there, I knew intellectually that this made sense, but I didn’t believe it enough. Now, I know this is the right way to go.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at [email protected].