Saturday, April 24, 2010

Caracas: Centro de Acción Social por la Música

The Caracas Centro de Acción Social por la Música is the first of what will be seven nation-wide centers in Venezuela.   The Centro ("la sede" as they call it) doesn't house a program per se, but you can say is the headquarters for most of the larger ensembles and the venue for several events, like seminarios, master-classes, courses and concerts.   Although the first phase of the complex has not been yet officially open, the center is almost at full use.    There we had the opportunity to attend concerts, open rehearsals and private presentations by some of the top ensembles in Caracas:  The Simón Bolivar "A" (Senior) Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel, Simón Bolivar "B" (Youth) Orchestra under Claudio Abbado, Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, Caracas Youth Orchestra, the Caracas Youth Choir and the Caracas Children's Choir. 

You can say that the center is becoming the "open source" hub for the exchange of information and knowledge for whoever lives in or comes to Caracas.  That is actually one of the roles of a núcleo, in general, but at the center, all the top of the line resources must be in place:   technology, state of the art acoustics,  practice rooms, rehearsal and concert halls that are adequate to the complex social and artistic mission of El Sistema ("Culture for the poor should not be poor culture" –José Antonio Abreu).

During our visit, world renowned clarinetist Luis Rossi was giving a series of master classes.   This was part of what the call in Venezuela the "academies".  All advanced and/or promising musicians, of any age, are accepted to be part of their instrument's academy.  This gives these musicians from all over the country an opportunity to participate in periodical master-classes with the top teachers in Venezuela, and also with visiting artists and teachers, such as Mr. Rossi.  But to me what's most important, is that the academies are another way in which musicians from all over the country, from different levels and ages –all clarinetists in this case– have a chance to meet and catch up with each other's news, ideas, progress and challenges, all while playing music together or to each other. 

Not all the instruments have an academy yet (the percussionists are working on it, for instance, and there seems to be some new initiatives for the violas), but the model has been set and proven successful.  The idea of connections happening at all levels and all directions won't happen spontaneously (And I will be repeating this a lot).  In Venezuela, Maestro Abreu has developed the basic framework for this connections to happen:  Núcleos are the basic form: they are always open to new students, new teachers and guests form all places, ages, educational, economic and social situations.  But also simpler forms of "connectors" like the módulos and now, more sofisticated venues like the 7 centers follow the same openness and exchange principle.  Seminarios (camps), tours, and academies could be called "event-based connectors".

FESNOJIV is in the last stages of the competition for the expansion of the current Centro de Acción Social por la Música building.   The idea is to have more practice and rehearsal rooms.   Also in the works, is the selection of the designs for the other 6 centers in Venezuela.   Rumor has it that a celebrated American architect, who's now buddies with Gustavo Dudamel is going to design the center at Gustavo's home town, Barquisimeto.

But, what is significant is the amount of high quality information and knowledge exchange the connections within a center will provide.  If so far, núcleos and módulos that in most cases function in inadequate venues have produced a 35 year long music program as El Sistema, just imagine the big push (artistically and socially) that 7 new state of the art centers will give to it.  If you think (like we usually hear) "but we have good state of the art venues, that's no news",  I'd say "think open sources".  Connect, share, include.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Venezuelan Residency: Núcleos and Módulos visited

Here's a bulleted list of the núcleos and módulos I visited during our Abreu Fellows program residency in Venezuela.   I was going to name this post "Programs visited", but it wouldn't be accurate, since there are different programs within each núcleo.  Some include special needs programs, some include folk music programs, for instance.  Other programs, like the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, or the National Children's Orchestra are not part of a specific núcleo, but I'll post about them as well.

I'll blog about each of them in the coming postings.  Please stay tuned.


Miranda State
  • Núcleo Guatire-Guarenas
Guárico State
  • Núcleo Calabozo/Antonio Estévez
    • (Módulo in formation)
  • Núcleo Calabozo/Raimundo Pereira
    • Módulo Escuela Estados Unidos de América
  • Núcleo Camaguán
  • Núcleo Valle de la Pascua
    • Módulo Arturo Álvarez Alayón
    • Módulo Los Caobos
    • Módulo Los Cerritos II
  • Conservatorio de Calabozo
Anzóategui State
  • Núcleo Puerto de la Cruz
  • Núcleo Aragua de Barcelona
  • Núcleo Santa Ana
  • Núcleo Lechería
  • Núcleo El Tigre
  • Núcleo Cantaura
  • Núcleo Anaco
Lara State
  • Núcleo Barquisimeto
Falcón State
  • Núcleo Conservatorio Santa Ana de Coro
    • Módulo Los Panelos

Sunday, April 04, 2010

What is a núcleo? The Guárico State case.

Background. Early on in the Venezuelan orchestra movement, new centers all over the country started replicating the ideas and philosophy of José Antonio Abreu.  However, larger decisions and funding management still happened in Caracas.   In order to alleviate the amount of bureaucracy concentrated in Caracas, FESNOJIV encouraged the creation of State núcleos, each with their autonomous foundation. This facilitates many decisions to be taken locally and, most important, that each state núcleo can raise extra funds and grow faster without having to rely exclusively on Caracas (FESNOJIV still secures payment for all human resources).

However, at the end there is also regional centralization when new programs in smaller towns need to rely on the decisions made in their state capital. Funding is still channeled through the state foundation. The state leadership also assigns human resources, so the few teachers available can only go visit the programs outside the capital every now and then. Under this organization, those new dependent centers were sometimes called módulos (modules).   So, for instance, the town of ABC’s program would have been called the ABC Módulo of the Núcleo Estado XYZ.

Guárico State’s Structure in a nutshell. In recent years, Guárico State has been experiencing positive changes in leadership which has allowed innovation.   The first thing to notice is that each town in Guárico has an autonomous núcleo (the town of Calabozo has two), which means that they have, or are moving towards having, its own foundation or other type of incorporation.  The Guárico State Children and Youth Symphony Orchestra Foundation (FOSIJEG), led by conductor Jesús Morín (who is in his late 20s), is now the main institution that coordinates all Guárico State núcleos’ activities and oversees the state-wide human resources distribution, coordinates state-wide professional development programs, state-wide seminarios (camps), etc. They also oversee the creation of new programs across the state.  Guárico also has one of the 3 extensions of the Caracas’ Simón Bolivar Conservatory that have been established so far.

Núcleos in Guárico.  Up to the spring of 2010, Guárico State has 10 núcleos (3 of them in the process of acquiring legal incorporation as foundations, so for the time being they depend solely on FOSIJEG).  Each núcleo’s human resources are paid by FESNOJIV, and some funds are raised for all núcleos by FOSIJEG, and some funds are raised locally by each núcleo. Therefore, the role of FOSIJEG in relation to the núcleos is reduced to making sure that each núcleos’ resources are used to their best by avoiding overlaps in programming and human resources.

During our visit to Guárico State, I had the chance to attend a meeting with all the state’s núcleo directors to decide on the instruments (types, brands, quantities, etc.) to buy on the next big purchase from a grant coordinated by Morín’s team.  His leadership style during that meeting is a reflection of the progressive organization that makes Guárico stand out as a model for other states to follow.

Módulos in Guárico.  In Guárico, the notion of the núcleo extension was not ruled out at all.   Núcleos can still create módulos in nearby (sometimes not so close) neighborhoods or villages.  They usually target communities in need, or simply communities that have expressed their interest and commitment in having a music program.  Núcleos go out of their ways to provide human resources and create ad hoc programs with any resources available to create this new módulos, as long as the community offers commitment and encourages their children to participate. 

There are 23 módulos in Guárico (1-6 módulos in the núcleos that have them). A teacher in the town of Calabozo told me that for them, the módulos are a way to be closer to the community.  She thinks that FESNOJIV sees this also as a way to recruit and engage more children into joining the orchestras and choirs.  Regularly, the idea was to make use of the schools buildings (or other venues) on after-school schedules.  However, in some cases, the schools were eager to incorporate the módulo music program into the school’s schedule.

More to come on the Guárico State módulos.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On planning, repertoire and curriculum in El Sistema

One more generalization that I had been a bit uncomfortable with is the idea of curriculum.  Before coming here, I felt that in applying the idea of an El Sistema curriculum and a pre-designed repertoire list in the US would be like admiring the beautiful freedom of a bird and then starting to look for a golden cage to capture that freedom at home.

In the past weeks in Venezuela, I found I was not that lost in my idealism.  The word for curriculum (pensum) has come up just a couple of times in conversations, but I have heard a lot of "academic planning".  It makes sense.  In planning, the focus is on the larger goal. A curriculum gets easily caught in the procedures and the rules.

Here in Venezuela, academic planning starts in the local núcleos, then at a regional level, and then at a national level (I'll write more about organizational structures later).  Each local núcleo can create their own strategies to reach the common goal.  And everyone can assess if any particular strategy is working or not, and if not, it can be easily fixed of substituted by a strategy that has proven successful elsewhere.

In the case of the repertoire that El Sistema has been famous for, it turns out that there is no manual, mandate or official list of repertoire.   It gets determined on a local level, and local núcleo directors choose by following trends and examples from other núcleos or from the national selection ensembles in Caracas, like the Simón Bolivar or the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestras.

My feeling is that the challenge is not creating a sound ideal curriculum, but creating a solid network based on human contact, gut feeling and support to others' efforts. With this, conversations about goals, strategies and respectful assessment will make this movement grow rapidly and strongly throughout the World.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On El Sistema generalizations

When asking the question "What is El Sistema?", or "What is its essence?" I noticed people usually have their mindsets framed in what they are familiar with, and that leads to certain generalizations. Preset ideas of methods, curriculum, schooling, arts policy, and many others come to mind.  I am uneasy with the idea of generalizations. Early on I noticed that detaching from the usual U.S. generalizing mindsets would be a big challenge.  I understand they are sometimes a strategy to give order to our thoughts, but I would think that in order to understand the essence of El Sistema the first step would be not to try to fit it into any of our regular generalizations.  Think out of the box.  Now, really, get out of the box.

A couple of weeks ago, José Antonio Abreu explained to us –the Abreu Fellows–  the origin of the "El Sistema" brand, which has to do more with Venezuelan government bureaucracy than its organizational structure. Furthermore, Abreu called it a permanent ser no-ser todavía –"not-yet-being being".  That idea alone may define the essence of El Sistema....but even still has to think outside of that box.   As we have been getting deeper in exploring the Venezuelan Orchestra System, I realize that not even the ser no-ser-todavía statement cannot be taken as a generalization of how things work here.  

In my next blogs I will try describe with examples and try to explain our expericences.  This trip started on Febrary 18th with the 10 Fellows in Caracas, and now continued in the Guárico province, right in the center of Venezuela, where along with 3 more of the Fellows, we have visited multiple programs and met amazing people, young musicians and leaders.  (I hope I can blog more frequently, sometimes internet is spotty here, and most times, we are out and about.  No time to stop and turn on the computer!)

I don't think I will come up with the right words to give a definite answer to the question of what is the essence of El Sistema.  For one thing, because any example that I describe here will be soon outdated.  Things evolve freely and fast around here.  And then, as much as we are trying to catch as much of the essence of El Sistema in Guárico, any idea that I write here which may be seen as a generalization, will be challenged by what we find in the next province we visit.