Friday, November 12, 2010

Passion that leads to strategic planning

It is very interesting how our minds absorb and process information in such a unique and personal manner. I find even more interesting how we construct a mental design where we fit every bit of information that we receive as if we were organizing the fridge after buying food for a whole week. By doing this we reinforce our views on the world but at the same time we might not be opened to experience reality in its rich multiplicity. Extrapolating this comparison to my experience as an Abreu Fellow in these five weeks of daily seminars, I have to admit that “my fridge is full of a balanced mixture of healthy food but I have not had time” or should I say, “my nature does not have the predisposition to distribute the different food groups to their ‘proper’ compartments.” You might consider this a more or less controlled chaos but I prefer to call it “wholeness.”

The way the Abreu Fellows Program’s curriculum has been layered out enhances my “mental design” in a very positive way. I must admit that my mind has not separated the different information received during these five weeks and I feel I have to put into words some of these experiences as if I were doing inventory of “the food in my fridge.” For this reason I am going to start a mini-series of postings where I will describe a little bit how the program moves from the general to the particular and how strongly I perceive the organicity and interconnection among all the information we receive. I don’t really know if by the end of this mini-series “my fridge will have the different food groups distributed into different compartments or not,” but I know for sure that identifying and isolating “this food according to their nutritional values,” even just for the time I am writing these postings, will help me to integrate them even more cohesively into the ‘wholeness’ of my fridge.

The first two weeks were part of the Introduction Module and we had wonderful speakers on Organizational Values/Strategic Planning as well as on Non-Profit Management among other topics related to Organizational Management. They presented the whole picture of ‘how organizations work’ from the highest levels all the way down to the smallest details. So ‘right off the bat’, the second day of the program, Greg Kandell gave a great lecture on 101 Strategic Planning. Can you imagine ten musicians attending a lecture on how to start a non-profit organization? This might sound boring and non-related to what El Sistema is about but the reality is that it was an experience that opened my mind to realize how vital is to have a successful organization in order to develop and replicate a successful music program such as El Sistema. I would like to highlight several points from Greg’s presentation because I see their parallelisms with El Sistema.

First of all, Greg spoke of “collective will” as one of the key elements to start any organization: you gather people to support a plan. It is true that the more people interested in this plan the more likely to actually happen. But I think that even more important that this is the second part of this “collective will,” which is “having focus on what the plan wants to achieve.” If we compare these points with what Maestro Abreu did more than thirty-five years ago in Caracas (Venezuela) there are not that many differences. He wanted to start a music program for at-risk children and he gathered people to support his plan. The twist of this story is that he expected many more than the eleven musicians that showed up for the first rehearsal. As he tells the story, he thought of two solutions to this problem: quit this idea or multiply the number of people interested. And on that moment he made a promise to these eleven musicians: “to become one of the better orchestras in the world.” In my opinion, this was a leap of faith or what Greg would call it a BHAG: Big Audacious Hairy Goal that helped to focus the objective he wanted to achieve.

Several factors helped him to achieve this objective more than thirty years later (when the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra was considered among the first top-five orchestras of the world) but I would like to concentrate on an aspect that appeared on Greg’s presentation: alignment. Aligning the people who share your passion about this objective is extremely important in order to achieve your vision. And in this respect, Maestro Abreu had the right people who shared his passion for his BHAG: “becoming one of the better orchestras in the world.” In one of the documentaries about El Sistema there is an interview with the eleven musicians that started El Sistema. By the way they explain their first experiences shows that although they might have not known exactly where they were doing it seems quite clear that this big-audacious-hairy-goal was “an excuse” to provide a social program for at-risk children whose primary objective is the personal and social development through orchestra and choir ensembles. Their faces shine when they recall how it all started and what it has become in these thirty-five years.

After sharing this entry with you I hope at least only one thing is clear: in order to achieve your El Sistema-inspired BHAG find the people who passionately believe in your idea and align them to achieve it!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

¿Qué significa para mí El Sistema?

(English version)

Quien crea belleza tocando un instrumento y genera armonía musical comienza a entender por dentro lo que es la armonía esencial: la armonía humana (…). Esta revelación es lo que transforma, sublima y desarrolla por dentro el espiritu del hombre.”

José Antonio Abreu, en Tocar y luchar (2006)

He decidido comenzar este blog con las palabras del Maestro Abreu porque él creyó más que nadie en el poder de la música como catalizador, cuando empezó este programa hace más de 35 años. Y es éste uno de los elementos clave cuando tratamos de definir qué es El Sistema: un programa que utilliza la música como un poder transformador para todos y cada uno de los individuos. Podríamos discutir que este argumento no aporta nada nuevo para nosotros: todos nos hemos sentido emocionados por la música cuando hemos ido a conciertos, cuando tocamos, y/o cuando se la enseñamos a los niños. Entonces, ¿qué es lo verdaderamente poderoso acerca de El Sistema? La manera en la que se pone en práctica, entre otros aspectos que iré tratando en mi blog.

El Sistema es una manera de vivir, de experimentar la vida cuyo centro es la excelencia musical no como meta en sí misma, sino como un medio para ayudar a los niños a ser mejores individuos y mejores ciudadanos. ¿Cómo es posible conseguir una sociedad tan ideal? Es aquí donde el Maestro Abreu tuvo la habilidad de poner su visión en práctica a través de un pragmatismo puro. Si cada uno de nosotros nos sentimos transformados cuando vamos a un concierto, o cuando tocamos y/o enseñamos música en determinados momentos de nuestras vidas, ¿por qué no hacer de estos momentos transcendentales una norma en lugar de una excepción? En cada momento que hacemos música y buscamos nuevos caminos de expresarnos a través de la música estamos aspirando a la excelencia y a la belleza, por lo tanto estamos transformando nuestras vidas. Y si repetimos este proceso una y otra vez, y se convierte parte de nuestras vidas diarias en lugar de una excepción, estamos constantemente aspirando a llegar a ser la mejor versión de nosotros mismos. Cada vez que un profesor transmite esta pasión musical a un niño cambia la perspectiva de la vida del niño, abriéndole nuevas posibilidades. Es un proceso similar a lo que el Maestro Zander llama “el arte de la posibilidad.” Pero este cambio no solo suma, sino que se multiplica exponencialmente porque los niños ven y viven la vida de una manera más apasionada y fresca que los adultos.

Una de las consecuencias más fascinantes de El Sistema es que a pesar del énfasis en la excelencia musical, la meta principal no consiste en llegar a ser excelentes músicos per se pero los niños se benefician de los resultados de este programa. Aunque los niños muy talentosos llegan a desarrollar sus excelentes cualidades musicales en este programa , lo que realmente permanece con la totalidad de estos niños son todos los valores que el arte de la música desarrolla en ellos, valores que son aplicables a todas las otras esferas de sus vidas. Algunos de estos valores son: el uso de la imaginación cuando se ejercita un arte tan abstracto; la disciplina que se consigue a través de la práctica diaria; el trabajo en equipo que se tiene que realizar cuando se toca en una orquesta o se canta en un coro; el sentido de la confianza y responsabilidad cuando se toca con otros: uno confia que los demás han estudiado la obra lo suficiente como para que nadie retrase el avance de todo el grupo; y el trabajo duro que está siempre asociado con el aprendizaje musical. Éstos y otros valores desarrollan la personalidad de cada niño de tal manera que se convierten en individuos totalmente realizados asi como ciudadanos responsables.

La Orquesta Juvenil Simón Bolívar y Gustavo Dudamel, entre otros, son un claro ejemplo de este cambio a través de la música. Pero me atrevería a decir que, afortunadamente, sólo son la punta del iceberg y el verdadero impacto de esta actitud hacia la vida y la música están ejemplificadas por los cientos de miles de niños que hoy tocan en orquestas, cantan en coros, y aprenden música en Venezuela a través de El Sistema. Como el 90% de los niños que participan en El Sistema provienen de clases socio-económicas bajas, El Sistema les cambia sus vidas de una manera dramática y les proporciona un rayo de esperanza para desarrollarse como individuos y ciudadanos. Ahora comprendo cómo la famosa frase de Nietszche: “ Sin música, la vida sería un error” adquiere su significado más profundo en las vidas de estos niños.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What is El Sistema to me?

(Versión en español)

“Whoever creates beauty by playing an instrument and generates musical harmony begins to understand from within what essential harmony is: human harmony (…). That revelation is what transforms, sublimes and develops from within the spirit of men.”

José Antonio Abreu, in Tocar y luchar (2006)

I decided to start this blog with Maestro Abreu’s insights on music because he believed more than anybody else in the power of music as a catalyst when he started this program more than 35 years ago. And this is one of the key elements when trying to define what El Sistema is: a program that uses music as a transforming power for each and every individual. We could argue that this is nothing new for us: we all have been moved by music when going to concerts, when making music, and/or when teaching music to children. So what is so powerful about El Sistema? The way it is being put into practice, among other things that I will be touching upon on my blog.

El Sistema is a way of living, of experiencing life where musical excellence is at the center, not as a goal by itself, but as a means to teach children music in order to help them become better individuals and better citizens. How is it possible to accomplish such an ideal society? Here is where Maestro Abreu had the ability to put his vision into practice through pure pragmatism. If each of us feels transformed by the power of music whether attending a concert, or by making and/or teaching music at selected moments in our lives, why not make these transformational moments a norm instead of an exception? Every time we make music and look for ways of expressing ourselves through music we strive for excellence and beauty, therefore we are transforming our lives. And if we repeat this process over and over again, and it becomes part of our daily lives instead of an exception, we are constantly thriving to become the best of ourselves. Every time a teacher transmits this musical passion to a child it changes the child’s perspective of life, opening new possibilities. It is very similar to what Maestro Zander calls “the art of possibility.” But this change does not just add up, it multiplies exponentially because children see and experience life in a more passionate and fresh way than adults.

One of the most fascinating outcomes of El Sistema is that despite the emphasis on musical excellence, the main goal is not to become excellent musicians per se but children benefit from the great outcomes of this program. Even though the very talented children develop their excellent musical talents to their fullest extent, what really stays with vast majority of these children is all the values that the art of music-making develops within them, which are applicable to all the other spheres of their lives. To cite just a few of them: the use of imagination when performing such an abstract art; the discipline that is achieved through daily practice; the team work that has to be accomplished when playing in the orchestra or singing in a choir; the sense of reliability and responsibility when playing with others: you trust your fellows have practiced the piece enough so nobody lets anybody down; and the hard work that is always associated when learning music. These and other values develop every child’s personality in such a way that they become fully accomplished individuals as well as citizens.

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel, among others, are a clear example of this change through music. But I would say that, fortunately, they are just the tip of the iceberg and the impact of this attitude towards life and music is exemplified by the hundred of thousands of children that nowadays play in orchestras, sing in choirs, and learn music in Venezuela through El Sistema. Since 90% of the children from this program come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, El Sistema changes their lives dramatically and gives them a ray of hope to develop themselves as human beings and citizens. I see how Nietszche’s words: “Without music, life would be an error” acquire their fullest meaning in all these children's lives.