In 2007, I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study Venezuela’s national youth orchestra system, “El Sistema,” a social program of youth and community development through the study of music. The goal of my Fulbright was to identify tenets of this renowned model of music education to guide the evolution of the Harmony Program, an organization I had founded to bring musical training to children in under-served communities across New York City.
Trading bagels for arepas, the frantic pace of Manhattan for the unhurried Latin lifestyle, and a northeast winter for eternal summertime was easy. The more daunting challenge was one that faces every Fulbrighter: advancing a project within a wholly different context and culture. Venezuelan’s have a colorful phrase that captures very well how I felt those first few days: “Me sentí como cucaracha en baile de gallinas,” or, “I felt like a cockroach in a dance of chickens.” Being surrounded by the unfamiliar and open to new perspectives, however unnerving, are at the heart of the Fulbright’s value. Indeed, my Fulbright year turned on its head the traditional dynamic of Americans as teachers, rather than students, and proved both humbling and enlightening.
From the teeming capital city of Caracas, where I was based, I traveled to snow-capped Andean peaks in the west, arid central planes, the northern Afro-Caribbean coast, and the prehistoric mesas of the southeast, witnessing breathtaking natural beauty. As I visited El Sistema’s instructional centers, called “nucleos,” in these distinct regions, I found administrators, teachers, parents, and students eager to engage and was warmly welcomed to observe classroom instruction, attend rehearsals and concerts, and even lead my own class of clarinetists, including a cherubic little girl named Kisses, who giggled at my clumsy attempts to translate musical terminology into Spanish.
Everywhere there were lessons to be learned. Traveling to “barrios” so impoverished and crime-ridden that I had to be escorted there in an armored vehicle reminded me that community-based services are essential to providing access where it is most needed. Talking with a violin instructor, who defined her role as “teacher, parent, and therapist,” opened my eyes to the breadth of commitment she and others made to the music students in their charge. Hearing children express their aspirations to become “maestros” one day to bring help and hope to others highlighted for me the capacity of an orchestral community to address the necessities in life that many of us have the luxury of taking for granted: security, identity, companionship, and joy.
Until my Fulbright year, I had grown accustomed to the narrow characterization of music as “extracurricular,” as it is so often regarded in the United States. However, in Venezuela, against a backdrop of poverty and violence, which has, tragically, only grown worse in recent years, El Sistema modeled music’s powerful potential as an agent of social change. In the words of El Sistema’s visionary founder, José Antonio Abreu, music “transmits the highest values: solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.” The opportunity to observe this broader manifestation of music’s impact firsthand re-oriented my view of music’s role in society and, by extension, my own purpose and potential as a music educator.
In the decade since my return from Venezuela, El Sistema has grown and so has its influence. Today more than 50 countries are home to efforts inspired by its philosophy and achievements, including the States, where El Sistema-inspired programs have been established in over 100 cities. As founder of one of the first, I appreciate the early and intimate access my Fulbright Fellowship offered me as well as the impact my Fulbright experience has had on my career, which now includes speaking, writing, and advocacy within an emerging field of civic-minded musicians and entrepreneurs.
As my organization celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, one very special event brought my Fulbright experience full-circle. Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s most famous alumnus and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, invited my Harmony Program students to Mexico City where they took the stage with young musicians from across the Americas and performed under the Maestro’s baton. As I took in the inspiring scene of 300 children from around the world playing in harmony, I could not imagine a more fitting representation of El Sistema’s vision of community-building through music and the Fulbright’s theme of “un mundo, muchas voces,” one world, many voices.
Fulbright to Venezuela, 2007