New movement for Conservatory

Famed Venezuelan music education program adopted

From left, Katie Wyatt, Lorrie Heagy, and Stanford Thompson enjoyed a break at the New England Conservatory. From left, Katie Wyatt, Lorrie Heagy, and Stanford Thompson enjoyed a break at the New England Conservatory. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / October 23, 2009

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It didn’t take Stanford Thompson long to realize that his fellowship at New England Conservatory was anything but normal. A five-member film crew follows every move of the Georgia native and his nine classmates, as does an author on contract from W.W. Norton & Company. Thompson has been staying up past midnight just to answer e-mails from well-wishers.

This is because Thompson is a musical pioneer of sorts, one of 10 students chosen as the first wave in the United States of a revolutionary Venezuelan program called El Sistema.

El Sistema - officially known as the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras in Venezuela - is unlike any other music education program in the world. Since its founding in 1975, the program has taken more than a million children between the ages of 2 and 18, many of them poor, and provided them with instruments and free lessons, creating a new class of young musicians.

Wowed by the program’s success, music educators outside Venezuela have been trying in recent years to adapt parts of it to their countries. El Sistema USA is the first unified effort stateside. The plan is for the conservatory to train at least 50 people, starting with the first class of 10, over five years to open music educational centers, or “núcleos,’’ in parts of the United States where children couldn’t normally afford instruments.

“It’s a really big deal,’’ said Jessica Balboni, director of the American Symphony Orchestra League’s leadership academy, which trains future orchestra managers. “It’s opening up access and opportunity to poor kids and creating a new model for the music educator.’’

The program has gained prominence - and glamour - in recent months as its most famous graduate, the electrifying Gustavo Dudamel, has taken over as the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. From the start, the children play in small groups to teach them how to work with others and develop a feel for ensemble work, with the best players ending up in the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. That’s the group Dudamel has led since 1999.

The conservatory’s $425,000 program is also a publicity boon, linking the school to Dudamel, the closest thing the classical music world has to a rock star. It’s the result of the conservatory’s long-term relationship with El Sistema founder’s José Antonio Abreu.

For a decade, the conservatory has been sending faculty members to study the program in Venezuela. The conservatory awarded Abreu an honorary degree in 2002 and hosted Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra two years ago. The branch based at the conservatory is meant to serve as an enormous network, with instructors spreading across the county as soon as they can be trained.

“This is a huge tool, message, and inspiration to all of us who believe serious arts have a significant role in education and society much deeper than what we’ve experienced,’’ said Mark Churchill, the conservatory dean serving as director of El Sistema USA. “What it’s about is using the highest level of arts education, musical education to bring about social change.’’

The first group of 10 so-called Abreu Fellows features something not often found in the orchestra world: diversity. Bassoonist Dantes Rameau, of Haitian and Cameroonian descent, earned his master of music degree from Yale University School of Music in 2007. Percussionist Álvaro Rodas, born in Guatemala, is a Fulbright scholar who recently worked in a remote Mayan village as a percussion teacher for a rural youth orchestra.

Trombonist Daniel Berkowitz, a Northwestern University graduate, has been living in London studying his instrument as well as putting his training in economics to work at his day job at Morningstar’s Pan European and Asian Fund research endeavor. Thompson is a trumpet player who has appeared with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

“I walked in the first day nervous, scared, and anxious, but it wasn’t until I sat down with the other fellows that it sunk in,’’ he said. “This is the real deal, a chance to start probably some of the most important work that I think this country will see with music education.’’

Then there’s Lorrie Heagy. At 44, she is the oldest of the fellows and a music teacher and librarian at Glacier Valley Elementary School in Juneau, Alaska. Since arriving in Boston, Heagy has been setting her alarm for 5 a.m. so she can listen to her Spanish instruction tapes for a couple of hours before classes. She is preparing for the program’s two months in Venezuela. Though she has been here just a week, Heagy says the conservatory fellowship has been eye-opening.

“You’re learning marketing, publicity, grant writing, administration, all of those types of things,’’ Heagy said. “And to travel to Venezuela, where you’re able to experience the spark and try to understand how they are able to touch so many kids and have them engaged after school in an orchestra is amazing to me.’’

Here in Boston, the fellows are in class most days, learning the history of El Sistema, along with the teaching strategies behind the program. Through a year of work, they’ll develop a curriculum for their own núcleos and learn how to market, raise funds, and run an organization.

They will be studying with others who have started núcleos in other places, as well as figures such as Ben Cameron, program director for the Doris Duke Foundation, Anthony Trecek-King, director of the Boston Children’s Chorus, and Eric Booth, author of “The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible.’’

Jamie Bernstein, daughter of the late Leonard Bernstein, has been filming a documentary on El Sistema in the United States. Author Tricia Turnstall has also been shadowing the fellows. She’s writing a book on the program for W.W. Norton.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at

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