Crescendo in Brighton

At a local charter school, a revamped music program draws inspiration from El Sistema

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By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / December 19, 2010

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The Conservatory Lab Charter School occupies a modest building at the end of a parking lot off Market Street in Brighton. Students arrive by bus from Roxbury, Hyde Park, Dorchester, Mattapan, and other Boston neighborhoods. But venture inside, and the place feels a bit like Venezuela.

Or at least like a Venezuelan “nucleo,’’ or community music center. Every classroom at Conservatory Lab is in use, and then some. Trumpets have colonized the kitchen; basses hold court in the social work cubicle; private lessons are often given in the hallways or the copy room. On one recent afternoon, between “Ode to Joy’’ and “When the Saints Go Marching In,’’ music seemed to be spilling out from all sides. Someone had left the door open to percussion class, and every few minutes a teacher’s call to action would ring out: “Earthquake!’’ A joyful torrent quickly followed, as dozens of 6-year-old hands worked their magic on a set of African drums.

This dense hive of music-making has been inspired by Venezuela’s immersive music education program widely known as El Sistema. Also inspired by El Sistema are David Malek and Rebecca Levi, directors of the newly revamped music program at Conservatory Lab. Both spent last year intensively studying the Venezuelan approach through the Abreu fellowship, a professional training program of El Sistema USA, headquartered at New England Conservatory.

Earlier this year the Globe followed the first class of Abreu fellows in Caracas and reported on plans for the new program in Brighton, as well as on broader prospects for this nascent movement in music education. When last spotted in July, Levi and Malek were preparing for their first year at the school, auditioning new music teachers to help implement their vision, and pondering such abstract topics as musical literacy and the differences in Venezuelan and American cultural approaches to learning. Then the school year arrived, and their well-laid plans were introduced to some 154 boisterous elementary school students.

“It was a shock at first,’’ Levi recalled during a recent interview. “It kind of cracks me up because we were getting really in depth in our conversations with our teachers, and then the kids arrived and the framework essentially got shredded. I think that no one — least of all us, in a way — had sat back and thought about the magnitude of what this was going to mean for the kids.’’

“It’s been much more difficult than I ever imagined,’’ Malek summarized. “And equally, it’s been much more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. I had my own reservations about working with elementary school kids, musically speaking. But I found that I get just as excited conducting this orchestra — learning, growing, and discovering with these little people — as I do when I play my own clarinet professionally.’’

A first movement
El Sistema was founded in the 1970s by the economist and conductor José Antonio Abreu. Over the course of three remarkable decades, it has provided some of Venezuela’s poorest children with free instruments, musical training, and formative experiences playing in orchestras. In recent years the secret of El Sistema has gotten out, and the program has become the most buzzed-about phenomenon in classical music, largely thanks to the high-profile success of its celebrity graduate, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and its flagship ensemble, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which has been dazzling audiences across the United States and Europe.

Mark Churchill, a veteran leader in the field, founded El Sistema USA in 2009. He did so with assistance from Abreu and New England Conservatory, and an eye on the program’s social results as much as its musical ones. El Sistema USA aims to train a new crop of educators through the Abreu fellowship and eventually spawn what Churchill envisions as a new movement for urban music education in this country. With two freshly graduated fellows running its revamped music program, the Conservatory Lab Charter School, founded in 1999, is now on the leading edge of this grand experiment in importing what’s been dubbed the “Venezuelan musical miracle.’’

After less than half a year, it’s far too early to evaluate the long-term impact of the Conservatory Lab’s new program or to extrapolate from its results. But recent visits to Brighton and conversations with teachers, administrators, and students present an image of a school transformed. Malek and Levi describe their classes as unrecognizable from what they encountered when they began in September. And school principal Diana Lam professes to be quite pleased by the results.

“What I see has completely blown my mind in terms of progress made, from day one to where we are right now,’’ Lam said. “And when you talk to the kids there is an excitement in the school that’s different. We’ve always been a music school, but it was different in other years.’’

To accommodate an authentic Venezuelan-style nucleo, Conservatory Lab agreed to some major changes. Most notably, the school day has been extended until 5 p.m. to make room for almost three hours of music classes every afternoon. In addition to Levi and Malek, the school hired 14 locally based freelance musicians to help teach its new music classes. And it has reinvented its music curriculum. Previously all students from grades 1 to 5 studied the violin. Many of those students have now been reassigned to different orchestral instruments, including brasses, woodwinds, and the full family of strings.

Initially, the new instruments, new routines, new music teachers, and new hours all combined to produce a wave of pure chaos. “The look in the classrooms was truly of kids becoming rag dolls, forgetting how to sit up on chairs correctly, forgetting how to compose their bodies,’’ said Levi. “They were just so excited about getting their instruments. A few younger kids started actually putting the bows in their mouths, eating their own instruments. In the upper grades we got a few kids really saying, ‘Let’s see if these musicians have the same expectations as our classroom teachers.’ ’’

In the end, the saving grace proved to be a walkie-talkie system that provided each of the newly hired music teachers with an instant line to Malek or Levi, or to a school administrator. After a four-week transition period, the chaos subsided. What filled the void was music.

Orchestra youth
In keeping with the Venezuelan approach, Levi and Malek wanted to make sure that their students gained substantive experience in orchestras from the very beginning. In Venezuela, the ensemble is treated as a kind of microcosm for the society as a whole, and as a laboratory for all manner of life skills. The tricky part comes in knowing exactly what to do with an orchestra of 45 elementary school kids, most of whom have received their instruments only a few weeks earlier. At Conservatory Lab, teachers play alongside their students in the older of the two orchestras. Arrangements are kept simple. Most important, rehearsals become a chance not only to teach a particular piece of music but also to frame a broader approach.

At a recent meeting of the older orchestra, Malek waited patiently for the chatter and string-plucking to stop, then quietly addressed the packed classroom. “There are surface experiences we have, and then there are very deep experiences,’’ he said, his voice scarcely above a whisper. “Sometimes it’s hard to put those deeper things into words. That’s why we have music.’’

He later explained: “I really don’t treat them like elementary school kids. I treat them like musicians. And those kids have really responded. We’ve seen their maturity grow by leaps and bounds. And they love orchestra now. They ask me if we can rehearse for all three periods.’’

Beyond the lab
Levi observed that while she and Malek draw invaluable guidance from many aspects of El Sistema, the two program directors don’t exactly spend their days fretting about the cultural authenticity of their program. And most of the musicians they hired to teach at Conservatory Lab have never set foot in Venezuela. “David and I have our fellowship year to thank,’’ said Levi, “because we now don’t have to think about El Sistema all the time. We have it in the back of our minds, and it’s also just been internalized in our approach.’’

It also can’t hurt to have a veteran on site. One of the newly hired teachers, Jorge Soto, a violinist and conductor, grew up in the Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, studied music in its thriving nucleo, and eventually joined the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, playing alongside Dudamel. In an interview before an afternoon of teaching, Soto spoke directly about what El Sistema had meant to him as a young student.

“My family was very, very humble,’’ he said, “and I grew up in probably the most dangerous neighborhood of my city, where a lot of those guys I knew, maybe 90 percent of them, are dead now. They became robbers, drug dealers. I moved out of there at 17, but that wasn’t so young. I could have gone either way. But the music really saved me.’’

Soto said he wasn’t around to see the initial growing pains of El Sistema during its earliest years, but he was impressed by the progress he had already witnessed at the Conservatory Lab, where the daily musical immersion, the commitment to the students, and the spirit of improvisation among the teachers reminds him of his own nucleo back home. “It’s amazing how far the kids have come already,’’ he said. “Having them for three hours a day makes a huge difference.’’

As Soto and others noted, one major limitation is that Conservatory Lab currently ends in fifth grade, conceivably sending students off just as the deeper approach is beginning to make its mark. Malek and Levi dream of being able to guide their students into their formative teenage years. “Without that continuity,’’ said Malek, “it’s not really El Sistema, it’s just an isolated music program.’’

Lam, the principal, is keenly aware of how important it will be for the school to expand, and Conservatory Lab has already applied for permission to extend its offerings through eighth grade. An answer to its request is expected in early 2011.

Building at home
Abreu, El Sistema’s founder, has a gift for speaking of the program in lofty and inspiring language. It aims for nothing less than “social rescue and deep cultural transformation.’’ He often articulates its goals in terms of holistic human growth and, in his now famous phrase, “spiritual affluence.’’

But after being duly inspired by Abreu and what they saw in Venezuela, Malek and Levi are for the moment speaking less about Abreu’s grand social vision and that big looming question of whether it can work in the United States. Their attention is focused on today’s rehearsal, yesterday’s student who needs some extra help — the nitty-gritty details of building an impressive musical immersion program in a Boston school. And it is already producing tangible results.

Just ask Conservatory Lab fifth grader Joshua Lewis. He adores his viola and loves coming to school in the morning. Some days it takes him 45 minutes to arrive by bus from his home on the border between Hyde Park and West Roxbury. “But,’’ he said, “once I get here it feels like a brand-new start because it’s a new day and I wonder what I’m going to learn in music class.’’ His favorite period is orchestra “because it’s magical, really. Because it’s like ‘wow, this is what we can do.’ ’’

Lewis will graduate from Conservatory Lab at the end of the school year, but he seems undaunted by the prospect of moving on. The break, he suggests, won’t be so stark.

“Later on in the future, I’ll probably come back here just to check out how school is going, like daily, really daily. I’d like to see some new faces and teach them some stuff I know. And I hope they keep the El Sistema because I think it’s given us a bigger opportunity with music. They’ve given us a jump-start.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at