Wednesday, October 5, 2011

NYT - L.A. Orchestra to Lead Youth Effort

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, under leadership of the music director Gustavo Dudamel, is setting up a training program based on El Sistema, the Venezuelan-based movement that weds music teaching and social work.

By DANIEL J. WAKIN for The New York Times
Published: October 4, 2011

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has seized the initiative in guiding a national teaching program based on El Sistema, the Venezuelan-based movement that weds music teaching and social work. The orchestra announced on Tuesday that it would open an office, host yearly conferences and support a training program to sustain the effort.

Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and the Longy School of Music, in Cambridge, Mass., are joining the orchestra in a partnership to support the movement and will grant master’s degrees in teaching the Sistema method. Bard and Longy are in the process of merging.

The partnership will hire two staff members and serve as a national reference point for Sistema-style “nucleos,” as the individual teaching centers are called, said Deborah Borda, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s president and chief executive officer.

El Sistema aims to use the teaching of classical music to improve the lives of poor children and to help underprivileged neighborhoods. It has involved some 400,000 young people in Venezuela and spread to a number of countries, capturing the imagination of leading performers, teachers and executives in classical music.

The Philharmonic-Bard program, inspired by El Sistema, will be called Take a Stand. Its first major act will be a conference in Los Angeles from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, involving participants from around the country. Then, starting in June, a first round of about 15 students will embark on a one-year master’s program, spending much of their time working at the Philharmonic’s Sistema-like project, the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, and at a charter school in Delano, Calif., associated with Bard, said Karen Zorn, Longy’s president. Longy and Bard are developing the curriculum.

“The rubber is hitting the road here,” Ms. Borda said.

The fit with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is natural. El Sistema’s most famous product is Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s music director and a driving force behind its outreach efforts.

Part of the challenge for Sistema supporters is figuring out how to adapt the program to countries outside Venezuela, where it is government-financed and highly centralized. In the United States individual programs have popped up in various formats.

“El Sistema is an inspiration,” said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard. “It’s not a formula.” He added that the main goal of the partnership was “trying to train a cadre of teachers to bring classical music to populations that normally wouldn’t have it.”

The new program fills a void created this year when the New England Conservatory in Boston divorced itself from a nascent effort to organize the loosely related programs around the country called El Sistema U.S.A. That effort grew out of a New England Conservatory program to train 10 fellows a year in El Sistema’s methods. That program is in its third of five years.

The two programs, Ms. Borda said, are not in conflict. The New England Conservatory’s fellows are learning how to administer nucleos, she said, while Take a Stand students will study how to teach in them.

“I think they’re complementary,” she added. “This is different from El Sistema U.S.A., in that it’s three organizations that have very specific resources and will undertake very specific work.”

Ms. Borda said that the program would cost in excess of $1 million a year and that financing for it was being built into the Philharmonic’s regular budget.

Eric Booth, a consultant to nucleos around the country and a senior adviser to El Sistema U.S.A., played down the formal role of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s national efforts. He said El Sistema U.S.A. was still searching for a role.

“People are rising up in the limbo time,” Mr. Booth said. “The L.A. Philharmonic, as far as I know, is not setting out to provide for all the needs of the field.”

He praised the partnership as “a really good, solid, needed next step forward for a growing movement.” The biggest problem for the more than 50 nucleos around the country is teachers who understand the distinctive nature of El Sistema’s mission.

Take a Stand, Mr. Booth said, “provides not just a flagship recognition that there is something distinctive about that teaching and learning, but is going to actually produce teachers that the field desperately needs.”

A version of this article appeared in print on October 5, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Los Angeles Orchestra To Lead Youth Effort.

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