Graduation Day. Just like that, a whole school year has flown by and my Abreu Fellowship colleagues and I have graduated. And we’re now on to the reality of leading El Sistema programs outside of Venezuela.

For our graduation the New England Conservatory arranged a great little ceremony and reception for us. In attendance were many of the seminar leaders we had had over the year as well as NEC board members, faculty and staff. I enjoyed seeing both of my mentors in the audience: NEC viola faculty Martha Katz and NEC Vice-President for Institutional Development, Don Jones. The superb Marcus Santos, who led our Samba percussion workshop in January also showed up. And Martha, our spanish teacher was present with her new 3-week old baby boy. Oh, and how could I forget Anna Verghese and Amy Novogratz from the TED Prize! It feels like only yesterday they were interviewing me for the fellowship.

The ceremony opened with  Katie Wyatt and I playing a couple of movements from Bach’s First Suite for Cello, and Katie encored with a beautiful rendition of a song we heard many, many, many, many times in Venezuela, aptly titled “Venezuela”. I didn’t do nearly enough concertizing this year so when we were offered the chance to perform at the graduation I jumped at it.

As this was my fourth post-secondary graduation, I selfishly decided I had earned the right to dress the way I wanted. I wore khakis, a collared shirt and on top of that a t-shirt that was hand-made and given to me by one of the mothers of a child from the nucleo in Acarigua. It read: “YO SOY100% FESNOJIV” (I am 100% El Sistema), and below that were the Venzuelan flag and Canadian flag side-by-side. I thought it was appropriate attire and nobody complained (to my face).

Following the music we began our group presentation, very similar to the one we did in Los Angeles, basically reflecting on our time in Venezuela through anecdotes, stories, pictures and videos. I again told the story of 10-year old Carlos in Acarigua, who, nine days after I gave him his first bassoon lesson, was thrown into the nucleo orchestra to play Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in concert. It’s a great story that represents what El Sistema is about in so many ways. I discuss this in more detail in my blog post on our time in Acarigua, Venezuela.

I have to say, after doing this presentation for Dr. Abreu in Caracas, in Los Angeles for 200 professional music educators, administrators and musicians, we had it down pretty good. I am particularly happy with having had so many opportunities to do public speaking throughout the year as I know it will come in very handy during the coming years doing this work. I’m still more comfortable playing the bassoon in public but compared to last October when just starting the fellowship, speaking in public is now a lot easier. In fact  I quite enjoy it and would be lying if I said it wasn’t fun. It doesn’t hurt to have something so inspiring as El Sistema to talk about. It practically pitches itself!

Our presentation was followed by the presentation of the Abreu Fellows Program certificates, a reception in the office of NEC President, Tony Woodcock and tons of pictures.

And now for next year…

This year of training went by very fast and has come to an end for us, the first class of Abreu Fellows, but the journey of playing our part as ambassadors of El Sistema has really just begun.

I should mention that I’m thrilled to learn that 10 new Abreu Fellows have been selected to form the second class. We’ve met quite a few of them already and read their biographies. As you will see soon when they are officially announced, they are a stellar group and I look forward to getting to know them better and working alongside them in the future. Remember, Abreu’s TED Prize wish was to train 50 fellows, so this program will be around for at least the next four years and hopefully more. If you’re thinking of applying, don’t wait until the fifth year because it’s going to get harder and harder to get accepted as more and more people apply for the fellowship.

Abreu Fellow and my “El Sistema in the South” partner in crime, Katie Wyatt, performs at the Abreu Fellows graduation ceremony.

As for the the first class of Fellows, we’re taking our training and experiences to the real world. After spending the year searching for job opportunities, being recruited, doing interviews and tons  of travelling, we’ll be playing leading roles in El Sistema program all over the United States. Here’s how it’s breaking out:

Lorrie Heagy is returning  to Juneau, Alaska to initiate Juneau Music Matters, Dan Berkowitz is Manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s YOLA, Christine Witkowski is leading YOLA’s second site called YOLA at HOLA (Heart of Los Angeles), Alvaro Rodas is founding the Corona Youth Music Project in Queens, NY, David Malek and Rebecca Levi are co-directing a program in Boston at the Conservatory Lab Charter School, my main man Stanford Thompson is director of Tune-Up Philly, a program of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, and Katie Wyatt is executive director of KidzNotes in Durham, NC. As for me, I will head to down to Atlanta as executive director of the Atlanta Music Project.

The Atlanta Music Project will launch its pilot year in late 2010 in an underserved community in Atlanta.  I have a great team in Atlanta and we’ve been working hard all year to get this program off the ground. It was hard to balance learning a bunch of new skills in the fellowship while applying them literally at the same time to a real world project.  Several times I found myself in Venezuela working late into the night on the Atlanta Music Project. Balancing the fellowship curriculum, the Venezuelan residency and working on next year’s project was a handful  but at the same time it was exhilarating to be able to watch something spectacular in Venezuela during the day and then go back to the hotel at night and immediately apply what I had seen to a real-life project. I can assure you that all the other fellows were doing the same routine as me this year in order to have their programs launch on time too. El Sistema is very nice and all but no one ever said it was easy. A few times I asked myself what the hell I had signed up for. This year was a steep learning curve and sometimes I feel like we’re all crazy to be jumping into this. But then again everyone thought Dr. Abreu was crazy too…

You can read all about the Atlanta Music Project on our website and you visit our page on to learn how you can represent the Atlanta Music Project by buying t-shirts, medallions, DVDs etc. We’re also on Twitter and Facebook where you can follow our developments daily.

For me, the best thing about the Abreu Fellows Program is that it has given me the opportunity to engage in something that I felt was in me all along but was going to be hard to manifest itself from me simply playing the bassoon. I’ve always been sort of impatient and had low tolerance for injustice and inequality but I felt I couldn’t do much about that by simply playing in orchestra, and this always bothered me. But thanks to the Abreu Fellowship, I now have a way to use music as a vehicle for something even greater.

Towards the end of our first meeting with Dr. Abreu in Caracas, he began to thank everyone for helping make the Abreu Fellows Program come true. Then, he sort of jokingly thanked himself for thinking of the idea of the Abreu Fellows Program. Later that day, one of Dr. Abreu’s aids mentioned to us that that was the first time he’d ever heard Dr. Abreu give himself credit for any of the work he has done. I think he’s right to thank himself, and I thank him too. Nobel Peace Prize for Dr. Abreu?

As I said, the real fun is only just beginning for my colleagues and I. Of course I will continue blogging about all things Atlanta Music Project, El Sistema and Abreu Fellows for (hopefully) many more years to come. Thank you for following my blog this year and please stay tuned for more!