I can’t believe a couple of weeks ago marked the six-month anniversary of the first day of Atlanta Music Project classes. Everything is going by so fast! Looking back on my last year and a half, I feel I’ve come a pretty long way. It turns out the Abreu Fellows Program was an opportunity of a lifetime.

I think back to February of 2009, long before the Abreu Fellows Program existed. I was still in school and visiting Boston for an audition and I distinctly remember telling my cousin and his wife that I wanted to combine my performing with some El Sistema-style educational endeavors. I told my them, if only there was a way I could learn the skills needed to do this. Perhaps I could use a grant-writing course. Maybe I could do a non-profit management seminar. I left Boston brainstorming about doing El Sistema.

Fast forward four months and Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu (pictured with me at the top of my blog), founder of El Sistema, had won the TED Prize. Subsequently the New England Conservatory announced, per Dr. Abreu’s wish, a fellowship program to train gifted musicians and music educators in the El Sistema philosophy, non-profit management, community partnerships and music education. The fellowship even included a trip to Venezuela to study El Sistema up close. Of course, I applied and got a spot in the inaugural class of the Abreu Fellows Program. I called my cousins in Boston to tell them I was moving to their city to do exactly what I had told them I wanted to do not four months earlier.

After graduating from the Abreu Fellows Program in June 2010, the ten Abreu Fellows went about leading an El Sistema-style programs all over the USA. Of course, along with Al Meyers, I co-founded the Atlanta Music Project.

Growing up studying music helped me develop a strong work ethic from an early age, so I found myself quite at home with the busy and hectic schedule offered by the Abreu Fellows Program. It was an intense year, definitely the most I had worked in all my life…until the Atlanta Music Project came along. The joys of running a start-up non-profit include: picking between downtime and no sleep or no downtime and no sleep (I usually pick the former), missing all of March Madness, people asking me why I emailed them at 3:30am, and hoping the other person will pay for that business lunch.

Besides these annoying issues, I can say that I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. It’s fun as heck. The Atlanta Music Project is fulfilling its mission every day. To see our students developing their musical, social and emotional abilities right before my very eyes is mind boggling. No doubt, this combination of intense musical training and academic tutoring (done by our collaborator, the Atlanta After School All-Stars) is working.

Here are a few highlights on doing El Sistema in Atlanta:

Since moving to Atlanta, I’ve quickly learned that this is a Coca-Cola town. With its headquarters here in Atlanta, the world’s biggest brand has its footprint all over the city, especially when its comes to supporting charitable efforts. The Atlanta Music Project is fortunate to have been awarded a grant from the Coca-Cola Company, which, with generous in-kind donations from our City Of Atlanta Office Of Cultural Affairs, enabled us to launch our program. In July 2010, Coca-Cola invited me to the National Black Arts Festival Gala. I got the chance to meet Atlanta’s Mayor, Kasim Reed, for the first time.

Meeting Mayor Kasim Reed for the first time.

Here’s some video (courtesy of Armentria Favors of Modern Matter Graphic Design and Art Direction) of our open house, which was held at the end of September 2010 at the Gilbert House, the Atlanta Music Project’s first site. People often ask me if we had a recruitment strategy. Well…kind of. Literally 30 minutes before these kids were at our open house, I found them just up the street from the Gilbert House, hanging out in their front yard doing not much. I handed them a flyer for their parents and 30 minutes later they were trying out violins and cellos. It’s grassroots, but it worked!

About to start a live interview with Ali Velshi on CNN. Photo courtesy of Green Theory PR&Marketing.

Here I am at CNN studios just before doing a live interview with Ali Velshi about the Atlanta Music Project. You can watch a video of the CNN interview here.

When I went to Venezuela to observe El Sistema during the Abreu Fellows Program, I visited around 30 music centers, also known as nucleos. They were all very impressive, but some were certainly better than others. I came to the conclusion after much observation, questioning and teaching their students that one thing and one thing only made a nucleo what it was: teachers. If you’re building an El Sistema program,  especially with limited resources, your key to success will be your teachers’ ability to inspire their students to learn, no matter the circumstance. I feel very fortunate that here at the Atlanta Music Project we have amazing teaching artists. Our teaching artists are talented, dedicated, innovative, cooperative, continuously learning and desire nothing but the best for our students. I should also mention the non-music teachers at the Gilbert House who are responsible for our students outside their AMP music classes. They include the two Gilbert House site managers (Armentria Favors and Emory Clark) and the academic tutors (Gloria Glass and Shanna Baker) from the Atlanta After School All Stars. Together, all these teachers get it. They understand why we all do what we do. Simply put, this team of teachers makes the Atlanta Music Project what it is.

AMP Teaching Artists after Winter Performance L to R: Dr. Jackie Pickett, Kristen Faust, John Bryant, Bryan Crumpler, Elizabeth Oladele, Jessica Sherer, Aisha Bowden, Dantes Rameau. Photo Courtesy of My True Vision Photography.

Hanging out with Wynton Marsalis after his Jazz At Lincoln Center performance at the Woodruff Arts Center. A big fan of El Sistema, Wynton has been to Venezuela, met Abreu and seen El Sistema for himself. The Atlanta Music Project students also got to meet him and watch his dress rehearsal.

With Wynton Marsalis

Mentoring. Mentoring. Mentoring. This is the reason Gustavo Dudamel and classical music are among the most popular things in Venezuela these days. Every kid in Venezuela knows a kid in their neighbourhood or a distant family member who grew up in an El Sistema program. In Venezuela, being in a youth orchestra is a cool thing to do. At the Atlanta Music Project, we constantly surround our students with talented high school students from the local youth orchestras. I’ll never forget the look on the face of one of our trombone students when his trombone mentor walked into the class.  How do you convince an 11-year-old that playing the trombone two hours a day is cool? Have a 15-year-old trombonist tell him so. A few weeks ago we took our students to go see the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra perform at the Woodruff Arts Center. It was great to see our students interacting with their Music Mentors, who they see on a weekly basis at AMP classes.

Atlanta Music Project students hang with their music mentors at the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra Concert.

Below is a picture the AMP students performing as a choir during our Winter Performance at the Museum Bar. Our students are a joy to work with. However, some of them, as we expected, do have some behaviour issues. Not that I blame them, it’s amazing to hear what some of them have already gone through at their age. But I’m around them so much that I’m privileged to be able to see all the sides of their personalities.

The instance that most caught my attention in these first months was seeing one of our students, who can come off as particularly hardened, backstage before going out to perform. Here was this kid, one of our bigger ones, who can be quite the bully and troublemaker, scared out of his/her mind to go out on stage to perform. I smiled and said to myself “that’s the real him/her.” I could see it in his/her face. Behind all that bravado was simply a young child: humbled, intimidated, unpolished, innocent and full of potential.

On doing El Sistema in Atlanta, I always keep in mind that, through music, we’re developing the true side of our children.

What it's all about. Led by choir director Aisha Bowden, AMP students perform during their Winter Performance. Photo courtesy of My True Vision Photography.

Next AMP Concert:

If you’re in Atlanta, be sure to come check out the Atlanta Music Project Teaching Artists in concert at the Gilbert House on Thursday March 31 at 6pm. More info here.