Reporter's Notebook: L.A.'s YOLA takes up challenge of El Sistema model

In the classical music world today, no two words inspire more evangelical fervor than "El Sistema," unless perhaps they're "Gustavo Dudamel."

El Sistema, a.k.a. the System, is, of course, the ballyhooed 35-year-old Venezuelan national music training and youth orchestra program that has taught hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan children to play and appreciate classical music. That includes its star protégé, Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's 29-year-old music director.

It's a tough act to follow. But that's not stopping cities such as L.A., Boston, New York and Baltimore from trying. Since its inception, El Sistema has inspired many similar, albeit inevitably smaller, youth orchestra projects in Latin America, Europe and more recently the United States, including the Phil-supported 2 1/2-year-old YOLA EXPO Center Youth Orchestra.

"It's the core values that are resonating," said Mark Churchill, artistic director of preparatory and continuing education at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. "We don't want to make a cookie cutter kind of program."

The missionary zeal flowed freely earlier this month when dozens of music educators, youth program administrators and others converged here for a three-day symposium, "Composing Change: YOLA and the El Sistema Movement." Sponsored by the L.A. Phil, the conference was part of an ongoing effort, not to slavishly imitate every chapter and verse of the El Sistema playbook, but to adapt some of its key ideas and methods to a U.S. context.

Much of the symposium took place at the bustling EXPO community center of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, next-door to the Coliseum. It concluded with Dudamel conducting the fledgling YOLA musicians in what was billed as an open rehearsal at Walt Disney Concert Hall, keeping a pledge he'd made months ago.

Comprising frank panel discussions, moving personal testimonies from U.S. musicians who'd visited and worked with El Sistema in Venezuela, and a good deal of institutional soul-searching, the symposium was an amalgam of academic seminar, motivational speakers' meeting and tent-church revival. Welcoming attendees to the conference's second day, Churchill told late-arrivers that they were "joining a love-in, California style."

"If there's any lingering doubt that El Sistema is becoming a movement in the United States, it will be eradicated by tomorrow," declared Churchill, who's also director of El Sistema USA, a stateside support network and information clearing-house for people and organizations motivated by the Venezuelan model.

The symposium's large L.A. contingent included Leni Boorstin, the L.A. Philharmonic Assn.'s community affairs director, and Gretchen Nielsen, its director of educational initiatives. They were joined by representatives of the Phil's two partners in developing YOLA: Paloma Udovic of the Harmony Project, an L.A. music-education program that targets at-risk youth; and Belinda Jackson, the EXPO center's executive director.

In a panel discussion, the women spoke openly about the rewards of collaborating, as well as the difficulties they'd faced in having to merge three different institutional cultures into one project. One described it as a "three-way marriage" that had required "marriage counseling" at certain times.

They also talked about the challenges of fostering an orchestra that is roughly 80% Latino and 20% African American in a South Los Angeles neighborhood that has undergone dramatic demographic change in the last decade or so, and still struggles with gang activity and poverty. The Phil is launching a second youth orchestra based in Lafayette Park this fall.

In general, the attendees agreed that the obstacles in translating El Sistema to the United States have as much to do with differing economic and social values as they do with the right-versus-wrong way to cradle a violin or finger an oboe.

Churchill said that El Sistema, under its ceaselessly energetic and politically savvy founder-director, José Antonio Abreu, deliberately cultivates an atmosphere of creative chaos. That allows the enormous program, which administers scores of semi-autonomous núcleos or teaching centers across the country, to stay flexible and adaptive to changing needs and circumstances, he said.

Several attendees said that U.S. funders of non-profits, unlike their Venezuelan counterparts, tend to insist on seeing hard, empirical data, demonstrating that music education actually helps kids stay in school and get better grades, before they'll open up their checkbooks. In Venezuela, one speaker said, anecdotal evidence and observation are relied on more.

There are other obstacles for U.S. organizations trying to understand how El Sistema's odd mixture of discipline in certain respects (long rehearsal hours, regular classes) and looseness in others produces such superlative results. Eric Booth, an artist, author and self-described "maniac on behalf of the El Sistema movement" writes in an essay, "El Sistema's Open Secrets," that was widely disseminated at the symposium: "Copying the pedagogy and curriculum alone will not produce the transformative power of El Sistema."

Wearing running shoes and inevitably seen dashing between discussions groups, necktie flying and a stack of papers under his arm, Booth served as the conference's unofficial guru, time-keeper and grass-drills instructor. Stressing the need not to "over-systematize," he told participants that the real question posed by El Sistema is: "How do we love children into wholeness?"

Rodrigo Guerrero, El Sistema's international affairs officer, stressed that El Sistema originally was conceived, and still functions, as a social project first and an artistic project second, although the two approaches are complementary and inseparable. He also emphasized the need to see the instructional interchange between teachers and students as an end in itself.

"The product is the process," Guerrero said.

Churchill concurred. Even in tough economic times such as at present, he added, initiatives like El Sistema have the rare power of being able to unite disparate groups around a common cause.

"We're all very factionalized, we're all very desperate for survival," Churchill said, "but this just cuts through all that. It's about rising above the facts. It's about dreaming big."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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