Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday TED Talk: José Antonio Abreu on Inspiration Through Music

With this Friday "TED Talk" post, I hope I can demonstrate to you why the annual TED Conference at Long Beach is so exciting and inspiring at the same time. I shall introduce you in a moment to an incredibly talented musician and teacher---José Antonio Abreu of Venezuela---who, while he speaks little English, has mastered completely the universal language of music. And even better: he teaches it to young children from the poorest and most educationally deprived walks of Venezuelan society.

As a much younger and highly motivated music teacher in Venezuela in 1975, Dr. Abreu conceived what he named "El Sistema"---"the System". He began with the young musicians he was able to assemble for instruction, with the goal of forming them into a youth orchestra---all eleven of them! Listen and watch below as he describes (in Spanish---there are English subtitles) how his commitment to those eleven kids has grown, through what he acknowledges was the grace of God, into a movement in Venezuela that has given birth to no less than one hundred and two fully equipped and performing youth orchestras in the 34 years since. As his brief biography on the TED site explains (emphasis in original): 
The talented musicians have become a source of national pride. . . .  There is a simple concept behind Abreu's work: for him an orchestra is first and foremost about togetherness, a place where children learn to listen to each other and to respect one another.
To which I would add: they also learn to respect themselves for what they have inside them, and of which José Abreu is the musical midwife, as it were---once they begin to master the instrument they choose under his tutelage (and the tutelage of hundreds of other teachers to which he has passed on El Sistema), they gain a new confidence and purpose in life, their poverty-stricken families marvel at and draw new motivation from their achievements, and the entire Venezuelan nation shares their pride of accomplishment.

José Antonio Abreu was one of three persons selected to receive the 2009 TED Prize---which carries an award of $100,000, plus a very unusual additional twist: he is given his own time before the Conference audience to explain what is important to him and what he hopes to do with the Prize, and then he is asked to express "one wish that is big enough to change the world."  In the following inspirational video, Maestro Abreu does just that:

I urge you, if you have QuickTime, Windows Media Player or some other suitable player, to watch the high-resolution version of the video here. (Or you can download the MP4 file, zipped, to your desktop, or to iTunes, from the links on this page.) After you have watched it, go to this link and read more about his wish and what he needs to make it come true.

Then, as proof (if you needed any, after listening to him above) of the incredible power of his methods, I ask that you find some time this weekend when you can take an uninterrupted bloc of just seventeen minutes in an otherwise quiet environment (use headphones, if you have them) and watch, and listen to, this video of one of Dr. Abreu's prize creations: the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, led by one of his star pupils, the astonishingly talented Gustavo Dudamel, who is just twenty-eight years old, and who will assume the post of Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic this fall! The Youth Orchestra is named for one of Venezuela's most celebrated pianists and composers, who performed---at age nine!---for Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1863. In keeping with her early achievements, it is comprised of Venezuela's most talented students, all of whom are of just high-school age, and who are training for a stint, after they graduate, in the country's most prestigious youth group: the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, which tours all over the globe and is ranked as one of the world's top five orchestras. In the video below, the feeder orchestra gives a simply phenomenal performance of the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, followed by an equally bravissimo performance of Danzón No. 2, by the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez.

This is a professionally produced video, and once again yields its best rewards from being watched in high-resolution format (or downloaded from here to your desktop or iTunes) while listened to through stereo headphones. You will see the usual shots of the string sections, the brass, the woodwinds, and the percussion, but you will be struck by the sheer youth, passion and exuberance of so many players performing absolutely and perfectly together, under the enthusiastic baton of their equally young conductor---particularly by the end of the second piece. I guarantee that you will not be bored, or feel that your time was wasted:

TED has recently announced the beginning of the implementation of Maestro Abreu's wish: to "help create and document a special training program for at least fifty gifted young musicians, passionate for their art and for social justice, and dedicated to developing El Sistema in the United States and in other countries." The Abreu Fellows Program has opened at the New England Conservatory of Music, and they have launched the website for el Sistema USA

Now pass this inspiring achievement on to some of your friends. The future of orchestral music seems well assured in the hands of these gifted young performers and artists.

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