Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada is a member of the third class of The Sistema Fellows at New England Conservatory. An accomplished pianist and conductor, he studied at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, the Conservatori del Liceu in Barcelona, and the University of Texas Pan-American. A former conducting fellow at Bard College Conservatory of Music, he has directed numerous ensembles including El Sistema-inspired ensembles such as the Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil Carlos Chavez (Mexico’s flagship youth orchestra) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA). In the presentation classes I teach for the Fellows Program at NEC, I have observed his passion for music and his eloquence in advocating for it. –Tony Woodcock
The language of the invisible
“What is it that the orchestra has planted in the souls of its members? A sense of harmony, a sense of order implicit in the rhythm, a sense of the aesthetic, the beautiful and the universal, and the language of the invisible, of the invisible transmitted unseen through music.” –Jose Antonio Abreu
I remember, vividly, the day that I decided to study music.
I wanted to be an artist. As a child, I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew how it sounded. I would listen to Leonard Bernstein’s recordings of the Beethoven symphonies for hours on end. At six years old, the Eroica was my favorite musical work of all time. The sheer power of the sound was captivating; the music, grand and elegant.
Somewhere, I heard that if you studied piano, you could play the sounds of an orchestra. So I decided to take lessons. I remember having to sign a contract at the local community arts school—literally. This simple and yet daunting document stipulated that I would commit to attending lessons, practicing at home, and dedicating the effort into producing “results of artistic value.”
Fair enough, I agreed.
I quickly realized that music was not easy. And that it would take a while to reproduce the sounds that were so endearing to me. Nonetheless, a meaningful journey in music began, right then.
My first piano teacher wasn’t a world renowned artist or pedagogue, but he instilled in me a sense of purpose—the idea that any student, even at the initial stages of learning, should feel that his life in music and the arts, is important. I had my concerto debut, at age ten.
Growing up, I treasured listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretation of Haydn’s Cello Concerti. Ma’s playing sounded as if he were sharing his own life-story. His music-making conveyed a sense of order, of utmost immediacy and relevance. The music, composed over two hundred years ago, made sense, even in our times. With such universal works, we can develop new connections and experiences— a set of personal views, unique perspectives that allow us to realize their timeless beauty.
A few months ago, I was preparing to conduct a performance of La Mer. In learning the score, I decided to try something new. I spent some time just looking at the sea. In contemplating its stillness, I began to see Debussy’s opening bars in a new light. Everything came into focus—its colors and textures became more relevant, its message spoke more clearly to me. Impressionism became a more familiar language.
Recently, I heard Alan Gilbert lead the New York Philharmonic in a series of closed rehearsals at Lincoln Center. As they worked through Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, you could feel the musicians becoming enraptured by the composer’s world of sound, playing with an Olympian strength that was so striking and yet so accessible. What made their interpretation so unique?
Over the years, the Philharmonic has gotten to know Mahler very well. In playing the composer’s works, the orchestra is expanding on and enhancing a performance tradition and legacy that have evolved since the time when Mahler himself was its principal conductor.
To remain relevant, music must be understood, perfected, and embraced as part of a larger cross-cultural and personal narrative context. In this manner, a work’s meaning evolves. As Mahler himself explains, “it should be one’s sole endeavor to see everything afresh and create it anew.” When we adopt this premise, we can feel music as a living entity; flexible and malleable to the spirit of our times.
Indeed, the times are changing. We are entering into an era of artistic re-imagination. My generation is seeing the role of the arts evolve and thrive anew. Performers are continually raising the bar of musical mastery. Musicians are aspiring to look beyond the notes, and re-imagine the universality of music as a catalyst for social transformation, in and through communities.
Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema in Venezuela, the celebrated national network of youth and professional orchestras, believes that music can have a transcendent effect on the development of society. His work in education and the arts, considered one of the “world’s cultural treasures,” (in the words of Austrian Culture Minister Claudia Schmied) is a model for the role of classical music in our times. Abreu’s El Sistema is a powerful artistic philosophy, a window into the art of possibility, a space where musicians can envision their profession as an instrument of transformative purpose.
Recognizing the orchestra as its primary learning domain, El Sistema’s fundamental goal is not to produce young instrumental virtuosos, but rather, citizens of virtue. Of course, this does not mean there isn’t room for the highest artistic achievement. On the contrary, the Venezuelans believe that in embracing excellence, the whole person thrives. Indeed, research has shown that participating in music develops creative capacities for lifelong success.
“An orchestra is a community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself, therefore, those who play a part in the orchestra, begin to live the experience of agreement,” Abreu explains.
What does the experience of agreement mean?
When I heard Gustavo Dudamel and the Símon Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (the flagship El Sistema orchestra)perform, I was immediately captivated by their sound. Their astonishing display of virtuosity reminded me that working together in the pursuit of common goals is a beautiful idea. As they tackled the dazzling mixed-meters and syncopations in Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemaya you could feel their commitment to the score: their entire souls were present in the music.
Inspired by this experience and following Abreu’s guiding philosophy, I took on the task of building an orchestral program from the ground up. An orchestra of 100 children was born in Reynosa, Mexico, the city of my childhood, where I first heard the Eroica, just across the border with the United States. In a short time, we saw the youngsters’ level of playing increase dramatically; we saw a culture of collective achievement blossom through music. I learned that music could serve manifold purposes and that it could influence the lives of people in powerful ways.
In an orchestra, participants blossom through teamwork, understanding music as an endeavor that propels them to new spheres of achievement. Great professional and youth orchestras recognize that their work is never finished, but just begun, all of the time. They ask questions, they hone their message, and live up to the highest standards of excellence.
El Sistema orchestras are communities of practice. When musicians come together to learn from each other, they explode the narrow perception of art as an entity of exclusivity. They re-imagine music, fitting it to their own broader social construct, that of a new reality stemming from both an aesthetic purpose and social need. This duality of artistic motivation creates the kind of musical accomplishments that have captivated audiences all over the world.
That an orchestra and its members should recognize themselves as interdependent— is an interesting notion. The term, embraced by Abreu, stems from the field of economics. The orchestra becomes, “a whole of which the parts are connected and react on each other,” borrowing from the words of the 19th century mathematician Antoine Augustin Cournot, who wrote about economic interdependence. Beauty is realized in communion with others.
This is what the El Sistema movement in the United States and around the world can strive for—to energize artists and teachers to create new frameworks of teaching and learning that connect people and ideas. In doing so, educators can also borrow from other fields and collaborate with thinkers across disciplines. Harvard’s Project Zero’s Studio Thinking Framework, is an exceptional tool that can help us understand artistic endeavors in the context of human growth.
I was recently invited to lead a conducting seminar for young maestros at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Orchkids, an El Sistema-inspired program. The children and I talked about what it means to be a part of an orchestra. We listened to Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony and discussed the composer’s idea of wanting to convey a “feeling of the expression of nature.” A world of beauty opened up, children were eager to feel for the sounds of nature in the score, to enter into a dialogue with the composer, and consequently, among themselves.
I’ve often heard that El Sistema’s artistic outcomes stem from a pedagogy of “passion preceding precision.” We must be careful not to romanticize this notion and to remember that musical achievement, which includes a strong command of instrumental technique, is fundamental to achieving any other extra musical benefits. Abreu believes that first and foremost, “art implies a sense of perfection.”
At Symphony Hall, shortly after his rehearsal of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Boston Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma met with young musicians from the Boston Arts Academy. He asked them, “What do we still need to work on?” Clearly, a world class artist is always on a path to excellence.
It is always a thrill to hear a youth orchestra play Beethoven. The Youth Philharmonic Orchestra at the New England Conservatory, for example, is one of the country’s most accomplished youth orchestras. They are working on the Fifth Symphony, a work of epic proportions, one that we all know, almost too well. The musicians bring a sophisticated interpretation to the score, a unique personality and meticulous precision. It feels as if Beethoven had written the piece for them.
In the symphony, the composer presents us with a narrative of perseverance. The score itself represents a pedagogy of passion; of striving for gold. In daring to realize a score to its fullest potential, a musician must always feel as if the piece were composed for him. All emotions must be reconciled with past and present ideas—converging and creating new meaning for contemporary audiences. Sir Simon Rattle also believes that “music is always about something.” Part of the reason we feel any profound emotions from musicians is that clearly, the music, at its core means the world to them, hence “the message becomes loud and clear.”
In playing Beethoven, young people living in Boston, west Philadelphia, or in the barrios of Caracas can come to embrace and embody these same ideals. This is the language of the invisible at work, the kind of music-making that Abreu has envisioned through his orchestras.
Encompassing a duality of dimensions–artistic excellence and social participation, music can be seen as a vehicle to achieve civility, an enhanced notion of citizenry, and a “new school of social life.” The experience of agreement is also about knowing how to listen in pursuit of common goals. The orchestra teaches us lessons that extend well beyond music: we can learn how to work together.
Recently, the Sistema Fellows presented a lecture on the efficacy and potential of the arts as an instrument for social transformation for a study group at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. We were asked to enact El Sistema’s guiding principles.
We decided to engage our audience (graduate students in the fields of economics, education, and political science) musically. We followed Orff’s formula—our students were to “experience first and intellectualize later.”
Recognizing the unique skills of that community, we formed an orchestra—of voices. In less than forty-five minutes, we rehearsed and presented a finished musical performance. We assigned them parts from a collection of folk songs, perfected them, and embraced them as our own creations. We assimilated various pedagogical perspectives. Dalcroze (eurhythmics) was part of the equation. The group was mesmerized with the results of that experience, energized, and ready to further explore music education and the arts as a part of a public service agenda.
In being one with music and community, artistry thrives and evolves. These are exciting times. We’ve now seen the El Sistema movement blossom into more than fifty communities around the country. The Sistema Fellows are an important voice in guiding this progress. Along with countless educators, administrators, and other visionary leaders, we are seeking to re-imagine the role of classical music in the 21st century.
To be a musician in our times, one must feel that through our profession, we can truly light-up the world. In realizing a unique and personal interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; developing a new pedagogy for teaching music in the context of the needs of at-risk youth; or conducting a performance of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, we can communicate our own perspectives of beauty and purpose. This in itself is a transcendental contribution to the world.
Every now and then, I listen to my old recording of the Eroica, to find inspiration, to connect with my beginnings—a reminder that the journey is never finished, but just begun.
In Beethoven’s time, the opening E-flat major chords signaled a profound change in the direction of music. The work conveyed a wealth of new ideas—an identification with the challenges of humanity and with the heroism of bravery. In our times, musicians must be ready to embrace the true meaning of our craft: to produce artistic value, again and again.
After all these years, I’ve now come to realize that the greatest musicians are those who enter into our lives to share their talents in ways that inspire us to dream and thrive anew. Music can bring strength and purpose to our lives. The language of the invisible, that which is transmitted unseen through music, is possible—when we strive to reveal its beauty—together.