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El Sistema Symposium, January 8 - 12, 2015, Hosted at Curtis

0 Ann Drinan

El Sistema USA and Play On, Philly! hosted a national El Sistema symposium at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia this past week.

A pre-symposium gathering, on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, January 8 & 9, gave attendees a tour of the Play On, Philly! nucleo site and a detailed description of their programs and procedures. A post-symposium meeting, on Sunday, January 11, involved a visioning session with El Sistema USA board members.

I will be writing in much more detail about the Symposium, but I did want to present a few highlights from the Symposium, which attracted representatives from more than 40 El Sistema nucleos.

Stacy Holland, Executive Director of The Lenfest Foundation, presented a very upbeat keynote address to get things started, as she discussed how she and her partner built the Philadelphia Youth Network from a small organization into a citywide entity serving over 15,000 youth annually with a budget of over $30 million. Her positive message of how daunting challenges can be met and surpassed was well-received by the attendees.

The Symposium featured three “wizards” of non-profit management: Beth Babcock, CEO of The Critenton Women’s Union in Boston, John Martinex, Deputy Director of Program Development, Development and External Affairs at MDRC, and Thomas McLaughlin, CEO of McLaughlin & Associates. Each gave a 2-hour presentation on their area of expertise.

Beth talked about building and growing a non-profit from a management point of view, John spoke about fundraising and gave many concrete tips about grant-writing. (His session was followed by presentations from two funders who are actively involved in El Sistema programs: the D’Addario Foundation and the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation.) Tom spoke about non-profit finances.

The three main presentations were helped enormously by an analysis of three case studies that were made available to attendees before-hand. These scenarios presented details of three El Sistema nucleos, one under the auspices of a major symphony orhcestra, and the various problems each encountered. The “wizards” discussed them from a management, funding, and financial point of view. It was enlightening (and sometimes amusing) to see various attendees start to identify with the Executive Director of one of these three case studies, especially poor Natalie, who founded a nucleo and then found herself trying to live on a $20,000 salary while working 60 hours a week.

During the opening session, Leni Isaacs Boorstin and Gretchen Nielsen of the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced the formation of a national El Sistema platform, in partnership with El Sistema USA, the Aspen Music Festival, and Bard College.

Friday evening, the Symposium presented a screening of CRESCENDO! The Power of Music,  a documentary film that follows two students from Play On, Philly! and one from Anne Fitzgibbons’ Harmony Project in Harlem. Stanford Thompson, Artistic Director of Play On, Philly! and one of the original Abreu Fellows (and our host for the entire Symposium), is featured prominently in the film. Jamie Bernstein, co-producer and director of the film, was present for a Q&A following the screening.

Watching Simon Rattle work with the Play On, Philly! kids, who performed at the beginning of one of his concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra playing a movement from a Brahms Symphony, and then hearing their reactions to how he treated them as professional musicians, brought a tear to this jaded eye.

It was a most intensive few days, with lots of information dispersed, and  lots of networking opportunities.

Perhaps the most interesting comment made was from Tom McLaughlin, who stated that El Sistema USA would be one of the top 20 most-recognized non-profit brands in the country within ten years.

Stay tuned!

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