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Guest Blogger, Jon Deak: Creating Music with El Sistema, Part One

I am really, really, really! pleased to bring to you one of my very favorite artists: the composer, bassist, and educator extraordinaire: Jon Deak.

Jon has offered to provide a guest blog on Dewey 21C about his trip to Venezuela, as artist in residence with El Sistema, which considering all the attention it has gotten over the past couple of years, should need no introduction from me.

Jon, together with Ted Wiprud, has been the mind behind one of my favorite projects: the Very Young Composer Project (VYPC) at the New York Philharmonic. Many people have questioned whether young children can really compose, for people doubt this is possible since the children have not yet acquired the supposed requisite musical knowledge. Jon and Ted, and others associated with this project have challenged this notion, big-time. What I can tell you, is that the vast majority of these types of composition projects with children end us massaged quite a bit by the teaching artist/composer. Jon has a very different approach.

So, everybody, please welcome Jon Deak, one of my musical heroes to Dewey21C for a multi-part guest blog on his work with El Sistema. –RK
Part One

Yes, it is with great excitement that we are about to embark on this tremendous journey to Caracas, Venezuela, home to what I believe is the the most successful public music education system in the world (particularly in terms of scale). But my trip is also not without a generous amount of trepidation. Musical leaders from all over the world, from Simon Rattle to Yo-Yo Ma, have come to Caracas to experience the masterful creation of its founder, Maestro Jose` Antonio Abreu. With  300,000 of Venezuela’s poorest, most at-risk children having experienced the transformation of their lives into proud, constructive citizens through the power of symphonic music, El Sistema’s success has become a welcome tsunami, about to spread its transformative power throughout the world.

For a brief, but cogent description of this system, I encourage all to read Eric Booth’s Thoughts on Seeing El Sistema (June 2008), available online, as well as many other descriptions of this phenomenon.

How then, could I, with my colleague, New York Philharmonic Teaching Artist Richard Mannoia, even pretend to try and contribute to, and possibly influence El Sistema in any modest way?

Well it starts, of course, with great humility, preparation, and respect. But, let’s take a look at how all of this came about.

One of El Sistema’s most prominent and widely-traveled proponents, Daniela Bedoni, was tipped-off by Shirley Young (of the Tang family) to attend one of the “library concerts” we were giving with our Very Young Composer (VYC) kids in Eagle County, Colorado. The “VYC of Eagle County” focuses on helping public school kids ages 9-12 to compose and orchestrate the music that is already inside them, and have it played by fine professional musicians, even joining in on the performances themselves!

We only give them scribe-like notational help: All the notes and timbres must come from the child. We give tons of moral support, of course, and provide things like live instrument “interviews” that are kid-driven demos, rhythmic and ear-fantasy games, and more. We do not edit the kids work, which is very rare with this sort of work. The music you hear is truly music of the child, and the miracles I have heard have transformed my life.

The VYC of Eagle County is a joint project of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival and the New York Philharmonic. Liz Campbell and Ted Wiprud, respectively, deserve great credit for making it happen, as well as Bill Gordh, the NY Philharmonic musicians, the West family, and many others.

So Daniela (or Dani, as she likes to be called) attended a concert this past summer, and enthusiastically wondered if I might be interested in introducing some of these ideas in Venezuela. After much discussion, I accepted. Who wouldn’t?

For years now, I’ve been having deep discussions about El Sistema with my education-minded friends all over. From Jacqui Danilow and Jaime Austria, to Tom Cabaniss, Richard Kessler, Mark Churchill and Eric Booth, and more recently, Jennifer Kessler of Carnegie and Anne Fitzgibbon, whose Harmony Project is gaining momentum as a viable vanguard of El Sistema in New York.

I also had the amazing good fortune to have worked with Gustavo Dudamel, who as a teenager, contributed Un Tema Venezolana to my orchestral work for the Orquesta Juvenil de las Americas, and has also become a supporter of bringing the VYC to Venezuela. Both Dani and Gustavo have said that, as thorough as their program is, there is not a centrally organized creative music making (composition-centered) component to it. They asked me if I would I like to try and incorporate such work into El Sistema.

Dani Bedoni has been absolutely tireless in her help and preparations in carrying out this journey. The Halbreich Foundation provided welcome support for my travel expenses and for my Teaching Aritist, Richard Mannoia to accompany me. Taking part in the FESNOJIV program (the long Acronym on which El Sistema is based) is no casual matter. People must be duly invited, documented, and approved by Maestro Abreu himself to even attend classes, let alone give them. The System has not survived and flourished by being casual in its organization!

Diana Arismendi, leader of the Taller de Escritura Creativa, a composers’ school associated with El Sistema, will be working with me, and providing a class of children who have never composed, but are eager to do so. I have asked for a class, perhaps two, of six to eight children, ages 9-12, and/or 12-14.
So, with the good wishes of Ted, the New York Philharmonic Education Department and others at the NY Philharminc, and my own family, Richard Mannoia and I boarded an Avianca flight for Caracas early in the morning on April 7th.

Who knows what we will encounter? We’ve been told Venezuela is wonderful, exciting…and dangerous.

Ask me if I’m nervous.

Jon Deak, April 7th, 2010, New York

Click here for Part Two
Jon Deak, born in the sand dunes of Indiana of East European parents, is a Composer, Contrabassist, and Educational pioneer. Educated at Oberlin College, the Julliard School, the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia (Rome) and the University of Illinois, he joined the New York Philharmonic and served as its Associate Principal Bassist for many years, while continuing his professional composing, and studying with Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein. During this time he also introduced ground-breaking performance techniques for the Contrabass, and in his orchestral writing, working with major orchestras across the country.

From 1994 – 97 he served as Composer In Residence (sponsored by Meet the Composer) with the Colorado Symphony under Marin Alsop, which is where he initiated the public school program now called The Very Young Composers (VYC).

With support from the New York Philharmonic and others, the VYC has grown steadily, winning a national award for excellence in 2004. The program has been introduced in Shanghai, Tokyo, and now in Venezuela, besides serving hundreds of children in eleven New York area Public Schools and such places as New England and Eagle County, Colorado. The New York Philharmonic has premiered 42 works for children, fully orchestrated by the children themselves, mostly under the ages of 13, as well as hundreds of chamber works in the public schools and libraries.

IMG02277.jpgDaniela Bedoni, Guztavo Dudamel, and Jon Deak

Daniela Bedoni, Richard Mannoia, and Jon Deak with children from El Sistema

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