“What piece would you like to conduct on the program?” he said enthusiastically in broken English.
In my immediate shock, I think I muttered “huh?”
“Why don’t you conduct the Fanfare from La Peri? It’s fourth on the program”
I had just been asked to conduct in a concert with students I had never heard or rehearsed. In his love for the kids and the music, it was never about Luis (the director), but about welcoming a guest and bringing in a new experience for his students. Little did I know that being immersed in this act of generosity was going to be a learning opportunity for me as well.
The selfless culture of El Sistema nucleos is one of indefinite learning and unconditional giving. The goals and needs of the collective always take precedence to the needs of the individual. As we experienced many conductors step down from the podium (often during their dress rehearsals), giving way to outside guests, it was never about their interpretation, or their tempi, or their perspective, or their contribution. It was simply an opportunity for them to open up their arms to someone new, who came with knowledge to share.
Embodying this collective-first, individual-second culture will be challenging within the existing customs in the United States. Replacing the “what’s in it for me” ethos with “What can I give” is a significant step in creating an atmosphere that will begin generating bonds and effusing a sense of family within the ensemble. This has led me to believe, that El Sistema is simply not a noun, but a verb—a way of being, a way of learning, and a way of giving.
At the end of our trip, it was none other than Dr. Abreu asking us for suggestions and feedback about the nucleos in Venezuela. If the culture of humility comes to life from the top of an organization, then it will surely flow down to those in its presence, empowering students, teachers, and the larger community to experience the joys of learning and giving, without expecting anything in return.