Spotlight on Alumni: Erik Holmgren ☆

Erik Holmgren teaching at an El Sistema-inspired program of the LA Philharmonic (HOLA at YOLA).

Recently, the Gazette talked with Erik Holmgren, TC alum and Education Director of the Abreu Fellows Program about his career path, the power of music, and the visionary global movement that he is a part of.

You are the Education Director of the Abreu Fellows Program for El Sistema.  Tell us about your background and what led you there.

Before TC, I had degrees in Saxophone Performance and in Music Theory.  I was living in Ithaca, NY and was commuting 300 miles each way to Frostburg State University and performing and recording throughout the US. At a certain point I knew that was unsustainable, and came to understand that it was the teaching that was driving me there, literally.  So I came to TC to study education.

When I left TC, I graduated into a world with economic challenges.  I had five degrees in music, and I couldn’t even find jobs to apply for to get rejected from.  The December before I defended my dissertation, I was in Belize on my honeymoon.  I met a woman in a van, and found out that she had just started an education technology company that taught math education on cell phones.  After I graduated, I ended up working for that company and owning a part of it.  It was great being around something so entrepreneurial, but it took me far from music.  The company made money through government contracts, through “No Child Left Behind” and there was a part of it that just didn’t resonate with me.   I did that work for a year in New York, and then I came across the Abreu Fellows Program.

Tell me about the Abreu Fellows Program and El Sistema.

In 2008 Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema in Venezuela, won the TED prize.  That prize included $100,000 and one wish to change the world.  His wish was to “…create and document a special training program for at least 50 gifted young musicians, passionate for their art and for social justice, and dedicated to developing El Sistema in the US and in other countries.” The Abreu Fellows Program is that wish.  It is a mix of performing (which is what drives El Sistema), and entrepreneurial education, because El Sistema is not a method, it’s a way of giving music to everyone, to kids who would otherwise not have it.  The third component of the program is the non-profit management side, which I got a good taste of when I was working for the for-profit company.

What we are doing with El Sistema in the United States is building a movement.  Each year we have ten fellows—all amazing musicians.  We have a violinist from the Cleveland Orchestra; we have Fellows from Panama, Spain, Haiti, Venezuela.  Fellows come to learn how to build these programs in the U.S.  We take who they are as performers, then develop them into educators and turn them into non-profit leaders who can create the space for music to happen.  They are Fellows for a year, and then they are expected to work on behalf of the El Sistema movement in the U.S. for at least a year.  But it is a lifetime commitment, in reality.

Tell me about the first 10 Fellows, who graduated last year.

All ten Fellows are working on behalf of the El Sistema movement in the United States as leaders.  We have two fellows at the L.A. Philharmonic, two in Boston running a charter school program that includes music four hours a day, five days a week.   We have one in Alaska who won Alaska State Teacher of the Year, and who is one of the most stunning educators I have ever met.   Others are the Executive Directors of programs they founded in Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, and Durham, NC.  The one who didn’t start his own program is traveling across the world helping countries to start programs.  The hard part is that there is no infrastructure for these programs, the entire movement is predicated on hope.  So they have to build everything from the ground up, organizationally, educationally.  We are building a movement as we are transforming the definition of what it means to be a musician.

Do you have great hope in last year’s ten graduates?

Absolutely.  Their work right now is stunning.  They are leaders in a very young national movement already.  They have set a very high standard and we expect that from the second class as well.  They are different people with different goals, but the fundamental is to have orchestral programs for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have instruments.  Essentially, if we do our jobs right, about 1,000 kids will make music next year who wouldn’t have without these Fellows.

What does the success of this program say both about the power of music and the power of organizing kids from difficult backgrounds and making them a part of something?

Music is the vehicle we are using here, but at the center is the belief that every child is a musician with the ability to communicate in a deep and meaningful way through music.

If you ask any Venezuelan, they will tell you El Sistema is a social program.  And it is.  It has been funded not through their cultural ministry, but through social services.  And that’s the goal.  Maestro Abreu says the worst thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no one.  At the core of the our work is belief that these kids are not ‘no one’, and they’re not lost to their circumstances, but they are all musicians.  Being in an orchestra, they are a part of community.  They learn to function, share and contribute.  It develops something in these kids that is essential and transformative.

Is there something about the culture in Venzuela that helps the program succeed there, but will perhaps make it harder to transplant to the U.S.?

We are trying to ‘translate’ the program, or ‘plant’ the program here in the U.S.

Every community is very specific in what they need and what they have.  El Sistema is ultimately a connection among the nucleos (different facets of the society).  These connections in the U.S. may be harder to make.  Plus, in Venezuela as of 2006, El Sistema has $61 million of government funding and we don’t have that in the U.S.   We have to tap into state and local resources, and individuals, and we are never going to be as centrally funded or run.  But it can still work, because people–no matter where they live–still need each other.  They need an identity.  That’s universal.

El Sistema began in 1976.  What has increased its visibility?

Nobody in the U.S. seemed to pay attention to El Sistema until the mid-90’s, when WGBH Boston did a documentary.  And then there were some pieces on 60 Minutes that were extraordinarily powerful.  There was a 12 year-old boy who looked at the camera and said, ‘It feels a lot better to hold a clarinet than a gun.’  These were the moments that put El Sistema on the map.

When Gustavo Dudamel (an El Sistema graduate) became the Music Director of the L.A. Philharmonic, that brought another component of attention.

What can you tell us about Dr. Abreu that we haven’t already read?

He’s unendingly dedicated to his work, and has navigated six governments in Venezuela, which is no small feat.  He has grown this program through unbelievable political turmoil and that is maybe his biggest accomplishment.  El Sistema in Venezuela is the greatest mission driven organization in the world.  He’s a visionary.

Erik, I find it interesting that you get a Doctorate in Music Education, and now you are running a vital arm of a non-profit.  What does that say about your TC education and did it perhaps uniquely prepared you for this role?

There is an openness at TC.  In my program there was a support for re-imagining what it means to be a teacher and a musician.

I was a full time doctoral student, so I also worked on behalf of TC:  I taught a couple of courses, plus I got a lot of administrative experience and I learned how vital that is.

Beyond the openness of the faculty, there were my fellow students.  There was such a diversity of experience that you can’t help but learn from most of your conversations.

Finally, the difference between teacher education and teacher training is profound at TC.  The program doesn’t train you with a set of skills.  It educates you with a set of ideas.

To learn about the The Abreu Fellows Program at New England Conservatory, click here.

To hear Dr. Jose Abreu tell the story of El Sistema, click here.

To watch Gustavo Dudamel and the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, click here.

For more on TED, click here.

To peruse “Musical Perspectives”, the online journal founded by Erik Holmgren, click here.