Thirty Minutes with Maestro Abreu

Maestro Abreu, Rodrigo Guerrero and Deborah Borda onstage at Walt Disney Hall


I had but ten hours in Los Angeles last Wednesday at the Take a Stand Symposium, during which time I reconnected with some old friends, finally met in person some wonderful, inspiring correspondents new and old, and had many interesting conversations, but of those six hundred minutes, thirty were in a one-on-one conversation with Maestro Abreu.

I don’t know why he thus honoured me when he has so many calls upon his time, but we found a quiet corner in the lobby of the Omni hotel and sat down to talk. I took the opportunity to present him with print copies of the various publications in which my articles on Sistema had appeared since our last meeting, and to ask him a few questions to direct my ongoing work.

A good moment with a most gracious gentleman

My research on Sistema has always been guided primarily by my time making music within it, rather than just observing it, and I’d like to think the former has given me some uncommon insight as I’ve attempted to deconstruct my experiences in Venezuela, and connect them to contemporary educational and sociological scholarship. But there are a few concepts that, even when deconstructed structurally or philosophically, still seem incompletely expressed. There’s a spiritual element to Sistema; it is part of the structure, it is part of the philosophy, but it extends beyond both, and there is no one save Maestro Abreu who unites and articulates these qualities better.

And the one thing I have deconstructed structurally and philosophically, but not spiritually, was the incredible humility of the teachers within Sistema. My last question to Maestro in our time together was simply how – how was this achieved in an industry that elsewhere is so prone to arrogance, egotism and abuse? This was his response.


“Teaching is not something hierarchical. It’s a pleasure. We consider ourselves privileged to be a teacher, especially because in Venezuela we didn’t have the profession of music teacher in the past. There’s a sense of pride to achieve through your students.”

Maestro Abreu then gave the example of an exceptional young female horn player from Cojedes, one of the poorest districts of Venezuela, and how her teacher was virtually unknown. Being acquainted with one exceptional young female horn player from the region, I asked if Maestro was thinking of her. “No,” he replied, “she’s from San Carlos.”

The fact that he could immediately distinguish between two of the thousands of students he must have met answered my question completely. He is deeply, profoundly invested in his students and their success. He connects with them, remembers them, values them and gives them his time and attention, no matter how many heads of state, dignitaries or symphony executives clamour for the same. He doesn’t simply articulate the structural, philosophical and spiritual qualities of Sistema – he embodies them too.

So it was with a great sense of humility and honour that I realized that perhaps he considers me one of his students too. Thank you, Maestro, for the half hour.



5 thoughts on “Thirty Minutes with Maestro Abreu

  1. Bravo Bravo Jonathan- a wonderful story of a mountain top moment with the close personal friend we all wish we had. Envy is not a good thing, and thank God I don’t suffer from it too much, but I’m all over this one-half hour. Thank you for taking the time to reflect with your heart and your head, capturing wonderful insight for us all. Makes me want to be just like him, and you.


    1. Glenn, if you’re successful in what you’ve set out to do, Maestro Abreu will seek out some time with you, this I’m certain of.

  2. I am hoping we will get to hear you discussion with Maestro Abreu soon. He was suppose to be on stage the first time I came up to an El Sistema event. I am very curious what thoughts he chose to share with an American audience.

  3. Cynthia, I asked him about some key elements of the Sistema experience that have not as yet been documented. I’ll be presenting my findings in Ottawa on March 31st, and will probably post a summary shortly thereafter.

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