In December of 2009 a colleague and I in the Abreu Fellows program at NEC were asked to speak before the institution’s Board of Trustees, to describe our experiences at the Conservatory to date and place our involvement in the Fellowship within a more personal context. I posted the text of that very brief address here, but the more interesting part of the event was the question posed by a trustee immediately thereafter: “How do you intend to leverage the brand of the Fellowship?”
I can’t recall what I said now, perhaps because it wasn’t worth remembering: there’s an inverse ratio between the quality of a question and the ease with which it is answered. What I should have said is: “At this moment the only brand is the name association with Maestro Abreu. It is up to us, the first class, to establish the substantive brand through our actions, and build it into something which holds powerful meaning and recognition within the music industry.”
L’esprit de l’escalier: hindsight is always 20/20, and I’ve had two and a half years to come up with that. The association with Maestro Abreu, even if only titular (the second class never had an opportunity to meet with him) has been extremely valuable to me, but has never been enough on its own. The fellowship program in its first year had yet to establish a clear identity, a function mostly of its compressed start-up window, so I have always relied on my analyses and reflections of my experiences working within Venezuela and in similar organizations around the world, paired with extensive research, for the opinions I express, rather than promulgating uninformed romantic conjectures. That, plus “Abreu”, is the brand I’ve tried to build.
But that beautiful title of Abreu Fellow is no more. As part of the renewal of NEC’s relationship with the FundaBol, the title has now been changed to “Sistema Fellow,” thus trading a very known and highly respected quantity for an entity that is largely (if not by definition) undefined. I don’t entirely disagree with this decision. The original name was expressly discouraged by the Maestro himself under the very reasonable rationale he could not be seen actively supporting an eponymous program. (His request was overruled by the now-departed program management.) But he did support it in his own subtle way, and he continues to support its graduates, including me, to an extent that I find extraordinarily humbling.
As for the program itself, its substantive brand has emerged as “capable núcleo managers.” Although this is disavowed by NEC, there is a very clear instructional emphasis on organizational development in the American not-for-profit environment, with the time spent in Venezuela significantly reduced. The program evolution is perhaps a natural response to the most pressing challenges in the US, and NEC has found excellent faculty, so no criticism should be inferred. NEC has historically quantified and communicated the relative success of the fellowship by the placement of its graduates in middle or upper-management positions in organizations in the US – by which standard I am the most unsuccessful Fellow of all, I now realize – so this is a logical correlative to that measure.
With the fourth group of fellows recently announced, there remains but one more class for which to apply. I’m often asked by prospective applicants to describe my experience within the program, but its evolution, or very public growing pains, means that I can only offer an outdated perspective. My general advice to applicants is twofold. 1) It is not an “aspirational” program: being enamoured of the concepts and wanting to be involved is insufficient. The past and current classes have established a clear commitment through a representational body of work prior to applying. 2) Be certain it’s what you want. Ensure your objectives align with the program thrust, and be aware that there is still widespread industry fear and mistrust of the idea of social action through music. Some view a commitment to Sistema as heresy in a profession of deeply embedded orthodoxy. A brand can be a dangerous thing, sometimes.
Most importantly, it’s only a name. Outstanding work has been done from Adelaide to Zurich by musicians, amateur and professional, who have no such title, only a deep and abiding passion for changing the world through their craft. Not being selected for the Fellowship is no value judgment on anyone’s capacity: I admire greatly those who are trying – not just succeeding – without the advantages the title confers. I’m proud of the achievements of my fellow Fellows, but the inevitable conclusion of the Abreu Fellows program (as I’m certain it will always be known) should mark the start of a new era, not the end.