Sunday, 2 February 2014

There is more...

Last night, as part of our Culture and Identity class, we had a field trip to Skid Row, where we met General Jeff, a community activist. Skid Row has one of the largest populations of homeless people in the USA.

I was deeply affected by meeting General Jeff. He is from South LA, and moved to Skid Row about 7 years ago to work in the community and be a voice for the community. He worked in the music industry as a successful rap artist before deciding to move to Skid Row, and give his life to the community and people there. He has now become a pillar of strength and voice for the community, saying things that few others dare to say, and being a positive influence to the extent that few dare to or even think of trying.

My initial feelings and thoughts when starting on the tour - was irritation, questioning why we were doing this - a few students taking a tour as spectators to this community which holds people with very real problems, and very real pain. However, after spending our time with General Jeff - I knew that I had missed the point earlier. The point is that although this community is filled with crime, homelessness and more - there are many positive things going on in the community, and many people working to effect change in the lives of the residents of Skid Row. 

Homelessness has a face, and has a name. Poverty has a face, and a name. Each person who lives at Skid Row, whether homeless, mentally-ill or struggling with addiction, has a face, and has a name. This is true for people and children around the world who live in poverty. At what point do we stop walking past the people around us who need us, at what point do we look past the stigma of homeless and poverty, that the person we see is a person we see is a person with real needs, real life experiences and real pain. When do we stop and engage - not helper to homeless, but person to person, not superficially, not just a 'hi' or 'God bless you', but a genuine seeking to know and understand. These are questions I am posing at myself - questions I know I need to work out in order to do this work in a way that truly empowers rather than causing harm to communities.

I need to learn how to approach this work through thought-processes and dialogues that engage issues at both a macro and very micro level. 

I am learning that things are not always as they appear to be, and as people portray them to be. Just as General Jeff emphasized yesterday, "There are two sides to every story". We need to be willing to listen to the communities we are working in, otherwise it is so easy to miss the point, and more importantly, miss the people.

The last two years have been full of seeing, and thinking, and being inspired by the great work that people and organizations are doing here, and around the world. But yesterday, it was the closest experience and encounter with the kind of work I feel myself being drawn to more. I do not know what shape this will all eventually take...I just know that in terms of my life's work, that there is more, and a deeper work that needs to be done. That my current frame with regard to social transformation and youth development is way too limited. I know there is more...

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Dream For the Future

Allow me to dream for a moment...with no boundaries, no criticism...just to dream. If you could dream of a future for your nation, what would it look like?

Every family has a home.
Every child has food.
Every child is love and cared for. Every child is safe.
Every child goes to school and has access to the best education.
Every child has hope, and has value placed on their lives through loving relationships with the people in their lives. Every child has the opportunities and support they need to become who they were meant to be and fulfill their life's purpose.

Communities come together and strive to bring about change - uniting for change on the premise: Every child is our child.

A nation who shares, because they understand that its in giving that you receive. A nation that works together for the common goals of firstly our children being taken care, then our communities' needs being met. A nation that works to take care of the homeless, the old, the young person without hope for their future. A nation that is not scared to stand up, and get our hands 'dirty' by stepping out of what makes us comfortable, and meeting the need of someone we encounter, or taking the time to have that conversation with someone who needs it - to learn or be encouraged.

If we can raise a strong generation - a generation that is culturally aware and does not hold prejudice, a generation that has hope...then we can construct a future.

The things you teach a child from young, rarely departs from them - teach a child to hope, and to love. Teach a child to dream. Teach children the importance of working together and being part of a bigger picture- that we are stronger standing together than scattered and just taking care of 'me and mine'. Teach a child to share. Teach a child that she/he is valuable.

This goes beyond just music or social organizations- this speaks to people. This speaks about a movement of change, a re-awakening that realizes that our children ARE the future. This speaks to organizations, businesses, education, government, and most importantly ordinary people- this speaks to every sphere of our nation. A nation that realizes the significance of standing together, supporting eachother - because after all it's not about us - it's about paving the way for the next generation, for our children, and children's children. 

This battle is not just our governments', our community leaders', our schools' or even our churches'/religious groups': this is a personal fight for all of us. When you lean in to help with social transformation and development in your community, and therefore your country - you contribute to the future of your own children and family.

Every child is OUR child.

"Build as if you are building for your own children..." Erik Holmgren, a leader I respect and who inspires me, made this profound comment once when I was in the Sistema Fellowship at NEC. I will never forget this sentiment, because it is so true, and so necessary. 

"Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do". - Steve Jobs

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Sunshine and greetings from LA...

Greetings from LA...

I trust that you are well and that you enjoyed your festive season. I hope that your year ahead is a meaningful one, and that the dreams in your heart for this year come to fruition.

I am excited about the year ahead - It's going to be a good year. It has been great to spend the last 6 months in Los Angeles. When people said that there is no winter here, I thought they were exaggerating, but they were right (to my big surprise!). So, during this festive season, I have been exploring different parts of LA, such as Venice Beach, downtown LA, Griffith Park and Observatory, and LA museums. I have also spent my time writing a mini concerto for flute and orchestra called "Remember, South Africa", which is about remembering our freedom, and will be played as part of my final music project.

“In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.” Phil Collins

This quote summarizes my experiences of the last few months as part of the Masters of Arts in Teaching Program. The highlight, for me, is being immersed everyday in the YOLA (Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles) at HOLA El Sistema program, which has an incredible family-like culture of positivity, love and excellence. Every MAT student is both a mentor and a mentee, creating a unique cycle. In the picture above, I am playing alongside YOLA students in the wind band concert at the Disney Hall Amphitheatre.

Another highlight has been watching the Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsals and concerts. We have observed conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Bramwell Tovey, Itzhak Perlman and Esa-Pekka Salonen. This interesting juxtaposition of being submerged in an El Sistema program, and being exposed to the work of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and how the partnership between these entities functions has been both fascinating and inspiring. 

In this coming term, I will be coaching a woodwind chamber group, organizing team building activities for students at YOLA, helping to mentor a student leadership group and to prepare students for their side-by-side concert with the Simon Bolivar orchestra from El Sistema, Venezuela. At this concert, they will be playing Tchaikovsky repertoire together with the Simon Bolivar orchestra. I will also begin to do research around the positive impact of music on children's growth and lives, as well as what combining youth development and the arts looks like.
These pictures were taken when some of my MAT colleagues and I played alongside YOLA students at various concerts and events. Our time with YOLA students are always fun and inspiring.

I would love to hear about how you are doing, and any thoughts on the topics I am researching are most welcome.

Warm Regards,


Thursday, 7 March 2013


Just as my life has been full of many opportunities, my life has also been full of many decisions. My experiences have often stemmed from a string of minor and major decisions, each having a consequence, good or bad. Although every decision seems separate, they are all linked in the myriad of our make-up as people. 

It's like the ripple-effect: if you drop a stone in water, you will see little ripples of water move outward. So are our lives.  I have heard the saying, "No man is an island". The decisions we make influence (knowing or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally) the lives of those around us. Imagine we intentionally used this ripple effect for transformation in our communities.

Yes, there are very dear people in all of our lives, that spent their lives making sure we could live ours. For me, this is my parents and family. I am immensely grateful, especially to my mother and father, for every sacrifice they have made for me. I often think about children who do not have this solid foundation to build on, in terms of their parents being there for them. In retrospect, I realize that I make the decisions I do today because of the influence of my parents: they have taught me how to navigate life and its many twists and turns.

Our decisions are based upon how important people in our lives have influenced us. They are also based on how we see ourselves, and how we see ourselves in relation to those around us. 

So, in life, we come across the "rotten" fruits of our poor decisions. We see a tree of bad attitudes, destructive behavior and actions. We see a bark of circumstances and even background. But we seldom look for and closely examine the root. I often think the root of most poor decisions is a tainted view of oneself. It's like looking at yourself in a cracked mirror. Granted, in sticking with the tree analogy, this is often due to absent gardeners, lack of sunshine, being fed the wrong plant food, or not having enough water. Despite all of the many reasons, the decision is still ours to make, as to who we want to be.

We decide daily: to act, to react, to respond, to laugh, to speak, to remain silent, to play, to engage, to take action, to eat, to sleep, to feel, to live. No matter what circumstances we are surrounded by, we decide who we want to be. This speaks about our character, our work ethic, the way we treat people and why we do things (motives).

I think that true transformation comes from within - and is often linked to a decision. The truth is that we do not have control over the decisions others make. However, we can help young people see their potential, by giving them a "new mirror" to see through. We might actually have the privilege of helping the roots in some of these young lives to grow well, and healthily, so that this has a ripple effect into the rest of their lives. 

Why This Matters: Stories of Hope

It was a sweltering day in the vibrant city of Barquisimeto today. As I sat on my bed this afternoon, looking out my bedroom window, I began to reflect on the many individual stories we have encountered in the past 3 days alone. 

One that stood out to me, occurred on Monday afternoon. Elise Seymour, a fellow fellow and I, while waiting entered into a conversation with a couple who were also waiting. We were standing outside a room, that was bursting with percussion sounds of claves and different drum beats. It was a percussion ensemble for people with special needs. 

The couple we met started telling us about their son, who is 36 years old and has down syndrome. The proud mother pointed to her son through the window, and told us that he had been coming to the nucleo in Barquisimeto for 11 years. He attends the nucleo 3 times a week. Before attending the nucleo, he could not speak. Initially he was placed in choir, and then later was moved to this percussion ensemble, which he has been in for a few years. He is now able to speak, because of his time in choir, and his interaction with peers throughout this process. To me, this was profound. Being part of this nucleo family has literally changed his life. 
Yesterday, we visited a nucleo just outside barquisimeto called Tamaca. This humble-looking nucleo, has a big, vibrant and industrious spirit! We were welcomed by a vocal ensemble, and taken around to see many of the classes. One of the last classes we saw was a vocal ensemble containing women. We asked if we could sit in, and learn a song. When chatting later to the women in the ensemble, we discovered that they were parents of children at the nucleo. This choir was started for parents who come and wait for their children, as well as to help the parents develop musical skills so that they can help their children with their homework. This moved me.

One of the parents in particular, takes a bus from Barquisimeto 5 days a week to be at the Tamaca nucleo, since Barquisimeto has a waiting list, and is for children who already know how to play music to some extent. Her daughter is learning how to play the viola, and they will continue to travel to Tamaca for tuition till they are able to get her in at the Barquisimeto nucleo at the Conservatory. We gave her and her daughter a lift back to the city, and she began to speak about what the nucleo means to her. She said that besides keeping young people from things like drugs and prostitution, music is now what the community speaks about, instead of speaking about crime. This was a golden statement for me.

The work that is being done here in Venezuela by El Sistema is astounding, and it is easy to be completely overwhelmed when considering the fact that they currently serve 400 000 children throughout Venezuela. I realized this evening, that each one of these children and young people have their individual stories. They are receiving the beautiful gift of learning music, and as music and the nucleo family become an integral part of their lives, their stories are being transformed. Many of these stories now contain hard work, the pursuit of musical excellence and taking ownership of their own learning and the learning of others (peer to peer teaching/mentoring). 

The Director of the Tamaca nucleo, spoke about their sentiment behind learning music. He said they teach that every problem has a doorway and there is no such word as "I can't". There is a solution to every problem. This is as true for life, as it is for music. The pages in the very personal, yet unified stories of these young lives are filled with accomplishments and success everyday. It is in the daily mini-successes that come by overcoming musical 'problems', through hard work and practise, that change a life one accomplishment at a time. The nucleos and teachers are not just influencing the stories of these young lives, but they are an integral part of their stories. Since our stories are intricately linked with those around us, the nucleo becomes part of the community's story. More than this, the nucleo in essence, helps in beginning to write a new story for each child, and therefore for the community: A story of passion, success and hope.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Changing a world: Opportunity and Possibility

 Being in Venezuela has been both exhilarating and poignant thus far. My world has been changed everyday by what I see, hear and am experiencing. A fellow fellow, Xochitl Tafoya made this statement on Sunday morning as we were about to leave Caracas, "There are no limits". We were chatting about the different types of programs that Sistema has: orchestral, choir, folk, jazz, instrument-making and repair workshops, programs that cater for special meeds, and soon to be a string quartet program. Today, when visiting a nucleo just outside Barquisimeto, the Director, in an inspiring conversation, reiterated Xochitl's sentiment.

A few nights ago, I was thinking about dreams, and whether it was important to have this big dream for our lives individually. Why is it necessary to dream? What does success truly look like? Why does all of this matter so much to me, and to everyone else here?
Just as it is with great artwork, an artist might paint a masterpiece with an idea in mind, and then name the artwork, and display it in a gallery. When viewers examine the artwork,  they may see something completely different to the artists original intention. It also may mean different things to different people. 

We had a  class at NEC with Judy Bose just before we left for Venezuela. The class was about aesthetic education. One of the group exercises involved using creative movement to express our emotion, and even tell a story. When gaining feedback from the other group, they derived so much meaning and even symbolism in our display. They even managed to extrapolate meaning that we had never even thought of or intended. This was a astounding learning point for me: The meaning derived from what is created,  often completely surpasses the artists' intent. This is true for many art forms. 

I believe that this is also true when working with children. If I take a good look at my life- it is made up of a string of opportunities that came at the right time, that propelled and continues to propel me into my future. When we give a child an opportunity, we are changing their world, because we are changing the possibilities for their lives. Just as my world is being changed everyday here, by this amazing opportunity, so we can change young people's worlds. The world is ever changing, yet remaining the same- especially in terms of the circumstances we grow up in. But I believe that if we can help to transform the frame or lens through which young people see the world around them, we open the window of possibility.

This is exciting and inspiring, but it also scares me to no end. Rodrigo Guererro said a number of times  last week, "This is serious business!" That sentence has been etched on my heart as I realize the immense responsibility that comes with working with children. We are all in a sense stewards of these young lives. As teachers, mentors and opportunity-givers, the honor is ours, to be able to give and share music and 'life' with others. It is also our responsibility to see potential, and then help children to see this potential in themselves.

This, to me speaks about changing paradigms through changing mind-sets, through simply providing opportunities. Opportunities to learn music, opportunities to experience different things and places, opportunities to dream. These opportunities change the possibilities. In essence, if life had a doorway to success, then us empowering young people to succeed by teaching them music is giving them a key, and showing them how to open the door and walk through it. We also enable them to dream about what is on the other side of the door. Children still need to take the key and open this door, by making use of the opportunities presented to them. There are many more doors after the first one, and its this process, that enables a young person to dream, and realize that they can actually live their dream. 

The thing is, we do not know the full possibilities of the opportunities we give others. I have heard the saying, "Reach for the stars, and you might land on a cloud". I have a feeling that in this kind of work, the sky is not even the limit. By providing an opportunity, we open the doorway of possibility, and inevitably a young persons world is changed.

Friday, 1 March 2013


What an inspiring day!!

The nucleo we visited today, Serria, is based at a primary school. Today I saw passion and excellence from a young age - not just in the manner in which they play (which is amazing for their ages), but in their attitude towards music. The teachers were awesome and inspiring.

Inspiring and enthusiastic teachers = inspired and enthusiastic students.

About Me

My photo
Monique Van Willingh is currently a Sistema Fellow at the New england conservatory of Music (Boston, USA). The programme studies the model of the Venzeulen programme, El Sistema, which uses music as a vehicle for social change. Monique graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Performance (with Distinction in Flute), and in 2011 with a Classical Honours from the University of Cape Town. Monique is a resourceful flautist, who is proficient in both the Classical and Jazz genres of music. Monique was the 2010 winner of the Fine Music Radio and Pick n Pay Music Award in the Jazz Category and was also awarded the ImpACT Award for Young Professionals in Jazz Music by the Arts and Culture Trust (2010). She was recently chosen as a finalist in the SAMRO Music competition (jazz category) and received the SAMRO/Bonhams Award at the competition. Monique was a member of the National Youth Jazz Band (2010), and in 2009, she was selected as the Principal Flautist of the MIAGI Youth Orchestra, which toured Europe in 2012. Two passions central to her life are music and youth development.