By STEVEN NALLEY
Albert Oppenheimer knew he wanted to join the Abreu Fellows at the New England Conservatory from the moment he gave them the campus tour.
A first-year masters’ at NEC at the time, Oppenheimer said, he was the first student that the first class of Abreu Fellows met. He continued to work with them throughout the year, he said, learning more about the work they do with children in need around the world.
“Through working with them that year,” Oppenheimer said, “I became very interested in their amazing mission, and I wanted to become more involved.
Oppenheimer, a 2005 graduate of Starkville High School, will complete his master’s degree May 22, and he has now been accepted into NEC’s Abreu Fellows post-graduate teaching program.
As Abreu Fellows, Oppenheimer and nine other selected students will study and participate in children’s music education programs that are part of or based on a Venezuelan program called El Sistema. Founded in 1978 by José Abreu, El Sistema currently teaches music to 300,000 of Venezuela’s poorest children, inspiring similar programs in more than 25 other countries around the world, including 40 programs in the U.S.
Oppenheimer said the application process was intense, requiring essays, videos, and two sets of interviews to determine candidates’ artistic and educational prowess. The interview panel, he said, included NEC president Tony Woodcock, who threw candidates a major curveball.
“The final interview was the most challenging interview I’ve ever given,” Oppenheimer said. “It was an hour long, and the opening prompt by the president of the conservatory was, ‘I don’t think you want to do this- convince me otherwise.’”
Ellen Pfeifer, public relations manager with NEC, said NEC has worked with El Sistema for a decade, sending faculty to teach classes and students to tour at their schools, but this is only the third year of the Abreu program. She said the one-year program prepares students to lead El-Sistema inspired programs by mixing NEC classes on the needed psychology, methods, and management skills with work experience in El Sistema schools, culminating in 5-6 weeks of experience in Venezuela.
“Part of Albert’s work during the Fellowship year will be scoping out where he wants to create a program or which existing program he might like to join,” Pfeifer said. “Since several come from extant programs they can work on building that program and taking it to the next level. The appeal is that it’s a social development program that uses the rigorous study of classical music as a catalyst to save children at risk.
“What’s more, the example of musical passion and vivid playing that are typical of El Sistema orchestras of all ages has invigorated musicians and audiences in the US, Europe, and elsewhere,” Pfeifer added. “It has reminded them what it is about classical music that so ignites the soul. So, not only is the El Sistema model seen as a way to save children, but also a way to save classical music.”
To be an Abreu Fellow, Pfeifer said, Oppenheimer must commit to at least one year post-graduation working in an El Sistema-inspired program. However, she said, the skills he builds will help him in other musical careers where he has already displayed great potential. Oppenheimer is in demand as a student among NEC professors who are themselves in demand, Pfeifer said.
“His wide-range of influences and fluency in different genres suggest a versatility that will serve him well in the future,” Pfeifer said. “I don’t see him as an ivory tower composer but one who can write accessible but sophisticated music for whatever purposes he needs.”
Oppenheimer said he wanted to focus on both composing and teaching music as much as possible. He said he is totally focused on the Abreu Fellowship for the time being, planning to let its results determine his next major steps.
“My goal for my time in the fellowship is to create the basis for an organization which will research and provide open-source curricula for the education of composition to very young students,” Oppenheimer said. “Hopefully, we will eventually also be able to offer incentives for El Sistema-inspired programs around the world to incorporate composition into their everyday operation. I am passionate about teaching, but my expansion into the education world will be primarily administrative, at least while I am attempting to get the organization off of the ground.”
While she was not on the Abreu selection committee, Pfeifer said she could make conjectures for two reasons. First, she said, she knows him well, and second, so does practically everyone else on the NEC campus.
“There is his genuine love for people and a gregariousness that is irresistible,” Pfeifer said. “There is his long history as a camp counselor in the summer and his work as a live-in residence hall counselor, which makes him an ideal person to look after the wellbeing of young people. He is also an excellent musician with experience not only as a composer but a performer and director/conductor. I could see him composing pieces that young orchestras could play and find entertaining in addition to the more standard classical pieces.”
Oppenheimer said the relationships he’s built have been key to his success, and he honed his connection-building skills in Starkville. One of his mottoes, he said, is “Strangers are friends you haven’t met yet.”
“I go out of my way to make new connections and introduce myself to everyone,” Oppenheimer said. “I work hard to stay in touch and maintain the relationships in my life.”
To learn more about Oppenheimer, visit his website at www.musicoppenheimer.com .