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An Interview with Dream Orchestra Founder/Director Ron Davis Álvarez
Interviewed by Patrick Scafidi, Executive Editor of The Ensemble News
Last month, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music recognized Dream Orchestra Director (and El Sistema Sweden Artistic Director) Ron Davis Álvarez with the Göran Lagervall Pedagogy Prize for “his activities in 40 cultural schools, where he renewed the pedagogical orchestral tradition with his experience from Venezuela.” Just days later, Álvarez conducted a performance for the Global Teacher Prize Award Gala, hosted digitally this year. A former finalist for the Global Teacher Prize himself, Álvarez conducted 70 students from ten countries in a performance of Sara Bareilles’ song “Brave.” Afterward, Álvarez was kind enough to talk with The World Ensemble about his busy week, his experiences with the Dream Orchestra, and his pedagogical philosophy. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The World Ensemble: First, congratulations on both honors. What was the moment like when you learned you’d won the prize from the Swedish Royal Academy of Music? And what does it mean to receive it?
Ron Álvarez: I was really happy. It’s lovely, but the most important thing is when your students are inspired by it. Seeing that makes me feel like, “Okay, this is why we do this.” This is why I really got this prize: to inspire others. And that made me happiest. It’s also a good feeling when you’re told, “Keep doing it the way you’re doing it.”
All my students were like, “I have a famous teacher!” And even if I don’t see it that way, I love when my students see me as somebody to follow, to be inspired by. That’s what a teacher does. We are the Superwoman or Superman, or the Super-something for our kids.
Have you guys had a chance to really play together since all this has happened? Aside from the Global Teacher Prize performance, I mean.
In Sweden, the COVID situation is worse now. In the beginning, they didn’t impose a real quarantine, but now things are different, more divided in small groups. We have been divided into groups of eight. But the schools are still working normally, so the El Sistema Sweden programs that work inside of the school systems are together. In the Dream Orchestra, for example, we rehearse in groups of eight, in different rooms. We don’t perform all together; our concerts are recorded and then shown.
Let’s talk a bit about what brought you to this point. You have been involved with El Sistema from a young age—what would you say was your biggest lesson from Maestro Abreu and your experiences in Venezuela? How do you bring those lessons into your work now?
One of the Maestro Abreu quotes I repeat all the time is: “Anything that is completely good must be a multiplier.” It’s like a cell in the body’s system. It must be able to multiply. Everything you do must be given the right attention and receive the right passion and discipline. If you and your fellow musicians love what you’re doing, you multiply the abilities and output of everyone. So it’s not about yourself, but about others.
It’s the chicken-egg relationship between quality and capacity—how seeing peers perform well and with passion influences your own playing, which improves the ensemble.
Yes, and I also have to say: I often get sad when, at conferences, people want to hear my sad story—the poverty, or what problems I had to overcome. That’s tiring for me. We have to show, actually, what the kids are doing—what people can achieve through their hard work. I sometimes feel that when I speak at a conference, I must start with all the difficulties I’ve had, in order to get the attention of the audience—instead of saying how happy I feel when I teach.
I understand we cannot forget the past. But vulnerability should not be the focus. We also have to focus on: “Let’s do X now to make Y happen.” We need to inspire kids and teachers. We need to show others clearly, loudly, how to go forward.
Would you say that is your teaching philosophy? Do you have a teaching philosophy?
My philosophy is that education is the pillar of everything. That means we need to support our teachers in developing their own selves, so they will do better work with the socio-emotional skills of others.
What are the challenges there? What gets in the way of teachers making space for that kind of work? Does anything stand out as a primary obstacle you’re always working to overcome?
As a program leader, I learned that the biggest obstacle is always the budget. That’s usually true everywhere. The other big challenge is communication.
With students. I think we are getting much better with technological communication, but it creates a lack of feeling. We can say things clearly, but our words lose their impact if our full feeling isn’t behind them. It can be a language problem sometimes, too. And for me personally… I’m a very energetic person. But I can have too much energy at times. Some people say, “Oh it’s good that you have energy, you can deal with the kids.” But I sometimes need to diminish it a little bit, which is its own kind of skill. You can’t always drive a car 200 kilometers per hour—sometimes you need to slow it down to help people get on board.
What happens next with the prize money? Will it go toward alleviating some of those challenges, to help teachers work on themselves?
At first I wanted to pay for a communication course, but now a foundation has just paid for it. But I always like to invest the prizes in education and learning for my team and myself. And I think we have to work on communication always as teachers.
Choosing to focus on communications indicates how high it is on the priority list.
It’s a really good course that my teachers, my team, and I are going to take. It’s called “Process Communication Model”—they use it in NASA, and it’s really quite good. Of course, we’ll also invest the prize money in our program some other way, but I’m really looking forward to this course.
Let’s shift gears to the Global Teacher Prize. You’ve been a finalist yourself in the past, and this year you were asked to conduct a virtual performance of Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” before the winner was announced. It’s a beautiful performance—congratulations.
It was really nice. I had students from Greenland, Venezuela, Colombia, Kenya… and students from the Dream Orchestra. And plenty of other collaborations. So it was a good opportunity, and a good message to students and teachers—to be brave. Also, having been nominated some years ago for the Global Teacher Prize opened many doors for me. When you get recognition from an institution, it opens doors to new organizations and new ideas. And it allows you to share your ideas with others about the future of education. So having the opportunity to speak in different forums or conferences, where that topic is so important, is nice. I try to be a voice for teachers because, when I talk, I think of the voices of so many teachers who worked with me.
How did they come to ask you to conduct the piece?
The organizer wrote me and just asked, “Can you conduct?” So I started to connect with Patrick Vaccariello, our other music director—I was kind of assisting him, because he was the one who arranged the piece. It was just wonderful teamwork, and I was so happy with the results. And I’m also just happy to have been a part of it, because the winner, Ranjit Disale, is an amazing teacher.
So, how does one conduct a virtual performance of this scale?
It was 70 kids from ten countries. That was easier than the one that we did in July [during El Sistema Sweden’s virtual Side by Side camp], when we had 703 kids from 41 countries performing “The Circle of Life,” from The Lion King.
It’s not easy to record individual kids… it can become a mess. But I also think it is great that kids are able to play with other kids from, say, Australia, who they probably would not get to play with otherwise. Online, that is possible.
So did you have to conduct each group individually?
No, I was in charge of kids from specific countries, and Patrick was in charge of other countries. Everybody got their groups ready and then we put all our work together.
Everybody’s struggling to figure out the best way to do this. I don’t think anyone has mastered it.
Yeah, it can be really tricky. For Side by Side, we started making instructional videos of how to record your part. It was quite a big challenge, but I think if you have a really good team, it will work.
How did you conduct? Did you conduct the vocalists as well?
For Side by Side, I recorded videos of me conducting. The kids watched the video in order to record at the same tempo.
What about for the Global Teacher Prize performance?
No. This is kind of a secret, but many of my kids were not singers. They sing, but they were a little resistant at first, saying, “We cannot sing!” So for the Global Prize, we had to learn and rehearse for many days in order to sing our part. And in the end, they did wonderfully.
As you said, they had to “be brave” and leave their comfort zone. Let’s end with a few big-picture questions. First: over the past year or two, what are the Dream Orchestra achievements of which you are most proud?
Well, the best achievement is to see my students inspired to play music. And beyond that, to see them go on to study and work in music, at university and elsewhere. Especially the students who came here alone, seeking asylum. We have had eight students deported, and I have them in my mind all the time. I wasn’t able to do more to help them stay. One student had to escape to another country to avoid deportation. So I think of them, and I think about those who have managed to stay and build lives in music. We have one student from Afghanistan—Asil Salim—who works with new Dream Orchestra students. He’s leading one of our programs as a conductor. He wasn’t even playing music when he first arrived, and now he’s doing an amazing job. That is the story I want our work to tell.
You guys have experienced a lot of growth in the last four years. Do you have a specific plan for what comes next? Is there a benchmark you’d like to hit?
Yeah, we are already developing a teaching program for our students. We are also working to grow both nationally and internationally. Programs have grown out of the Dream Orchestra in countries like Germany and elsewhere. And we want to develop more Dream Orchestras around the world. Our biggest goal, though, is to build a school to train teachers. We already do some of that work but want to do more.
We’ll end with a prompt. We published a piece on the Dream Orchestra in March 2019. In it, you said: “We don’t want to be seen simply as a ‘refugee orchestra.’ We want to be a symphony orchestra that is constantly improving and creating a united voice to show our strengths and values. We want to change history.” So, 21 months later, I’m curious what your response is to hearing that.
I think that we started to become a voice; people have started to listen to us. And they are not just listening to our talents, but also our dreams. That’s why we’re called “Dream Orchestra.” I think that is how we can really make change. We will still have refugees in the future—quite a lot, I’m sure. Whether from climate disasters or those seeking a better situation, I think we will need to welcome more refugees than ever. We need people who can speak strongly, freely, and stand for those who may not feel like they have anyone on their side. Real progress happens when we stand for and empower others to stand and speak for themselves.