The Abreu Fellows at TED 2010

This trip lasted barely two days and it went by very fast. The reason the Abreu Fellows (5 out of the 10 of us) were in Long Beach, California was to perform a number on the TED Stage during the TED Prize session. Here’s a little background.

TED, which stands for technology, entertainment and design is a non-profit dedicated to promoting “Ideas Worth Spreading.” The organization holds conferences all over the world where they gather some of the best and brightest from all fields to speak for about 18 minutes on their area of expertise. No matter who they are none of the speakers are paid and they all get about 18 minutes. Past speakers have included Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, conductor Benjamin Zander, poet and spoken word artist Rives and of course our own Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema.

The TED Conference is the main conference and it is held once a year in Long Beach, California. In theory anyone can attend but there is a pretty serious application and a $6000 attendance fee. Despite this the conference sells out very quickly. Founders, CEOs, politicians and celebrities are generally in attendance. Below is a picture of one TED session I attended where they simulcasted the talk of Britain’s next Prime Minister (if all goes as planned), David Cameron.

So why the heck were we invited to perform? Well as you all know by now, the founder of El Sistema, Jose Antonio Abreu, won the TED Prize in 2009 and as a result he receieved $100,000 and a wish, which was to launch the Abreu Fellows Program. It is at these yearly TED Conferences that the TED Prize is announced. But before they announce the new TED Prize winner, they look back at previous winners and through speeches, videos and performances they show the audience how the previous winners’ wishes are coming along. To show how Abreu’s wish was developing they invited the Abreu Fellows do a skit/music performance.

It was a quick six-minute performance and I think it went really well. We got a standing ovation from the audience and lots of great feedback afterwards. I’d like to think that our performing skills are the reason for the positive reception, but I know it has much more to do with the fact that people believe in Abreu’s wish.

I’ve spoken to so many people who tell me something special happened last year at the TED Conference when Abreu gave his TED Talk. TEDsters (people who attend TED) are generally brilliant and successful and they’ve seen and done it all, but apparently Abreu’s talk and wish really made an impact on them last year. Fortunately for the Abreu Fellows Program, people are really behind this wish and want to see it unfold.

So now that I’ve given you the background here’s how it all went down:

Tuesday Feb 9

9pm: We land at LAX. It’s my first time in California and I’m happy to see palm trees instead of snow.

11pm: I meet up with my colleague, former school-mate and TED Fellow Robert Gupta for a drink at the hotel.

11:45pm: I walk around Long Beach looking for food. I see TEDsters everywhere.

Wednesday Feb 10

7:30am: I wake-up and head to the Long Beach Performing Arts Center to watch the TED University Talks session.  I’m excited to see Gupta speak and perform there.

8:45am: Gupta’s TED Talk. Have you seen the movie “The Soloist” starring Jamie Foxx? The protagonist is the real-life Nathaniel Ayers, a musician who develops schizophrenia and becomes homeless. Gupta is now his violin teacher so his TED talk is about his experience working with Ayers. Gupta also performs some Bach after his talk. Out of all the TED University speakers, Gupta is the only one that gets a standing ovation. He deserves it as he is fantastic. His talk should be available online in the next few months. Bravo Robert!

10:50am: I’m walking to meet the other fellows. From afar I see a beautiful blonde walking towards me by herself. As she gets closer I glance at her nametag. It says Cameron Diaz. She walks right by me and like an idiot, I say nothing, not even hello.

12:45pm: Rehearsal on the TED stage. The acoustic piano we were supposed to use turns into an electric keyboard. Most of our 30 minute rehearsal time is taken up by the techs trying to get this keyboard to work. Our run-through is mediocre at best so we’d like another go at it. The answer is “sorry, but no.” Great…no pressure guys.

4:00pm: Hair and make-up. No seriously, hair and make-up. The make-up artist tells me I have good skin.

4:30pm: Meg Ryan walks by us backstage.

5:00pm: TED Prize session starts. I’m a little nervous but Mark Churchill the director of the Abreu Fellows program is sitting with us in the audience. Seeing a familiar face helps.

5:45ish pm: Our performance. We kill it. The TED audience is great. I’m relieved it went well. People such as Al Gore, Meg Ryan and Bill Gates are in the audience. Our performance was videotaped by TED and I’ll post it as soon as we get it.

6:15pm: Jamie Oliver does his TED Talk and announces his wish. Personally I think it’s a great wish: “To create a strong and sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.” Check out his TED talk here.

6:45pm We’re backstage. Sheryl Crow, who has just performed after Jamie Oliver, congratulates us, the fellows, on our performance. I ask myself what I’m doing here.

7:00pm The fellows and I head to a restaurant for a reception.

7:15pm We meet various people, all ridiculously good at what they do: a co-founder of Skype, a writer/producer for Grey’s Anatomy, the President of this and CEO of that. I remind myself to take it easy on the drinks so I don’t say something stupid.

8:00pm As we’re standing around a table, a rather tall, black guy comes right up to me, shakes my hand and congratulates us on our performance. It’s Will Smith. I tell him I’m a big fan. I decline to tell him that I know every line from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  He asks what the long, brown thing was that I was playing. He introduces himself to all of us and chats with us for a few minutes. He is very humble and easy-going. As he leaves, I immediately post to Facebook about the encounter. It pains me to admit it now, but I felt giddy, like a 5-year old in a candy store. I again ask myself what I’m doing here.

11:30pm Block party on the street. I run into a few TEDsters who support the Abreu Fellows program like Carl Haney and Michael Melcher. The band is awesome and people are dancing…as best as a bunch of CEOs and Founders dance.

Thursday Feb 11

7:00am Abreu Fellows Breakfast with TEDsters and supporters of the fellowship. Gupta attends too. I sit beside the President and CEO of Gibson Guitars.

9:00am I start writing emails to all the people I’ve met to thank them for their support.

12:56pm Catch flight at LAX

My TED experience was unbelievable and I feel priveleged to have been invited. Thank you to Rives, who helped us put together our performance, to Amy Novogratz and Anna Verghese who looked after us from the moment we landed at LAX and to everyone in Boston that watched our practice run-throughs and gave us feedback.

We depart for Caracas, Venezuela this Thursday where the real adventures will start. El Sistema, I’m constantly told, is the real deal and will not dissappoint. I hope so, because I’ve been bragging about it all year now…You’ll hear from me soon.


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