Saturday, April 7, 2012

An El Sistema Lesson: Music Can Grow Everywhere

Video of Soroco, a modulo near a dump site near Calabozo

All throughout our trip, we've been taken to various modulos (in-school Sistema initiatives) and told that many of the children both in the modulos and nucleos come from neighborhoods with very high crime, drug-use, and lack of essential resources like water and electricity. We've driven by neighborhoods with tin shack houses and concrete rooms missing doors and sometimes ceilings. We've heard stories of children who come to the nucleo because it's actually another -- and safer -- home.

But I didn't fully grasp this until a few of us visited Soroco, a school located next to a dump site near Calabozo. When we arrived, a lovely violin teacher took me on a walk around the school. She explained that the parents all work in the dump site, and, pointing to the shacks without doors surrounding the school, explained that this is where the children live.

Only 40 children attend this school, but we saw about 20. Some children were playing soccer outside, while a few others were studying in classes. Outside in the hot sun, a woman was cooking something while a baby played in a cardboard box as a playpen. The music teacher took me to a little kitchen, and said, "What you see here is all they have to eat. There is not enough money for meat, so they eat whatever we can get on a given day." I saw some rice, tomatoes, and something that looked like a root vegetable, but certainly not enough for 40 children.

"The culture is completely different here," the teacher explained. "It's an incredibly difficult life for these children. They have nothing."

So I asked her, "Would it be possible to create an after-school program here so that these kids can have a safe place to be after school?" And she looked at me and said, "That's not possible. These children, ages 5-8, go to work at the dump site after school so that they can make some money for their families to eat."

She continued by explaining the goals of this program here. The modulo is only a year old (having started with Venezuelan folk music), and children just received classical instruments in January. At this point, the goal is to prepare these children to be able to play well enough to participate in the ensembles at the main nucleo. But the longer term goal is to keep these children in the Sistema so that, instead of living a life at the dump site, they can identify other opportunities in their lives, such as working in music through teaching and playing.

Meanwhile, the other teachers were setting up some chairs, and the children began to take out violins, cellos, quatros, and even a bass. Julie Davis led a string class to the children outside, giving a few of the students opportunities to lead the lesson.

There weren't any brass players, so I found my way over to two little cellists to see what they were learning. Both of my parents are professional cellists, but I never really learned how to play. So I asked the 7 year old if he could show me how to hold a bow. (The following photos and videos courtesy of Albert Oppenheimer.)

After some time teaching, the nucleo leaders asked us if we'd like to go fruit-picking. Which might seem like a normal activity in other rural places, but looking around the school at the arid landscape and fields ridden with garbage surrounding us, we couldn't possibly imagine what they were talking about. Maybe we misunderstood the Spanish?

We began to walk down a path alongside the school. There was garbage everywhere. It looks like the people living in these houses have been using their backyards as a trash-dump. Everywhere you look (besides the path), you see garbage, half-dead dogs, some pigs, and chickens. And then we looked up, and there were hundreds of trees, bearing fruit! The nucleo leaders started picking the fruit for us, tamarinds, and something else (a small green fruit shaped like a walnut but smooth on the outside). Here, in the middle of a wasteland and dump site, grew fruit-bearing trees.

And as those children and music teachers back at the school strive through music, they, too, are planting the seeds of a tree that will bear them fruits of possibility for the rest of their lives.

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