Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The "Naked in the Sauna" Revelation about El Sistema

It's taken me a week to find the words to express my biggest take-away from Barquisimeto. My fellow Fellows have shared their experiences beautifully: about teaching, about playing, about observing. My take-aways have surprised me, because they were not at all what I'd expected. They have to do with the older students, and how a program like El Sistema has shaped them and the music they make together.

The best way I know how to describe the impact that Barquisimeto had on me is what I'd like to call the "naked in the sauna" revelation.

When I was 21, I studied abroad in Vienna. Some friends and I went to a sauna, and -- accustomed to saunas in the US -- I walked out of the dressing room in a bathing suit, wrapped in a towel. My Austrian friend looked at me aghast and said, “What are you doing? We go naked in saunas here, otherwise people think you're hiding something. Oh, and the saunas at this place are co-ed. But don't worry-- when people are in a sauna, they're not looking at you, they're just there to relax.”

Um, really?

She continued, “You just have to pretend like you're really confident, like you do this all the time, so that people don't sense your discomfort. Believe me, once you've experienced being naked in the sauna, you'll never want to wear a bathing suit in one again!”

So I gave it a try. Put on my best acting face, walked right in as if I do this all the time, took off the towel, and sat down like my friend. The sauna was full of men and women. No one looked up. Everyone was in their own world, relaxing. I can't say I could actually relax that time around, but over the next few years living in Germany and visiting many saunas, I came to know no other way to enjoy them. Why on earth would you have extra clothes on when you can enjoy the heat from the sauna as freely as possible?

When I was growing up playing the French horn, I was lucky to play in top youth orchestras throughout the year, attend really good summer music camps, and study privately with the best teachers (thanks mom and dad). Youth orchestra met once a week, and we performed fairly frequently throughout the year. The summer camps and festivals were life-changing, intensive months in gorgeous locations, and I remember wishing that my whole year could be as enriching musically and personally as those summers.

In college, there were about 20 students in Gail Williams' horn class. We played solos in horn class for each other once a week, and I recall the experience feeling inordinately stressful. Yes, this experience was essential as practice for performing in front of people. But I certainly didn't want to put myself through it any more than I had to. I had work to do! I had excerpts to learn perfectly! I had Mozart and Strauss concertos to work on! And in addition, we had tons of rehearsals and classes to boot! On the rare occasion, some of us would get together and play through duos or quartets. All this to say that I generally remember trying to figure things out in a practice room alone, with my teacher, and sometimes in orchestra rehearsal.

While doing graduate work in Germany, I saw a culture of group learning for my first time while studying at the Hanns Eisler Musikhochschule. The horn class of Marie Luise Neunecker shared a big horn room, practicing together and playing for each other. They seemed to enjoy working on their horn with one another. It was a totally different (and quite pleasant) learning environment, and while they invited me to join them, I always felt a bit like an outsider because I studied with a different teacher (Fergus McWilliam). While this feeling may have been based on nothing, I usually chose my comfort zone and opted to find a separate room where I could practice individually. After all, that's the best way to focus, right?

Cut to this week in Barquisimeto, Venezuela (commonly known as Gustavo Dudamel's hometown, and a home to Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu in his childhood). On our first day at the conservatory/nucleo, I thought I'd understood from a nucleo director (in Spanish) that I'd be giving a master class to the horn students, and all I could think was, “Oh god, I'm totally out of shape, please give me a few minutes to myself to warm up before anyone hears me play.”

I said hello to the 3 horn players standing around (between 17-22 years old), and they asked me for lessons. I said sure, and suggested later in the morning. Then I found an empty room, ducked in as quickly as possible hoping no one would see me, took out my horn, and started warming up. It was so great to play again! To be in a room alone with my horn! And then, not 2 minutes later, the door opened and all of the horn players walked in. They didn't say anything, just came in with their horns and sort of stood there, waiting for me to say or do something. I finally understood that they wanted me to teach them or play for them. Fortunately, I had some quartets and we started by playing quartets together.

But I was back in the "sauna" without a towel. I kept thinking, “No! I need more time alone to warm up! This is not good for me! I don't want them to hear me before I've played a little more! I won't be able to teach them as well if I don't have a few minutes alone!” But, like in Vienna, I decided to put on a poker face and pretend like I'm as confident as ever on my horn (walking naked into a co-ed sauna).

Slowly, I realized that playing quartets was the perfect way to warm up. You get to blend with other peoples' sounds, work on articulation by trying to match what everyone is doing musically, and play beautiful music first thing in the day.

That same day, I got the music for Prokoviev and Wagner, which I'd be playing in the Orchestra Symphonica Juvenil de Lara (the top youth orchestra in Barquisimeto) later that week. I needed to practice, so after teaching lessons to the 3 horn players, I said, “OK, I need to practice now.” I thought they'd understand that I needed some space, but instead, they all stood around looking at me while I went through the music. Finally, I turned to them and said, “This is weird. Can one of you please play along?” And so Daniela, the only woman brass player in the orchestra, played along with me. Practicing had never been more fun.

A couple of days later, they said they'd like to do a group warm-up with me. Again, the panic (“but I need to sneak a warm-up by myself first so that I'm ready to play with them.” Or, “if I just keep my towel around me the whole time, no one will notice.”) Again, the letting-go and just going for it. And again, that feeling of dismay that I hadn't done this my whole life. It felt great! Playing long warm beautiful tones with 4 other people, echoing each other, commenting on sound quality or the dynamics. It was like a prayer, like singing a song you love with people who love that song, too.

Suddenly, feeling naked felt like the most natural thing in the world. I wanted to play in groups as often as possible. To go back through my music education and insist with all of the musicians I knew that we warm up together, practice together, learn from each other as our best resources for growing.

My awakening really came during the orchestra rehearsals and concert: group learning has affected every aspect of these horn players' lives. They have been playing together for many, many years. They know each others' musical backgrounds, and they know each others' families. They have gone through hardships together, they have been there for each other over the years. They watch out for each other. Their competition is positive (according to what they tell me). They constantly strive to get better to try and surpass their friends, as a fun and spirited competition among friends.

And the evidence was in the sound of the orchestra. They move together as a section effortlessly. They're constantly listening to each other in a highly sophisticated way, making minor adjustments based on what they hear, giving each other feedback (not as colleagues finding the most diplomatic way to communicate musical decisions, but as buddies who are looking out for each other and for the orchestra as a whole).

So my big naked question: What would a program like this (rigorous musical group learning) look like for teenagers in the States? Particularly for at-risk teens, how can a program like El Sistema instill a sense of positive community among youth, and from youth to their own communities? Imagine teenagers around the country with as much love for one another and for their communities, with sophisticated communication skills, and with a burning desire to strive for excellence as the kids we met in Barquisimeto. What would it take to create an environment like summer music camp, like El Sistema in Barquisimeto, all year long?


  1. Love this! Thanks for sharing this, Jen! Here's to being naked/vulnerable in the global "sauna" -- no matter where we are in the world.