Saturday, April 7, 2012

El Sistema Venezuela Wrap-Up: Meeting with Abreu, and Lessons Learned

We've reached the end of our 5 week journey discovering El Sistema in Venezuela. We taught all day, we met the warmest, most open-hearted people, we saw really, really hard work. We heard beautiful music everywhere we went.

On our last day, we had a chance to sit with Maestro Abreu and share a little about what we saw and what we'd improve. Sitting in a room with that man, after seeing first hand the work that is a result of his vision, was astonishing. This was a genius among us. And he sat there, smiling, and gave each one of us his full attention.

When he came to me, I wasn't sure what I was going to say. Should I talk about Soroco again, and how powerful an experience it was for me to see how music can literally live anywhere? Should I talk about how El Sistema isn't magic, but the result of strong vision and extremely hard work? Should I talk about the music making, or the intrinsic nature of access in everything El Sistema represents?

Instead, I spoke about 4 things that resonated profoundly with me on this trip:

1. The love of learning, permeating throughout the entire culture of Sistema. Everyone is hungry to learn. Kids want to learn more and more everyday. Teachers want to learn from experts. Families want to learn more about the music. Children want to learn from each other. What a beautiful space in which to live a life.

2. The love of teaching. Not just the love of teaching, but the need to teach, to give back. Great teachers gave so much to me time and time again in my life, and when I teach I feel that I have to give everything of myself because that is what my teachers gave to me. And this spirit of giving is so prevalent all throughout Sistema.

3. The democratic nature of music, both within the music itself and in terms of who can participate. Musically: jazz, folk music, choir, and orchestral music can (and according to many people I spoke to, SHOULD) live in the same place so that kids can have access to many ways of making music. Who can join: everyone can participate in music. Doesn't matter where you live, how old you are, who you are, what disabilities you have, or how much money you have. If you want to play, you can.

4. I didn't have a chance to mention this last one, but something that cannot be ignored, which my Fellow Jose Luis Estrada Hernandez talks about, is the music. The music! We heard so many beautiful concerts! So many children taking risks and committing to making daring musical phrases together, regardless of their level.

Maestro Abreu wanted to know what we'd improve. I learned so much from this trip that the few things I would suggest seem so minor in comparison to the great lessons I took away. But if I had to offer two thoughts, they would be:

1. Create even more opportunities for older students to thrive. The academy (a program for more advanced students to come to Caracas for private lessons with master teachers) is wonderful, but for kids in rural Venezuela and elsewhere who may not be going regularly to the academies, it would be great to get them accompanists on occasion and opportunities to solo with orchestra so that they can enjoy the full musical experience of the solos they're working on.

2. More opportunities for exchange among international artists, educators, administrators, and Venezuelans. The more people who can come to Venezuela and see the extraordinary work that's happening there first-hand, the more demystified the program might become so that many more people can bring the same energy, motivation, and commitment to music and children to their communities as El Sistema brings to Venezuela.

I would love to see a day when all of the world's major artists no longer see performance and education as two separate things. When institutions for higher education no longer separate music education from music performance. When there are more bridges between genres so that musicians can become more versatile musically, and in life. When young people no longer insist on hip hop, but also demand orchestras in their neighborhoods, and jazz ensembles, and choirs. I think that the more people who can come to Venezuela, and teach, learn, play, and ask questions, the better chances we have of tipping the scales in making music a focal point of society, to thrive in a life with a love of learning and playing.

Seeing El Sistema in Venezuela: The Music!

I realize as I'm re-reading my blog posts that there's something implied but glaringly missing: the extraordinary concerts and rehearsals we watched and participated in. And what concerts! As a French horn player, the chance to play alongside passionate, curious, and musical young musicians for me was both an honor and tremendous fun. And because El Sistema is all about that go-for-it attitude, I also enjoyed jumping into new waters and singing in choir rehearsals with my Fellows Aisha, Alysia, and Stephanie. Here, a few musical highlights from the trip:
  • Attending a recording of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Orchestra in Beethoven's 3rd Symphony.
  • In Barquisimeto, Ben, Avi, Julie, Stephanie, and I played a concert with the Youth Orchestra of Barquisimeto. This is one of the rehearsals of Prokoviev's 5th Symphony, and it was wickedly exciting to play with several kids who have worked together for years.

  • Look out, Broadway. In Valle de la Pascua, I played hookie from the orchestra rehearsal one day to experience a choir session that Aisha and Alysia were leading of "New York." I joined the altos. When the other girls found out I live in New York, they literally got up to move their chairs closer to me, then asked for my autograph. (Helllooo stardom!) Have I sung in choir before? No. Was this way more fun (and absolutely hilarious) than most orchestra rehearsals I've played? You bet...

  • Up in Coro, we were invited to hear a concert for orchestra and four soloist singers. Each soloist was a couple years younger than the previous. So by the time this little girl (about 9 years old) came on the stage, we just about fell over when she opened her mouth to sing. The next Miss Venezuela, anyone?

  • Also in Coro, some of the Fellows wandered over to a rehearsal for the all Ave Maria program. Stephanie, Ben, Aisha, and I joined the chorus, while Alysia sang the solo.

(For the dress rehearsal of this piece with the White Hands choir, visit the El Sistema and Special Needs blog and scroll down to the end.)

  • During our final week, in Caracas, we had a chance to watch Southbank Centre's Marshall Marcus rehearse members of The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra in a Baroque program (unfortunately I didn't get footage of this, but believe me, it was very cool.) And another gem: hearing a beautiful performance of Mozart's Requiem, with the Symphonic Youth Choir Simón Bolívar and the Caracas Youth Symphony, led by Robert Göstl.

El Sistema and Special Needs

Two phrases we've heard frequently this year is "El Sistema is about access," and "El Sistema is for everyone." Jose Antonio Abreu really means it. As part of his vision for El Sistema, Abreu would say that if children with special needs cannot participate like other children in making music, then El Sistema needs to create opportunities for those children to thrive in music, too.

And that's exactly what El Sistema has done.

I had heard about the "Manos Blancos" choirs in Caracas and Barquisimeto, choirs of "White Hands," or, children who wear white gloves while making beautiful hand and arm gestures to the music because they are deaf or blind or mute. But it wasn't until Valle de la Pascua that I had a chance to experience the power of this program. Here, for the first time, we were introduced to the magnificent world of the White Hands choir:

After we watched them, the choir director brought all of the Fellows up to participate. It was really hard! According to the choir directors, there has been a whole curriculum developed around special needs choirs. The work is rigorous, and they rehearse just as often -- if not more often -- than the singing choirs.

I spent some time with the lead special needs teacher that day. She is almost blind herself, and finds the work with these kids to be extremely important in giving them a sense of achievement in participating in something challenging and beautiful.

This 7 year old was in a few of the special needs ensembles in Valle de la Pascua. When he played in the percussion ensemble, I was completely blown away. Check this out:

On our first day in Coro, we were brought to a room covered in old concert posters and awards of Jose Maiolino, the Coro nucleo director who started the program just a few years after Maestro Abreu started his first orchestras in 1975. The Manos Blancos Coro choir was rehearsing, and we had a chance to watch them in action (and sing along):

During our week in Coro, a few of us took a day trip to Punto Fijo, a small town that you get to by driving over a beautiful isthmus with goats frolicking along the beach (no, I'm not kidding-- there were frolicking goats.) After teaching horn for a few hours, I was shown around the nucleo by a lovely woman (who I later learned is the special needs director). She showed me to a room labeled "Manos Blancos," and, explaining that this was the special needs room, she apologized profusely that they didn't know we were coming and they were prepared for us. But once we walked in, a small choir of special needs kids stood up and gave me a private concert. It was some of the most impassioned singing I had heard the whole trip.

(For two more Punto Fijo special needs choir video, visit YouTube here and here.)

But what was perhaps the most moving moment for me was on one of our last days, in Coro. I had spent the week working closely with the horn players at the Conservatory and in Las Panelas nucleo, and the day before we left, the horn teachers asked if I would sit in on the dress rehearsal for their concert. The program was all Ave Maria works by different composers (Bach/Gounod, Schubert, Verdi, Brahms), with the professional choir from Coro, and the Manos Blancos.

I kept trying to turn around from the horn section (while playing) to watch, but when I finally had a piece off, I stood up and wept at one of the most beautiful performances I had experienced during the whole trip. (This clip is 5 minutes-- I'd recommend watching the whole thing, but even if you have 1 minute, you'll get the idea.)


The Wonderful World of El Sistema Choirs

When we hear about El Sistema, the first thing that usually comes to mind is orchestra. So I was pleasantly surprised when we saw dozens of children singing in choirs everywhere we went. In fact, some modulos are almost exclusively choir-based. It's an excellent way to get several children involved in making beautiful music quickly.

Two different nucleo leaders even told us that they always start new nucleos or modulos with choir for about a year, to get the kids learning and performing music, to train teachers, and to fund-raise for instruments, so that when the instrumental program begins, everyone is ready for it, financially, educationally, and musically.

Here are a few of my favorite clips from the wonderful world of El Sistema choirs. (For more, visit the blogs Fellows Aisha Bowden and Alysia Lee.)

Baby Choir in Barquisimeto Works on Dynamics (these kids are between 2-4 years old)

A Children's Choir in Valle de la Pascua, Guarico, Greets Us with a Very Cool Tune

The Same Choir, Singing a Beautiful Song (if you know the name, please let me know)

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.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Rural Sistema Programs, Part 3: Getting Started, and Teacher Training

What does it take to get a modulo or nucleo up and running in a place like the outskirts of Calabozo or Valle de la Pascua?

This is where the Sistema lends itself particularly well to programmatic development. Teachers from neighboring cities come regularly during the course of one year (twice a month in many cases) to train older students on their instruments so that they can take over the teaching and leadership. Over the course of the year, the master visiting teachers come less frequently and the student teachers take on more leadership responsibilities.

Some programs might have an advanced teacher move to or near the town for awhile to help get the program started, and to be as invested as possible in developing the student teachers who will be running the program once the advanced teacher leaves.

Imagine! It's like setting up an extraordinary leadership academy for young people: they receive intensive training by master teachers, they're given lots of responsibility, and then they have the honor of teaching for and shaping the program. Brilliant.

Fellow Jose Luis (left) translates for Sergio about the young teachers in Valle de la Pascua

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On Rural Programs, Part 2: Different Models of Modulos

I love this! Venezuelan folk music, accompanying little dancers
at a modulo near Valle de la Pascua

Modulos take many shapes and forms. The modulo in the above video is in a rural school near Valle de la Pascua. They have string ensembles, Venezuelan folk ensembles, and choirs. In the case of Mahomito (the modulo mentioned in Part 1), Sergio explained that they had initially tried to start an orchestral program with strings. However, due to limited resources (money for instruments) and to children not really taking to the music or the instruments (he said that after 3 years, they didn't really improve), the instruments went back to the central nucleo and Mahomito started a Venezuelan folk music program instead.

This, too, has been difficult. There aren't enough folk music teachers to come teach the kids as often as it would take to help them improve quickly, and the individual lessons may be taking time away from group learning, which – according to Sergio - is the most important component of a program like this for social development. So Mahomito is focusing on choir, and seeing if the Venezuelan folk music program takes off (in other words, if kids continue to want to do it).

We saw choirs in every modulo we visited, and it seems that the modulos implement choirs as a way of advancing their social development goals by getting as many kids as possible engaged, even if they don't have money for instruments.

Around Calabozo, the nucleo director Rodrigo explained that some of the modulos in surrounding areas may focus on only one type of instrument. For example, there may be a cello-only modulo, a violin/viola-only modulo, and a brass-only modulo. Next August, the children from these programs will come together to perform in an orchestra. Because some of these modulos are so small (one town called San Francisco only has population 1,000), a full orchestra may not make sense financially or programmatically, but the modulo leaders are still finding ways to engage children in music and connect them with teachers and other students around the region.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

On Rural Programs in El Sistema, Part 1: The Music

(The next few blog posts are based on interviews and observations in Valle de la Pascua and Calabozo, in the state of Guarico.)

The state of Guarico, in the center of Venezuela, has different nucleo models than others we've seen in Caracas and Barquisimeto. There is at least one central nucleo in each city, with modulos, or satellites, in the rural towns that surround it. The modulos are basically school-based programs, run by an administrator hired by the nucleo. Each modulo is its own program and makes decisions based on the needs and interests of its community. The students can travel to take lessons and participate in larger group ensembles at the central nucleo, and if they cannot get there (transportation or otherwise), the teachers from the nucleo will come to them.

Case in point: Mahomito near Valle de la Pascua. It's about a 30 minute drive from the center nucleo, down pothole-ridden roads and arid farmland (that may not actually be used for farming) where white cows with jowels and droopy ears roam freely. The school in Mahomito is tiny, and it's the only school for miles. When we arrive, Sergio (the nucleo director and our lovely host) points to a small, modest one-room building. He explains that when the school/modulo decided to have a choir program, it was necessary to have a separate room for rehearsals. To raise money for the building, parents and children made ceramic art pieces that they sold at the main nucleo during concerts. They raised enough money to build the building.

Sergio explains the choir room

We walked in, and a choir of about 65 children was waiting to sing for us. They were of mixed ages, some as young as 5, others as old as 15. They sang several beautiful songs, but the one that got us weeping was at the very end. The choir director explained that there's a song they always like to sing to visitors, and would it be OK if they could sing it for us. (Of course it was.) What came next was 65 children pouring their hearts out to us. I don't know what they were singing, but it was evident that every child loved that song passionately. And there we were, in the middle of a field in central Venezuela, where -- even though life might be difficult for these children outside the walls of the school -- inside, they were making beautiful music together.

One song with harp and the Mahomito choir

The song the Mahomito choir loved the most