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.)