Sunday, February 28, 2010
THE SECRET OF EL SISTEMA?
I learned my first important lesson about El Sistema this past week. We all know that "El Sistema" translates to "The System." Well please allow me to reveal to you one of the secrets of El Sistema: There Is No System.
Our camera man Joaquin, who is a native of Caracas, compares this lack of system to the traffic in Caracas. The traffic here is almost always congested. Motorcycles and mopeds can drive between in the lanes legally and pedestrians make frequent and casual appearances in the roads. In some places the traffic is so slow that venders easily walk between the lanes selling everything from car chargers to tupperware.
Now to an outsider like myself it seems like complete chaos, but ask any Caraqueno and they will tell you that every car or motorcycle knows exactly what they're doing and where they're going. How they do it though, is always changing, reacting in real-time, adjusting to the world around them.
This is how El Sistema functions. It's mission, the democratization of music. Its method, fluid, flexible and always adapting.
So when they told us last week that we would be going to Montalban, the flagship nucleo in Caracas, I was really looking foward to it. Then Monday came and plans changed. Instead of Montalban we went to Rinconada. Apparently Montalban was being fumigated.
On Tuesday I saw my colleague Dan during lunch and he said, "the jazz band at the Simon Bolivar Conservatory has invited us to observe their rehearsal. If you want to go you have to be ready in 2 minutes."
Wednesday it was back to La Rinconada. We had Thursday afternoon off until it was announced, at the last minute of course, that we were going to Montalban to observe their classes. We also went to Montalban on Saturday to watch the orchestra rehearsals but we arrived to find out that the orchestra was departing for an impromptu concert.
All week I heard plans for us to go Barquisimento next week, but everytime I heard about this trip the day changed. I still don't know if we're going. Tuesday is the latest I've heard. We were originally supposed to be in Caracas until about Feb 26. Well, ends up we'll be here until March 4. Why? They haven't told us.
This is "The System." And I think it's beautiful.
I quickly came to terms with the fact that here, writing anything in an agenda is a futile exercise, so now I just keep my bassoon, camera, note pad, pen and bottle of water ready to go. It's actually quite nice as everyday is a surprise.
So how does this apparent lack of organization help? I think for one that it helps El Sistema make the most of every opportunity. In a movement that is trying to grow and reach 1 million kids in 5 years, they have to have an organizational structure and mechanism in place that is flexible and adaptable to take advantage of any opportunity: to play a concert at a big event, to take a meeting with a potential community partner or funder or to find a spot for 20 new students in a nucleo.
This kind of thinking helps in the teaching of the the students as well. For example, we were told at La Rinconada Nucleo that for the string classes there are no set pieces to be played. They have plenty of options for pieces so instead of a strict curriculum, they adjust to the development of each individual class. If the class moves slower as a group they'll play easier music. If the class loves to play percussive and fast music, they'll play more of that style. If the class needs to work on style perhaps they'll play more Mozart.
And finally this model of flexibility keeps everyone on their toes and motivated. Did the Montalban orchestra kids know they were going to play a concert yesterday when they arrived at the nucleo? I doubt it, since we were sent there to watch their rehearsal. That means that students better be ready to play anytime or anywhere. Responsibility and courage are learned without even being taught explicitly.
Yesterday we were at a function when a few top brass El Sistema employees got a call from Maestro Abreu for something important. They were up and gone in a few minutes. Apparently this happens quite often. Does this get annoying for them? I'm sure it does, but what a feeling it must be to know that no day at work will be the same and that you're part of something that is moving forward, constantly reshaping itself in order to fulfill its mission.
Yes, the mission. Let's not forget that the El Sistema mission is so clear, and let's be honest, so good, that you can't help but think that while things are a little chaotic there is a goal and everyone involved knows what is being strived for.
Here are some pictures and videos from our activities this week.
Observing a bass and cello class at La Rinconada nucleo. They were working on a two-octave G major scale and a Suite by Jean-Phillipe Rameau. The teacher constantly emphasized to the class that they had to be ready to play, all of them together, when they were instructed to. This is normal, one has to be alert in an orchestra rehearsal. What stood out for me was how the teacher emphasized that they all had to be ready, so if one person wasn't ready, they would put their instruments down and start the process over. So this process was developing personal responsibility, teamwork and looking out for one another.
With the teacher, Amilcar, and his bass students from the cello/bass class:
La Rinconada string teacher, Josbel Poche explaining to us the paper orchestra. The paper orchestra, which was started a few years ago because of a lack of real instruments is now a full-fledged part of the initiation to music process (hello Flexibility and Adaptivity!). Before the students can play real instruments, they build an instrument made of paper and materials with their parents. They learn how to care for their instruments, hold them properly, what the different parts are, how to sit in rehearsal and they even "play" the instruments as a piece of music is being played over a stereo system. This process lasts about three months, at the end of which they "perform" a concert. After that they move on to real instruments. Thanks to the paper orchestra, they'll already know how an orchestra rehearsal works and the discipline that comes with it. All that's left is learning to play the instrument.
With Rinconada students Moises (clarinet) and Claudia (bassoon). I worked with Claudia on some Bach Brandenburg, Weissenborn studies and long tones. She sounded great.
Montalban is the flagship nucleo of El Sistema in Caracas. It has more then 1000 students. When El Sistema wants to show off their program this is where they often bring guests, although I'm sure you could walk into any nucleo and be amazed. They walked us through the building where in every room there was an ensemble and conductor ready to dazzle us. In all we saw 5 different orchestras. Here's a video of the first stop. You'll recognize the tune: the Finale from Rossini's Overture to William Tell.
El Sistema does jazz. On Thursday we went to see the first and only official jazz band in El Sistema. Most of the students in this band are classically trained and have only been playing jazz for a year and a half. Their director was really adamant that the New England Conservatory send down some of their jazz faculty to work with the ensemble. How do they sound? Check them out playing a Buddy Rich tune:
With the bassoon students from Montalban. Their orchestra was the last stop on the tour of the Montalban nucleo and they played Danzon #2 and Mambo, two pieces that the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra are well-known for. Check my earlier blogs for videos of those two pieces.
Here is a video of an early childhood music class. The class includes things like moving to music, singing, acting, note name recognition, improvisation and listening skills. In this video we see body movement, percussion and listening skills all wrapped into one. I like this class because it encourages creativity and expression. The kids can do no wrong, there is no bad answer. What matters is that they come away feeling that music makes them feel good.
Abreu Fellows Lorrie and Rebecca lead a recorder class in an exercise at La Rinconada nucleo:
At Montalban with Abreu Fellows, David, Stan and Jonathan:
I love this last picture below. I took this from inside the courtyard of La Rinconada nucleo. Many of the students at this nucleo live in this neighbourhood of shanty houses in the hills, known as barrios. It's a great example of bringing the opportunity to play music right to the doorstep of the kids that need it most.
But then again this is El Sistema, so this could and probably will change.