Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mérida: Part 1: Words

Welcome to a three-part blog on my ten days in the Venezuelan Andes. 

I haven't been able to blog in a while because we've been really busy and have had spotty internet access but I've been documenting quite a bit so I have lots to share. 

We've been doing lots of different things from teaching, performing, learning through observation and improving our Spanish. Part 1 of the Mérida blog will be in words, Part 2 in photos and Part 3 in videos. 

After spending two weeks in Caracas, on March 4 the Abreu Fellows split up into three groups. My group is Stan (trumpet), Jonathan (conductor/french horn) and myself (bassoon).  We set out to learn as much about El Sistema in Mérida by observing/learning, teaching and performing. For me, to get a full understanding of El Sistema and Venezuela, it's important to be equal parts observer, musician, teacher and student and I'm really happy that our time in Mérida has turned out that way.

The director of the Mérida nucleo, Jesus Perez, wanted us to get an overview of how El Sistema works in his state so throughout these 10 days we got to see several nucleos all over the state of Mérida in the following cities: La Azulita, Tabay, El Vigia, Mucuchies, Santa Cruz De Mora, Chiguara and of course Mérida. Just to avoid confusion I should probably mention that Mérida is a State and its capital is the city of Mérida. Much of the state of Mérida is in the Venezuelan Andes, so most of the towns we visited are way up in the mountains. As you'll see from the scenery pictures, it's a beautiful state.

On our excursions to the different cities, every nucleo presented us with a showcase of their students and ensembles. We saw everything from orchestras, recorder ensembles, special education ensembles, choirs, violin lessons and more.

The nucleo directors were all great and wanted us to perform and teach after the showcases. That's exactly what we wanted to do anyway so our visits were always of a give and take nature.  

For example in Mérida, Mucuchies   and Chiguara, Jonathan conducted and rehearsed the orchestras. In San Juan De Mora, Mérida, and Tabay, Stan taught trumpet masterclasses. In La Azulita, which is a newer nucleo with less students, all three of us played with the orchestra for the showcases.

All the nucleos seem to have a book of pieces that they play. Arrangements of pieces like Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Brahms Hungarian Dance #5,  Shostakovich Symphony 10 2nd movement, Bach Brandenburg Concerto #3 and of course Danzon and Mambo. In terms of a system, there is definitely a systematic list of pieces that is available to all the nucleos but it is up to the teachers at each nucleo to decide which piece will be played and when.

Alongside the typical orchestral instruments, some nucleos have Venezuelan folk music programs with instruments like cuatros, maracas, Venezuealan folk harp and more. So while the orchestra is the main ensemble of the nucleos, El Sistema allows room for many other forms of music.

In North America that means our El Sistema-inspired programs can consist not only of orchestras but also of jazz ensembles, bluegrass ensembles, hip-hop ensembles, funk ensembles, rock ensembles and more. In my opinion, if the music is uplifting and requires daily practice in order to master the skills needed to perform, then I think it's legit.

Throughout our stay I also got a chance to teach some private lessons, lead some woodwind section rehearsals and perform. I somehow managed to get through all this in Spanish. The students were very patient with me regarding my Spanish and often corrected my mistakes, which I was grateful for because it helps me learn more quickly.

I can't say enough about the enthusiasm the students have. They'll all so eager to learn and play. It happened several times that the showcase was over and they wouldn't leave the stage. They love to perform and they seem to know nothing about stage fright.

At one sectional  rehearsal I led in El Vigia, it was extremely hot and we had worked hard all afternoon so I thought I'd give them a choice: leave 15 minutes early or keep working. All hands went up to keep working. In Tabay, the nucleo showcase lasted 10 minutes. Stan and I then played a few solo pieces for them  and  thought that would be the end of it. Then they started screaming "otra!, otra!, otra!" So we played more. Then when we ran out of stuff to play for them,  we played their music with them...for two hours! They wanted to keep going. Luckily a ballet class kicked us out of the room or I think I'd still be in Tabay right now. Their enthusiasm is contagious. No matter how tired I was when I got to the nucleos, at the end of the day I didn't want to leave.

I also love the feel of the nucleos. It's hard to explain, so maybe I'll try to get a video of this sometime. The feeling of the nucleo reminds me of that of a YMCA or Boys and Girls Club, but for music. It's a place where kids can just hang out: before their rehearsals, after their rehearsals, they can drop in whenever they want to practice, or they can drop in just to hang around. The nucleos (at least the ones that have enough staff) are always open even when classes are not taking place.  Picture a street corner with a big building that is the nucleo. There's a little snack shop beside the big building with tables outside. It's hot and sunny, all day, everyday (this definitely helps with the relaxed feel).  The corner is swarming with kids: some eating, some playing marbles, some playing instruments on the sidewalk. I could have spent entire days just hanging out in the lobby. And for me the great thing is that it was always about music. Everyone there was dedicated to the program: the security guards, the nucleo driver, the parents, the teachers, everyone. Hanging on the corner with a violin or a trumpet, waiting for your rehearsal to start. That's sounds so much better than hanging on the corner with nothing to do and nowhere to go. And if kids don't have anything to do once school is done, who's fault is that? I think it's ours (adults), so let's give 'em instruments and music.

El Sistema brings new meaning to the word access. I believed it but down I'm seeing in person.  Their thing is that because music is so good for you, everyone should have the right to experience it. So the programs are available to any child, rich or poor, white or black, with no initial audition. If a student is talented, works hard and wants to play in a more advanced orchestra then there are many opportunities. El Sistema has city, regional, state and national orchestras which are very competitive to get into. In this way nobody is denied but then again nobody is held back. If you just want to play in the nucleo orchestra with your friends then you can do that (you still have to do it well though) but if you want to be the next Yo-Yo Ma, then there's a track for you too. Enough with the one youth orchestra per city, only two spots available each year,  thing. Our  professional concert halls are half-empty. It's time to get more kids into youth orchestras so that in the future when they're adults they're actually interested in going to see live music.

Continuing with access, El Sistema also has programs for students with cognitive, hearing, sight and physical deficiencies. We saw choirs of deaf children alongside choirs of children that can hear, we saw two blind boys play a percussion duet, a lady with cerebral palsy play the piano and a percussion ensemble of children with hearing and sight deficiencies, learning disabilities and physical handicaps. It doesn't matter what the issue is. If there is a way for the child to play music, and there almost always is, then the special education teachers find a way to integrate the kids. I saw a mother in tears (of joy) as she helped her daughter, who's blind,  off stage after she performed three solo pieces on violin.

I also really enjoyed seeing how the special education programs were integrated to the regular programs whenever possible. For example the, White Hands Choir was not only for deaf children but for any child that wanted to be in the choir. I can only the imagine the sensitivity, patience and empathy a child develops if they sing everyday in a choir with others that can't see or can't hear. In terms of music programs for kids with special needs, I believe El Sistema is miles ahead of the game. I'd like to know more about similar programs in North America so please let me know if you know of any.

There's even an El Sistema program for inmates at one of the jails in Merida. We were supposed to go see it but some of the inmates were on a hunger strike so we were told it was too dangerous to go. I met the conductor of the jail orchestra and he's going to try and get me pictures from the jail.

After 10 days, we've now come down from the mountains and are in the Los Llanos (The Plains) for the next 15 days, in a city called Acarigua. Roberto Zambrano, the director of the nucleo here, has lots of plans for Jonathan, Stan and I so I'm sure it will be a great two weeks. It's also ridiculously hot here. My friends in Canada will love this: the average temperature in Acarigua for this week is about 38 degrees celsius, 100 degrees fahrenheit for my American friends.

Please check out Part 2 and 3 for pictures and videos of our time in the El Sistema programs in Mérida. I recommend watching the videos through to the end so that you have can see the reactions of some of the students when they finish playing and the audience applauds. In that moment music means the world to them. They seem confident, happy and understand why they work so hard. For me, that's the beginning of the social change that music provides.

Mérida Part 2: Pictures

Stan warms up while a student looks on at La Azulita Nucleo in La Azulita, Venezuela. The kids were always so curious and excited to see us and listen to us. I'm pretty sure they didn't know exactly who we were or why we were there but as soon as they saw us playing they would follow us around, ask questions or as in this picture, just sit and listen.

The choir performs for us at El Vigia Nucleo in El Vigia, Venezuela. Notice the difference in age between the singers. Mixing kids of all ages is common in all El Sistema ensembles. The younger kids look up to the older ones for guidance and improvement and the older ones learn responsibility and leadership. Social change through music.

The three fellows with our hosts in front of the Mérida Nucleo director's house. From L to R:
me, Director's son Abraham, Nucleo Director Jesus Perez and his wife, Omar, our driver with his son 
Omar Jr, Jesus Perez Jr with his sister Jessica, Stan, Jonathan. The director's son, 18 year-old Jesus Perez Jr, is a percussionist with the Simon Bolivar A Orchestra and often returns to Mérida to teach at his 
father's nucleo.

Jonathan leads the orchestra through some Haydn at the Mucuchies nucleo. Mucuchies is located at 10,000 feet. It's significantly colder up there. I saw many of the kids playing with tuques, scarves or jackets. I was pleasantly surprised to find nucleos in the most remote, mountainous areas. Most of the nucleos in the state of Mérida are within 2 hours of the city of Mérida so they have a great structure 
regarding the teaching. Most of the instrumental teachers in the city of Mérida nucleo belong to the 
professional orchestra in town. However there are too many nucleos in the state of Mérida for these 
teachers to get at all of them so what happens is that the best players in the city of Merida are paid to 
travel to the remote nucleos and teach the instrumental lessons there.

The woodwind section from the nucleo in Santa Cruz De Mora. I worked with them on intonation, moving and listening when playing in orchestra and chamber music and led them through some of Brahms' Hungarian Dance #5. The kids at this nucleo were great and eager to learn. We got there around 10am and didn't leave until 7 pm. We were supposed to be done after lunch. Oops.

In this picture below we see the orchestra of the nucleo in Santa Cruz De Mora playing a Bach Bradenburg Concerto. The older gentleman playing with the kids is Mauricio, the nucleo director/conductor. 

I never got this child's name here in the wheelchair. He was part of the percussion ensemble in the special education showcase at the Mérida nucleo. He never smiled until the music started and he 
was able to bang on his drum. His part was simple, but he was able to play in time with the 
rest of the ensemble.

This young girl in the picture below is blind. At the special education showcase she played three solo pieces, bringing her mother to tears. In this picture she is playing the Suzuki classic Go Tell Aunt Rhodie. She also sings in the White Hands Choir, which you can see sitting behind her.

I teamed up with the bassoon students and teacher at the Mérida nucleo to play a small bassoon chamber music concert. 

From L to R: Professor of Bassoon Ruben Duran, Jorge, Emiro, Marco, me. 

Everyone of these students goes to the nucleo six days a week while simultaneously going to university. Some are studying music and others are studying engineering. I'm not sure if there's an age limit for 
participation in El Sistema and I will find out, but my impression is that theydon't have an age limit and 
that students just keep going until they can't or don't want to anymore.

Hanging out in the Simon Bolivar square in town of Chiguara. Every city in Venezuela has one or more public squares and they're always named after Simon Bolivar and have statues or busts of him.

Mérida Part 3: Videos

Students from the El Sistema Folk Music program at the nucleo in San Juan De Los Morros peform for us. This didn't take place during our time in Mérida. San Juan De Los Morros is about 2 hours from Caracas. I put up this video because it was a simply a great performance. How great would it be to have music from different cultures be played at El Sistema programs in North America? Since North America is such a melting pot of cultures, the sky's the limit in terms of the type of music.

Another performance from San Juan De Los Morros. Watch these two blind students play a snare drum duet for a crowd of about 500+. What I really like about this video, besides the playing, is to see the students in the background so excited to be watching and then applauding at the end. I noticed this at all the nucleos I've been to. All the students at the nucleos love to watch the special education students perform. I'm sure they appreciate how much more difficult it is to play music without seeing or hearing.

This video is of "El Coro De Los Manos Blancos" or "The White Hands Choir". Basically the concept is that students with hearing deficiencies participate in a choir by using sign language instead of singing. In order to keep the beat they use movements such as dancing or swaying side to side.  When the White Hands Choir performs they do so at the same time as another choir in which the participants actually sing the music. So there are two conductors conducting at the same time, one leading the sign language for the White Hands Choir and one leading the singing choir. The result is what you see in this video taken at San Juan De Los Morros near Caracas. I should point out that the White Hands Choir is open to any student, not just the ones with hearing deficiencies.

This video is from the city of Mérida nucleo. In it we get to see how the special education teachers work with students who have hearing deficiencies. For example, in order to teach violin, the teachers color code the four strings with bells. Each bell is a different color and has the same pitch as the strings on the violin. From there I'm not sure how they get to more complicated stuff, I missed some of the explanations because they were in Spanish. I'd appreciate any insight. But suffice it to say that this is painstaking work  and takes a lot of time. I should point out that several of the special education teachers at the Merida nucleo are students in the regular music program who give their time to work with the kids that have special needs. Another excellent opportunity for peer-to-peer mentorship.

This is the choir from the Santa Cruz De Mora Nucleo in Mérida State. The song is called "Himno A La Paz, or Hymn To Peace and it's by a Venezuelan named Jose Apolinar Cantor. My eyes got watery while watching this performance and I don't even understand what they're saying!  

Here's a video of my fellow Abreu Fellow Jonathan Govias conducting the end of Beethoven's Egmont Overture during one of the rehearsals of the youth orchestra in the city of Mérida nucleo. The nucleo director wanted our roles as fellows to be hands on so he had us participate in some of the rehearsals. From my seat in the bassoon section I took a little break from playing to record this clip.

This video is from the string orchestra class at the city of Mérida nucleo. In it we catch a glimpse of perhaps the next Gustavo Dudamel. The teacher simply asked who wanted to come up and lead the orchestra through an exercise and this kid volunteered. If you're a music student in Venezuela and you want to conduct, you will have an opportunity. Here, as soon as a student can, he/she is given the responsibility to lead his peers. We've probably seen around 30 or 40 performances in Venezuela and I'd guess that the average age of the people conducting the performances is somewhere between 20 and 30, with several under 25. How is Dudamel conducting all this great repertoire all over the world at the age of 28? People here tell me that he started conducting orchestras when he was about 11 years old so maybe that's the answer. Look out for a Venezuelan maestro in a concert hall near you because believe me, they start them young and they're coming.

I capped off my stay in 
Mérida by teaming up with some of the bassoon students and the bassoon teacher to play a little chamber music concert. In this video we play two movements of a well-known bassoon quartet (well-known among bassoonists, that is) called Le Phoenix by Michel Corrette. Thank you to bassoon professor Ruben Duran and his students, Jorge, Emiro, Marco, Leonar and Claret for a great 10 days at the Mérida nucleo.