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.