I just completed an indescribable week in Barquisimeto. I'll try to describe it anyway. Fair warning: this will be a long entry.
On Monday, Elise, Monique, Sara and I got to the Barquisimeto conservatory around 10am to meet with its music director, Luis Jimenez. Luis was one of the famous original eleven members of the first El Sistema orchestra, and hearing his story was priceless. He is originally from Barquisimeto, and has been a major part in making the Barquisimeto conservatory the Venezuelan powerhouse it is today. The part of his story that affected me the most pinpointed the exact moments when music education went from being a privilege to a social right in Barquisimeto. It reminded me of why I got into this work in the first place, and what my goals are as a musician, educator and citizen.
After this great history lesson, the four of us met with Johnny Gomez, who is the director of the special needs program at the conservatory. Barquisimeto is on the top of the field of providing music education for children and adults with special needs, it it was amazing to hear the man who started it all talk about how they got to where they are today. We were all a little weepy by the time he got through with us. More on this later.
After lunch, seven of us headed to a breathtakingly beautiful suburb of Barquisimeto called Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa is home of Lara's Divina Pastora. It also houses a nucleo that is only a few years old, where the children rehearse mainly in and around the town square every day.
Panorama of Santa Rosa's square
We were all anxious to get back to work, and our wish was granted. Carlos and I began our week-long journey as team teachers for the brass students. On Monday, we worked with three of Santa Rosa's horn players: Maria, Maria and José Victor. I should also mention that before we left the conservatory for Santa Rosa, we ran into Mao. Mao ended up having the afternoon free, so Xochitl and Diogo invited him to hop in the van to Santa Rosa with us! Mao was a great addition to the Santa Rosa horn team. He also gave me the necklace I'm wearing in the photo below.
Thanks to Carlos for grabbing this shot!
The nucleo usually ends rehearsal at 5:30 every day, but Carlos and I got the time wrong and ended up keeping our kids until 6. No one told us to stop rehearsing. The kids never asked for a break for the entire 3 hours we were working with them; neither did Carlos and I.
After we finished rehearsing, the fellows and nucleo leaders went and grabbed some sweets at the dulceria in the square. Some of the kiddos joined us.
The student on the far right is José Victor, who Carlos and I met for the first time last week at the audition prep day at the conservatory. They were working on the first horn part to Mahler’s 1st symphony. During a rehearsal break, the horn students asked me which horn part I usually play, and I said 2nd. José Victor ran out of the room, and came back a few minutes later with the 2nd horn part for me to play along with them. I was very excited to see him again when we arrived at Santa Rosa. At the beginning of rehearsal on this particular afternoon, his music was completely disorganized. Carlos told him that we were going to come back (which we didn't actually know at the time), and that he expected José Victor’s music to be organized alphabetically. Remember this a few paragraphs down the road.
On Tuesday, I did something I never thought I would do: learn to read braille. One of the administrative team members for the special needs department of the conservatory spent a portion of the morning teaching several of us the basics of reading braille. We started with the letters and numbers, and then we went into reading music. She stressed to us to try not to compare reading music in braille with reading it by sight on the staff because they are completely different ways of reading music, and she was right. The most notable difference is that in braille, there is no staff. In reading braille music, certain things are actually notated with the expectation that the learner will use intuition to figure out certain things, such as which octave the next note in the series is in. I think it's so cool that there is a literacy system with inherent intuition built in.
I had to leave the braille session a bit early because Mao and I had arranged to have a lesson, which lasted for two hours. The only reason we stopped was because I had somewhere else to be. I taught Mao some horn, and he taught me some Spanish. My teaching skills were exercised in a completely new way working around a language barrier. Not surprisingly, we had a great time together. (Side note for you, Cecilia: you made a guest appearance in the lesson via my laptop screensaver! I got to tell Mao that you are my best friend and you play horn too!).
After my lesson with Mao, I hopped in the van with the fellows. We drove two hours outside of the city to Carora (note: this is an extremely hard word for a gringa like me to pronounce). Carora is a stunningly beautiful and quaint pueblo. Once again, we were joyfully put to work immediately upon arrival. Carlos and I got to work with the wind ensemble for a short while before taking the trumpeters and hornist out for a sectional. They requested to work on technique, which was no surprise to us; however, we opted to take a different approach and work on buzzing and sound production. The young hornist had never had a horn teacher before, and I felt lucky to pass on any knowledge that I could in the short time I had with him.
Students at Carora
After the sectional, everyone went to full orchestra rehearsal. Diogo was the celebrity of the day, conducting the orchestra through a rousing rendition of Mambo, followed by the ever popular Venezuela. After this rehearsal, all of the fellows were treated like royalty. All of the students wanted photos with us individually.
Carlos getting mauled by small children
New friends from Carora
Wednesday, the fellows split into groups and dispersed ourselves throughout Lara. Some went back to Corora; others went to Tamaka; Elise stayed at the conservatory; and Carlos and I returned to Santa Rosa. This time we worked with the horns, trombones and 1 trumpet. As the students were unpacking their instruments and music, I José Victor had something new with him: a thick white binder stuffed full of music. He went above and beyond Carlos' request. He made artwork for the cover. He put in a table of contents. Every piece of music was organized alphabetically, complete with tabs to separate the pieces. All of the music was in clear plastic to keep it from blowing away, as they rehearse outside. We were stunned.
We made another trip to the dulceria after rehearsal. José Victor joined us.
He definitely ate the whole thing.
Thursday was the most profoundly emotional day for me. We spent the afternoon at the conservatory being treated to a workshop and performance by the Coro de Manos Blancos (White Hands Chorus). This choir is for individuals with special needs, ranging from blindness to autism to motor disabilities to deafness. Everything about this was astounding. I plan on writing a longer blog entry within the next few days about this experience. All I'll say for now is that none of us were shy with our tears this particular afternoon.
Friday was my favorite day of the week for many reasons. For starters, I decided to get in my morning practice session on the roof of our hotel.
This was my view. And yes, I obviously played the Short Call.
In the afternoon, Carlos, Xochitl, Monique and I returned to Santa Rosa one last time. Carlos and I had our biggest brass section yet: 4 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones and a euphonium. Carlos conducted them while I ran around adjusting hand positions and playing along with the students struggling with harmonies. The last hour was spent in full orchestra rehearsal, where Carlos conducted and I jumped in to play along with the kids. At the end of rehearsal, the nucleo director and all of the children thanked us deeply for sharing with them. We thanked them in return, though I doubt I can express the impact the Santa Rosa nucleo had on me. To experience kids with such hunger to learn in a seemingly constant state of joy is something I will never forget. Even though I could barely talk to them, they showed me so much love and appreciation. Wherever I end up in June, I want my nucleo to be reminiscent of Santa Rosa.
The fellows spent the evening with our new friends from the Barquisimeto conservatory and Santa Rosa. I received patient assistance with my Spanish, and learned how to salsa and merengue. It was a perfect way to end a fantastic week in a beautiful city full of kind and generous souls.
We are now back in Caracas for a few days, wrapping up our trip. We return to the US on Tuesday. I feel like I just got here, like I just started to understand what Venezuela’s El Sistema is about. I have so much to think about, but right now my brain can only focus on how and when to get back to this beautiful country to continue growing and learning at the source.