Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Venezuela Series: martes y miércoles

Tuesday was the day we have been waiting for all year: our first visit to a Venezuelan nucleo.  We spent the afternoon at the Montalban nucleo, on the west side of Caracas.

This nucleo houses 16 different ensemble programs for around 2000 kids between the ages of 3 - 18.  We observed a variety of classes, including general music for the 3-4 year olds, a cello class, a beginning violin class, choir, woodwind and brass sectionals, the youth orchestra string sectional and youth orchestra winds sectional.  

Eight horns for Tchaikovsky 4? Of course!

My main take-away of the day occurred in the beginning violin sectional.  This group of approximately 40 children, somewhere between the ages of 6 - 9, just began their studies four months ago.  Bow holds have been mastered, and after working exclusively with open strings for a few weeks, they have started utilizing the fingerboard.  They are working on the most basic concepts of violin playing, performing very simple tunes.  During the rehearsal of one of these songs, the instructor paused to express to the students the importance of presence and emotion during performance.  She told them, "you need to know how to draw a smile from the audience."  The connection with the audience and the meaning behind why they are playing music is taught to these kids at the same time as the fundamentals of basic musicianship.  It's no wonder why the Simon Bolivar orchestra is so captivating: they learn to convey an energy and a love for what they do from the very beginning.  They know that the performance isn't just about what happens on stage.

Wednesday morning was spent at Caracas' Centro Academico de Luthería, which is the main training school for El Sistema luthiers.  Housed in a vocational school, the workshop is run by El Sistema luthiers who teach students between the ages of 14-26 how to build and repair orchestral and traditional Venezuelan string instruments.  Once the students are certified- which takes an average of two years- they are then hired by El Sistema to either work for one of its 30 existing instrument workshops, or to start a new instrument workshop in an area of the country that doesn't yet have one.

Inside the Centro Academico de Luthería

We got to talk to many of the luthiers and apprentices, who were extremely gracious in sharing their expertise with us.  The highlight of the morning was when four of the luthiers performed for us, which resulted in an impromptu dance lesson for Monique and me (stay tuned for videos once Carlos gets his blog up and running!).

Wednesday afternoon was spent at another branch of the Academico de Luthería.  This particular site is a pilot program in partnership with the Venezuelan Foundation for the Cure of Paralysis.  All twelve students in this nucleo have varying degrees of limb paralysis.  At this center, the students learn how to make and repair bows, as well as complete basic repair on string instruments.  Just as with the other academies, once the students are certified they are employable.  

This partnership is a lovely realization of El Sistema's ability to create equal opportunities for access and inclusion.  The luthier at this shop had never worked with students with physical disabilities; he learned how to do so on the job.  This required him to learn how to do all of his work sitting down, as his students have to do.  He also fashioned special tools to aid his students who have hand impairments, and came up with games and exercises for them to build dexterity in their hands.

It's important to note that the main cause of lower limb paralysis in Venezuela is gunshot wounds, followed by traffic accidents.  Most of the students at this academy received their paralysis through a traumatic experience.  With that in mind, the luthier explained to us that while he is not a therapist, this nucleo serves as a sort of group therapy for the students.  It gives them a supportive social network and a trade.  In alignment with the words of the luthier, all of the students present expressed their joy and gratitude for the opportunity to be involved in the program.  Several of the students travel two hours one-way just to get to the center every day.

What a beautiful embodiment of everyone's favorite fundamental of El Sistema: Every human being has the right to a life of dignity and contribution.

The rest of this week in Caracas includes a meeting with El Sistema's executive director and additional key staff, 3 nucleo visits and endless beauty.  Stay tuned!

I am being spoiled rotten.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Venezuela Series: Day 1


I'm writing this post safe and sound from the comfort my hotel room in the Euro Building.  Apparently there are a lot of people staying here this week, and all of the twin bed rooms were taken; thus, we each have a room to ourselves during our stay!

Yesterday was a long but exciting day of travel.  We all arrived at Logan Airport around 2:30PM EST.  The exhilaration was already tangible.

Clearly, this is Carlos' "excited" face

Our first flight to Houston was delayed due to snowy and icy conditions, though none of us seemed to care too much: we knew better weather was just around the corner.  I was lucky enough to be seat buddies with the lovely Xochitl Tafoya, with Heath, Monique and Elise just across the aisle.

This was also my last Instagram blast from the US

After a long but smooth flight, we touched down in Houston.  We were looking forward to a mere 3 hour layover since our previous flight had been delayed, but no such luck: the flight to VZ was delayed as well.  Heath kept us entertained with a quiz on the Oscars, which he conveniently happened to win and therefore didn't have to follow up with the prize he was promising.  At around 1AM CST, we were finally en route to Venezuela.

I have no recollection of the flight to Caracas, as I was passed out the entire time.

Upon arriving at the airport and sailing through customs, we were met by the smiling face of Rodrigo Guerrero, El Sistema's International Affairs Officer and personal assistant to Dr. Abreu.  We made the journey from the airport to the hotel in a mammoth-sized van, being completely overwhelmed by the beauty all around us.

The view from my hotel room.  Not bad.

After a nice lunch at the hotel, Rodrigo met us again and took us to Caracas' Center for Social Action Through Music.  This building has only been operating for two years.  Filled with practice rooms, small and large rehearsal spaces, performance venues, masterclass rooms, libraries and computer labs, approximately 2500 kids and young adults utilize this nine-story building every day.

The upper photo is the stage of the Simón Bolívar Hall, which is the largest performance space in the building, seating 800.  The lower photo contains the hall's comfortable and eye-catching seats.  Did I mention that all performances in this space are free?  Oh yeah, and the view from the 9th floor isn't so bad, either.

Is this real life? Who am I to deserve this experience?!

While the nature, architecture and scope of the Center for Social Action is breathtaking in itself, the truest form of beauty happened in our candid discussion with Rodrigo in an office space (which, of course, doubles as a rehearsal room) inside of the building.  We were talking about El Sistema's developing stages of assessment and evaluation to gain hard data revealing the program's success.  Monique asked Rodrigo to speak not of numbers, but what it was that made him believe the program was working in terms of strengthening communities.  He told us a story of a doctor in Barquisimeto who grew up in El Sistema playing the trumpet.  While he did not pursue music as a career, he valued the importance of music and El Sistema in the lives of the people in his community.  Barquisimeto is also home to one of the larger sistema programs for children with special needs, including deaf children.  Over the past several years, this particular doctor has arranged for deaf students from the nucleo to receive cochlear implants FOR FREE.  The doctors and nurses donate their time, and the cochlear implant manufacturers donate the devices.  This is how Rodrigo knows the system is working.  It has nothing to do with improved grades or school attendance (though the numbers do stack up in those categories); it's about the impact sistema has on molding citizens who care about their communities.  It's about creating a culture of love, respect and service.

After only a day, I find myself completely inspired and renewed.  I look forward to the coming days of conversation, observation and pedagogy.  Tochar y luchar!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Peacemaking and First Horn Playing

Throughout the year, the fellows have been lucky enough to receive a series of classes focused on leadership from NEC president Tony Woodcock.  A theme that popped up on a number of occasions in these classes was the concept of leading like a great second horn player.  This obviously resonated with me, not only because I am a horn player, but because the second seat is my favorite.  I love the fourth chair too, but there is just something about sitting second that challenges and inspires me every time.

The main job of the second hornist is to make sure the first hornist sounds like a million bucks.  If the first horn player is 10 cents sharp, the second hornist had better be 10 cents sharp too!  The second hornist must also be able to match the first hornist's note length, volume, articulation, and phrasing.  She must know the first horn part and player intimately.  Eventually the second hornist develops an intuition, and can anticipate how her first horn will play a certain passage.  This perfect union between horns 1 and 2 is also essential for the accuracy in intonation, blend and style for the remaining members of the section.

I'm a second hornist, musically and personally.  I'm uncomfortable in the principal chair.  I've never liked the spotlight.  My favorite thing to do is help other people shine, which would explain why I love teaching so much.  I believe my purpose in life is to love everyone, and in turn to let everyone know that they are loved by someone.  I'm not always successful at this, but I do try my best.

My second horn-ness is apparently noticeable to other people, too.  In a recent group exercise, the fellows had to come up with a word or metaphor to describe each person's role within the group.  Some people ended up with cool metaphors like "Galileo" and "Friendly Wise Goose" (100 points to you if you can figure out who that is!).  Mine was simple: "Peacemaker."  This made me incredibly happy.  That's exactly who I want to be, not just in the fellowship, but throughout all aspects of my life.

The next task of this same exercise was to come up with a word or metaphor representing a quality of which the fellows would like to see more from each person.  My amigos were trying to think of some way to express that they wanted me to feel free to stir things up a little more often, rather than always keeping the peace.  My dear fellow Diogo found a way to express this with which everyone agreed: "More first horn!"

This fit in with the theme of this year: step out of your comfort zone and do something completely different.  How do I do this?  How do I continue to embody my second horn harmonious and peacemaking values while not being afraid to take the lead and set the tone every now and then?  There was a point in time in my life when I played a lot of first horn (literally and figuratively).  I liked it then, and thought I was doing a good job.  Looking back, I was actually doing a terrible job and had no idea what I was doing.  What can I change now to make sure that I know I'm doing it well?

As I embark on this journey to Venezuela, I feel like I am further out of my comfort zone than ever.  I'm getting ready to go to South America for the first time, to a country where I don't speak the language, all the while trying to figure out my role in Sistema in the US as a musician, educator and leader.  I'm equally excited and nervous.  I can only hope to come home with a heightened sense of clarity and purpose (and a completed lecture-recital text, but that's another topic entirely).  Perhaps all of these exciting and unfamiliar experiences will help me channel my inner first horn, too.