Sunday, March 17, 2013

Venezuela Series: Barquisimeto, week 2

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, portions 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.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Venezuela Series: Joyful Inquiry

¡Hola de Barquisimeto!

By Monday at lunchtime, we had been out of Caracas for just over 24 hours.  I'll be honest- it hadn't been the best 24 hours of my life.  I'm a pretty independent person, so being in a situation where I need help to do everything is extremely frustrating.  The combination of having only a remedial grasp of the Spanish language and being a vegan in a meat-and-cheese loving country was beginning to feel completely paralyzing.  The other fellows are being fantastic and are helping me so much, but it's the fact that I NEED that help that makes me so uncomfortable.

After a morning of incomprehension and an awkward lunch, I returned to the Barquisimeto conservatory feeling pretty useless.

Then, I met Mao.

I was walking around trying to figure out where to go when I walked past a young man practicing horn in a corner of the nucleo.  He greeted me, and exploded with joy when he saw a horn on my back.  We began to try to speak to each other.  His English is about as good as my Spanish.  We exchanged some pleasantries, but I was concerned that if I stayed and talked with him for too long I would lose the group and not know where to go, so I continued on my way.  Within a few minutes, I learned that I still had about a half hour before any classes started up again.  I heard Mao playing the 1st horn part to the trio from Beethoven's 3rd symphony.  Obviously, I couldn't resist.  I returned to where he was practicing, took my horn out of its case, and asked him if I could play the 2nd part along with him.  He excitedly agreed, but was quite nervous to be playing with me.  We played the passage together a few times, eventually switching parts.  He asked me if I could play some of Richard Strauss' 1st horn concerto for him, so I did.  Then he played some of Mozart's 1st horn concerto for me.  He sounded great, but nervous.  I played it for him, over-exaggerating the phrasing to show him that he could be more expressive.  He understood, and played it again.  It was significantly better.  We then moved on to a book of duets I had with me.  His nervousness began to subside.  Sometimes, techniques would come up in the duets with which Mao had trouble.  He would ask me how to fix them.  I would demonstrate different techniques, and he would try them.  It took a while, but when we got to lip trills I was even able to communicate to him that it took me years to be able to be able to do them, and that I got there by practicing them slowly and moving the metronome marking up one click per day.  We played together for nearly 2 hours; I only ended our session because I was afraid I was supposed to be somewhere else.

I also learned a little bit about Mao as a person.  He's 18 years old.  He actually attends a different nucleo in Lara, and was just at the Barquisimeto nucleo for the afternoon to practice.  He's a university student- I didn't quite grasp his major, but it's something to do with numbers.  He's only been playing horn for a year, though you'd never guess it by how good he sounds.

Mao was also the embodiment of gratitude.  He hugged me about every 10 minutes.  He told me over and over how happy he was to be playing with me, and that my teaching was like magic.  When we were finished, he asked me if he could make copies of the duets we had been playing.  We went across the street to make the copies, and he had me write a message to him on the first page (in English, thankfully).  We took several pictures together.

Mao and Me at the Barquisimeto Conservatorio

This gratitude is common from every student I've encountered in Venezuela.  They are all so gracious for every ounce of help they are given.  This appreciation is a result of their insatiable hunger for education, for improvement, for music.  I have yet to come across an apathetic student.  They will try anything to improve, and are exuberant while doing so.  Every learning experience is one of joyful inquiry.  No amount of information you give them is too much, no challenge too great.

When I return the to US and to teaching, my goal is to figure out how to cultivate this joyful inquiry within all of my students.  They have this figured out here, but I can't yet put my finger on exactly how they do it.  This is my goal for the remainder of the trip.

I'm so glad that I met Mao, and that I was able to make music with him and teach him a few things.  I definitely learned more from him, though.  Mao lifted my spirits with his desire to learn and his love of music.  He reminded me that all experiences can be intensely valuable when viewed through a lens of joyful inquiry.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Venezuela Series: Caracas Wrap-Up

On Thursday, we had the great fortune of meeting with El Sistema's executive director, Eduardo Mendez.  As you can imagine, Eduardo is quite a busy guy, so the fact that we got to meet with him is pretty outstanding.  He got about 10 phone calls on two different phones during our short time with him, but only answered the phone when the caller was Dr. Abreu.

Not surprisingly, this meeting was amazing.  Eduardo gave us so many insights on what El Sistema is and isn't, and how to gain the most out of our experience in Venezuela.  If I wrote my thoughts about everything he said, this entry would be 50 paragraphs long.  Here are a few gems from the conversation (expect later posts on some of these topics):

*You can't buy a teacher; you have to develop him.
*El Sistema Venezuela are NOT the "owners of the truth."  El Sistema will look different in different places.
*You cannot sacrifice quality for quantity.  It doesn't matter how many; it matters how good!  This is how transformation happens.
*Anyone can play at his or her best level.

Elaine, Elise and Xochitl before our meeting

In the afternoon we went to the nucleo in La Rinconada, an area of Caracas owned by the government.  This nucleo has three different buildings, and serves children from the ages of 2 - 18.  We observed many different sectionals and rehearsals, in an experience similar to the one we had in Montalban.

Inside one of the La Rinconada buildings

After our nucleo visit, we went back to the Center for Social Action to attend a concert by the Simon Bolivar Wind Ensemble.  The age range of this group is somewhere around 16-24.  This wind ensemble also includes full cello and bass sections, which I have never seen before.  They performed several exciting works, my favorite of which was an arrangement of Johan de Meij’s Extreme Make-Over, which is based off of several Tchaikovsky themes.  It brought back fond memories of when I performed this work with the JMU brass band several years ago, though I’ll admit my heart sank when some of the most thrilling and challenging horn parts from the original brass band version were given to the alto saxes in the wind band arrangement.

On Friday, after a morning and early afternoon full of swimming, sunshine and horn playing, I had my favorite experience in Venezuela thus far: our visit to the Sarria nucleo.  This nucleo is at an elementary school, though not all of the El Sistema children come from that specific school.  The level of playing was phenomenal.

These young trumpeters have only been playing since September.

These students have been playing their instruments for 2.5 years

After observing several sectional rehearsals, we all got our hands dirty in the beginning orchestra rehearsal, comprised of children who have only been playing their instruments since September 2012.  We were all sitting in the sections with our specific instruments, helping out where we could.  After a while, the conductor pointed to me with his baton and beckoned me to the stage to conduct the orchestra through Pomp and Circumstance.  I’m convinced the conductor somehow knew that I was the least capable fellow in the room for this task.  After a quick “hola, me llamo Rachel,” we dove in.  When we reached the end of the piece, all of the children applauded for me.  I was stunned.  Then the conductor came back on stage, and I returned to the brass section.  The trumpets and horns had only learned the introduction to the piece, and were sitting and listening intently to the rest of the orchestra after they had played through the part they knew.  Carlos decided to take over the trumpet part, and I followed suit on the horn part.  This did not go unnoticed by the rest of the orchestra.  Once again, when we reached the end of the piece, the entire orchestra turned to the brass section and applauded Carlos and me.  At the end of rehearsal, girls from the violin section ran up to me to hug me.

My new friends in Sarria

I left this nucleo feeling so loved and appreciated, even though I was barely able to communicate verbally with any of the students.  They were so hungry for musical help, and so loving and affectionate.  The “vibe” at this nucleo cannot be put into words, but the fellows left feeling amazing and yearning to spend more time there.

Most of the nucleos around Caracas were taking the day off on Saturday for various reasons, so Rodrigo took advantage of the free time to show us around.  We went to the top of La Avila, which is the highest mountain in Caracas.  The view from up there is breathtaking.

After a great walk, we stopped for lunch in a nearby town.  One of the best things about Venezuela is the juice.  Every restaurant has several different kinds of natural juices, which taste infinitely better than our chemical-laden juices in the US.

Strawberry, Blackberry and Peach Juices

We wrapped up this beautiful day with a concert of Verdi arias by the Simon Bolivar orchestra and guest vocalists.  This is not the same Simon Bolivar orchestra that tours the world, but is comprised of the more senior members of El Sistema: “Abreu’s kids."  It was an honor to be present in the audience, and to bear witness to the product of Abreu’s early years of building orchestras around the country.

Thus ends a fantastic week in Caracas.  I am posting this blog next to a sleeping Elaine and Monique in our hotel room in Barquisimeto.  I’ve been told that there is amazing brass playing happening in this city, so I am extremely excited for what lies ahead.

See you in a few weeks, Caracas!