Friday, May 20, 2011

Venezuela: Estado Mérida

I’m writing from Barquisimeto, after another amazing week in Venezuela. So far we’ve spent a week in Guárico and a week in Mérida, two vastly different regions.
In the state of Mérida, there are about 4,000 students studying music, 900 of them at the central núcleo in the city of Mérida. We spent a great deal of time at the main núcleo, and we also got to travel to four other núcleos.

In Guárico we traveled around and saw many wonderful things. Although I spent some time teaching, it was mostly a time to observe and get to know El Sistema up close. In Mérida we were put right to work when we arrived! I had a fantastic time playing and teaching. I was lucky to be able to work with the Mérida cellists, and I miss all of them already. I was impressed not only by the very high level of playing I heard there, but also by the motivation, attitude and determination of the students.

Upon arriving, we were greeted warmly by Jesús Pérez and his family. Jésus is the regional director of núcleos in Mérida, and the work he has done is amazing. There’s no mystery to how he achieves results, “We work Monday to Monday.” We saw so many programs at the main núcleo: pre-K and Kindergarten programs, recorder classes, beginning violin classes, choirs, orchestras (from the Mozart orchestra comprised of beginners, up to the 120-piece regional youth orchestra), an extensive Special Education program, many levels of solfege and music literacy classes, private lessons, and a variety of other ensembles (including two cello ensembles). One of the highlights of the trip was coaching the cello ensemble comprised of nine of the advanced cellists at the núcleo. They are preparing Bachianas Brasileiras by Villa Lobos for a concert in a few weeks.

Another highlight was attending a concert put on by the students in the Special Education program. We heard performances by singers, pianists, violin ensemble, chime ensemble, choir, recorder ensemble and percussion ensemble. The percussion ensemble ended the concert by accompanying a beautiful and moving rendition of the song “Venezuela,” sung by one of the older students. Some of the students we heard performing had severe disabilities, but nothing was treated as a barrier to making music. Although this particular performance was a demonstration of all the students and ensembles that make up the Special Education program, many of the students participate in other classes and ensembles at the núcleo, and some also become teachers.

While in Mérida, we were able to visit four nearby núcleos: El Vigía, Fe y Alegría, Santa Cruz de Mora, and Mucuchíes.

El Vigía

Our first trip was to El Vigía, a núcleo about an hour south of Mérida. 200 students attend this núcleo, and between 15 and 20 of them also travel a few times a week to Mérida to play with the regional youth orchestra. In the morning we taught private lessons. Students were working mostly on their orchestra music, and there was not a large emphasis on learning solo repertoire. In the afternoon we got to see a special presentation of the choir, both the orchestras, and the programs for younger students (recorder and violin group classes). After the advanced orchestras performed for us, we got to join them to play Handel’s Halleluiah. The atmosphere here was incredibly friendly. Our hosts brought us special snacks throughout the visit, and gave us gifts of typical food from the region to take home. The students hung around in small groups, practicing and playing together. Everyone seemed to be laughing and having a good time.

Fe y Alegría

After getting back from our visit to El Vigía, we left immediately for Fe y Alegría, a boarding school outside of Mérida. It was a strange trip. We drove higher and higher into the mountains. It was getting dark, and a thick fog suddenly surrounded us. The terrain grew wilder. We passed through a gate, which was the entrance to the school, and continued to drive through the wilderness. To our left was the vague outline of a large lake. After continuing up the road for a while, we arrived at a large campus engulfed in fog.

Fe y Alegría is a boarding school of 600 students who, apart from their regular classes, study other things such agriculture, mechanics. The núcleo in Mérida started sending teachers about a year ago to give music lessons. The lessons take place every evening, during students’ free time. Since this is a high school, the students are older. Their attendance at music class is irregular, but the location has a lot of potential to develop. The night we were there we watched a group violin class. There were about ten boys playing together. The teacher worked them hard, and they all seemed determined and serious.

There were no rooms available, so lessons took place outside under the overhang of the building. Next to the lessons there was a competitive ping-pong tournament going on (which I got to join for a few minutes) and the ball occasionally went flying towards the violins. Far off to the side was a machine to make popcorn, which one of the students was handing out in small brown paper bags. Despite many distractions, the other students looked on at the lessons with interest, and I hope that in the future this program can grow into a large and well-developed núcleo.

Santa Cruz de Mora

We spent an afternoon at the núcleo in Santa Cruz de Mora. Classes took place is a large, octagonal building which had one large room in the middle, and smaller rooms off to the side. Directly in the center of the roof was a small stained-glass window, which reflected beautiful colors onto the floor of the núcleo.

This is the first núcleo where we met a teacher who was a foreigner from a non-Spanish speaking country (in Calabozo there was a teacher from Cuba). The piano teacher was a Japanese woman who is part of a program that sends volunteers with various specialties to Venezuela. She had been there a year, and will be there for one more.

Many students studying at the núcleo are from the hillsides and smaller villages surrounding the city of Santa Cruz de Mora. Because of the rain, many roads were impassable (we barely made it ourselves), and some students had been having difficulty getting to the núcleo. The more advanced orchestra was playing the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, and because of the roads, many parts were missing. Also, the piece was very challenging for many of the players. What surprises me again and again as I travel to núcleos is the ability of the orchestra to play very difficult pieces at a high level despite so many obstacles. Neither the difficulty of the piece nor missing parts deterred anyone for a moment. Students played their heart out, and a huge sound came out of the small orchestra.


Mucuchíes is a very special place. From Mérida, a road winds higher and higher through the Andes Mountains. We stopped in a small town perched on the side of the mountains. The air was thinner up at 3000 meters, and the town felt quiet and unhurried. When we arrived, the núcleo director told us a little about the program in Mucuchíes. There are 488 children studying music, and 38 of them in the orchestra. Music classes start at 2pm every day, and orchestra and choir rehearsals are from 4:30-6:30pm. When they are not in school or studying music, most of the children spend their time farming.

The director had prepared a special performance for us. First we heard the choir. There were about 30 children between the ages of 7 and 15. The songs were combined with movement and the children sang enthusiastically.

Next we heard the orchestra and I was blown away. The núcleo is only three years old, and no child sitting in the orchestra had been holding an instrument longer than two and a half years. They were playing advanced pieces, but the difficulty didn’t stop them from playing with all their heart. Everyone played with the same bowing and used their entire bow. During the concert the room was filled with passion and energy.

After the concert we were standing outside talking to the orchestra members. A 10-year-old girl walked over and asked if she could sing for us. We gathered around and she sang two Venezuelan songs. Her voice was absolutely beautiful, clear and expressive. Apparently she will be starting the cello soon. I would have loved to spend a week at Mucuchíes, and I had to force myself to get in the car to leave. I hope to be able to go back someday.


We spent our last full day in Mérida at the main núcleo. David, an Abreu Fellow who is traveling in my group conducted the regional youth orchestra during their rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. I had been playing with the orchestra that week, and it had been a wonderful experience. This was the last rehearsal we’d be at before leaving for Barquisimeto. David got up to conduct the first movement at the symphony, which he had spent the week studying. After, Jesús (the director of the núcleo and conductor of the orchestra) told him to go on to the fourth movement. David told him that he hadn’t looked at that movement, and hadn’t conducted it previously, but Jesús insisted. The reading went forward with enthusiasm, but near the end of the piece, something happened. We arrived at the final “Moderato assai” and the tempo David took was very fast. I’m not quite sure what happened, but it was like a shock wave went through the orchestra. Suddenly, everyone was looking at each other, smiling, laughing, and playing like their life depended on it. It was like an air-born virus of excitement that spread to every player in a few seconds. It may have been the fast tempo that triggered it, or something else, but whatever it was, playing in that orchestra of over 100 people during the last few minutes of the piece was like no other orchestral experience I have ever had. I was part of an unstoppable wave of musical intensity and energy.

After the wonderful rehearsal, David and I went our to have pizza with a few violinist and cellists in the orchestra. They talked to us about the joy they felt when playing in orchestra. They said that everyone was there because they wanted to be; it wasn’t an obligation, but something they loved and looked forward to. The orchestral experience for them was about coming together to make music. No matter what, the most important thing is to never stop making music with joy and passion.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Venezuela: Estado Guárico

The journey to Venezuela has finally started! On April 27th we arrived in Caracas for a five-week trip. After a few days in Caracas, we split into three groups and began our travels to see núcleos around the country.

The first destination for our group was Guárico. We were here for one incredible week, and are now in Mérida. In Guárico, we stayed in the city of Calabozo, which is where the regional headquarters of El Sistema are located. El Sistema in Gúarico functions slightly differently than most of the other states. There are a few núcleos, each with many corresponding “módulos.” Teachers from the núcleos, some not older than 15, travel in the morning to teach music classes at the módulos, which are outreach sites usually located in schools. This provides access to children who live in remote areas of the state, as well as to children in the cities who may not have transportation to get to the local núcleos. There are approximately 9,000 children studying music in either a núcleo or módulo in the state of Guárico.

This week we visited four núcleos and five módulos. In the city of Calabozo, there are two núcleos: Raimundo Pereira and Antonio Estébez. We are also visited El Sombrero, a núcleo one hour north of Calabozo, and Camaguán, a núcleo one hour south. We saw four módulos that took place in schools during the school day. The fifth modulo, La Negra, was near Camaguán. It took place outside on the patio of an abandon building, and the students studied “música folklórica,” which is Venezuelan folk music. The núcleos in the state of Guárico are known for teaching both classical music and música folklórica. We could have spent weeks getting to know all the amazing programs in the state of Guárico, but we saw what we could in one week. Below are descriptions of the módulos and núcleos we visited in the short time we had.


I. La Trinidad

We walked into a classroom in the school “La Trinidad” and heard a group of young children singing a song that they were preparing for Mother’s Day. The teacher stopped them and requested that they sing with more emotion. “Lo que hacemos con amor siempre sale bien. Lo que hacemos por hacer… no.” (What we do with love always goes well. What we do just for the sake of doing it, doesn’t). The teacher was Maria, a 21-year-old violist who is also studying law. Every morning she comes to La Trinidad to teach choir, solfege, recorder and theory to 200 children in groups of about 20. There is also one group that is taking violin lessons with her. All the students in the class share one violin.

II. Vicario

Jesús, a talented young violinist who studies at Núcleo Raimundo Pereira, is the teacher at the módulo in Vicario. We saw him go from classroom to classroom, staying for 30 minutes in each room. The first 10 minutes in each room he would spend teaching basic music theory. The second part of the class the children would sing a few songs, which he would accompany on the cuatro (a Venezuelan instrument similar to a guitar but much smaller and with four strings).

III. Calavario

We traveled to Calavario, a small town about 40 minutes away from Calabozo. Miguel, who teaches música folklórica at the Núcleo Antonio Estébez, founded this site, and has been coming to teach cuatro twice a week. He is currently teaching music theory in preparation for when the students receive their instruments.

IV. Soroco

This módulo is at a school that was founded only about five years ago, in a community that previously didn’t have a school. The students who attend the school are children of those who work at the dump outside of Calabozo. Sadly, the families live within the dump itself. There are about 50 students who, aside from their regular classes, are singing in a choir and studying music theory. The school is working with almost no resources, and El Sistema has provided not only music classes, but also food and shoes to the students. We got to visit this site twice – once to observe the classes, and the second time to play a concert alongside the advanced student orchestra from the Núcleo Antonio Estébez, which was visiting Soroco.

IV. La Negra

La Negra is a colorful town located an hour south of Calabozo, and a few minutes away from the Núcleo Camaguán. This módulo is focused on música folklórica. There is a choir, and an orchestra comprised of students playing arpa llanera (harp of the plains), cuatro, mandolin, bandola and guitar. The classes are held outside, and passers-by from the town gather in small groups to watch. The atmosphere is very casual. After a short orchestra and choir rehearsal, the students split off to practice together in small groups. I got a mandolin lesson from two young girls, and after a while was able to play most of “Linda Barina.” The 60 students who study at La Negra come every day after school. Many parents come to hang out along the edge of the patio, chatting and watching their children play.


I. Raimundo Pereira

In Calabozo, there are two núcleos, each with about 200 students that come every afternoon from 2:30 to 7pm. We spent two afternoons at Pereira, and got to know the wonderful teachers and students. There are four orchestras: two pre-infantil, one infantil, and a more advanced orchestra that is made up of both teachers and students. We observed choir, all the orchestras, percussion ensemble, solfege classes and wind chamber music groups. We taught and also gave a short performance. One thing I noticed that set this music school apart from any other I had seen before arriving in Venezuela was the incredibly fluid line between teacher and student. A few students from the infantil orchestra also played in the pre-infantil orchestra. Students from the advanced orchestra played in the infantil, and teachers played in the advanced orchestra. At all levels there was a support structure built in, with clear role models to look up to. At a young age students become teachers to students who are only slightly younger then them. The conductor of the advanced orchestra was a 15-year-old who had excelled on the violin. The day we came they were rehearsing the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and she was confidently yet humbly leading an orchestra comprised of her peers and teachers. With only about 20 strings, two bassoons, two flutes, one clarinet, one trumpet and timpani, the amount of sound that this orchestra produced was unreal. Directly before the rehearsal I had been coaching the two cellists in the orchestra on the Breval C Major Sonata (an elementary piece) and was surprised to see their transformation to advanced orchestral players as they sat down to play the Eroica.

One thing has struck me about bow use in all the orchestras I’ve seen: from the pre-infantil at Pereira to the Teresa Carreño Orchestra in Caracas, people use the WHOLE bow. The youngest students practice scales from frog to tip, and this manifests itself throughout all the levels of all the orchestras I’ve seen so far. In the more advanced orchestras students also use the same amount of bow, the same bow speed, and play passages in the same part of the bow. This unity throughout the sections seems to be instilled from a young age. In Núcleo Pereira, the orchestra’s huge sound is most likely due in large part to the way the students use their bows. The run-through of the Eroica, despite the heat and the cramped, poorly lit room, had a special sort of vitality about it that seemed to come from pure passion.

II. Antonio Estébez

Antonio Estébez, the first núcleo in Calabozo, was founded in 1994 by a group of children who wanted to study music. Our host in Calabozo, the academic director of El Sistema in Guárico, was one of these students and he talked about the process they went through to start the núcleo. He was 10 years old at the time, and there were 150 other students around the same age who wanted to study music. After communicating with Caracas, and following the instructions they received, they began to create a music program from scratch: first they played using percussion instruments that they built themselves, then they shared a few violin and began studying music theory, and eventually they started to build an orchestra. The program we saw during our visit is now fully developed with three orchestras, a large choir, an adult choir, a pre-K program, music theory, an extensive folk music program, and secondary piano lessons. The atmosphere was very laid back. One of the main differences between the two núcleos in Calabozo is that the classes at Pereira are guided more by the teachers, while at Estébez, the activities are initiated and guided more by the students themselves.

III. Camaguán

After spending a few hours at the módulo in La Negra, we were able to stop for a bit at the núcleo in Camaguán. It took place in the courtyard of a school, where students gathered in small groups according to their instrument. Teachers come to this núcleo only once every two weeks. The students come every day to work together, and the strongest player in each group leads the practice sessions. As I passed by the young group of violinists, I saw a 10-year-old coaching others of about the same age. He was clapping and counting out four beats as his pupils played from the frog to tip and back to the frog. I walked over to the cellos to give a short group lesson on bow technique. All the cellists gathered around. There were many cellists, but only four cellos, some with less than four strings on them. Everyone waited patiently for his or her turn to try out the things I was demonstrating. Despite minimal resources, the desire of the students to be there playing music together was palpable.

IV. El Sombrero

El Sombrero was the last place we visited in Guárico, and our visit was a highlight of the trip so far. Classes meet in a building that is used as a senior center during the day. Like most núcleos, the majority of the classes take place outside in a courtyard, and in a few rooms along the periphery. First we observed choir. The children sang in two-part harmony with a beautiful sound and very good intonation. Orchestra rehearsal took place under a pavilion. Fifty kids between the ages of 7 and 12 were playing violin, viola, cello and bass. We listened to a few songs. Again, students used the entire bow, and they were also able to solfege all the songs they were playing. This site has only been running for a year and a half, but the level was very high. Like Camaguán, the string teachers only come once every two weeks, but the orchestra meets every day.


I feel exceptionally lucky to be here in Venezuela discovering and experiencing El Sistema. This really is the “land of music.” What is happening here is surreal, and difficult to transmit through words, but I hope that the little information I can provide about my experience is helpful. I look forward to sharing more about my weeks in Mérida and Barquisimeto!