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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!