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.


  1. Great blogging Laura! Your anecdotes are so interesting, and constantly remind me of the abundance of resources we have here in the United States. No excuses for us up here. Tocar Y Luchar!

    Jesus Perez is the man. Is Omar still the driver? Both of those men and their families were gracious hosts. And Omar is an amazing salsa and baile de tambores dancer.

  2. Thanks for sharing with us your wonderful experience in Merida!