Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Venezuela: Estado Lara

We spent our third week of our trip in the city of Barquisimeto, in the state of Lara. The núcleo, which has nine orchestras, is always full of activity. The second day I got to work with the talented cellists in the regional state orchestra on “The Planets” by Holst. Sectionals here usually last a couple hours with no break – no one wants to take a break. I also got to play in the orchestra during a few of their rehearsals. Liz, another member of my group, had fun playing in a seven-person bassoon section.

While in Lara, we traveled to 3 núcleos. Carora and Sarare were about an hour away, and Santa Rosa was only a few minutes away from the main núcleo in Barquisimeto.


Our first trip was to Sarare, which was outside Barquisimeto. Once we got to town, our taxi driver started leaning out the window and asking people on the street to point him in the direction of the music school, but no one knew where it was. Then we started asking, “Where is the orchestra?” and people began to point us in the right direction. As we got closer, we continued to ask people on the street, and they all knew where the orchestra was. This happened when we visited Carora as well. The orchestra is a source of pride for all the residents.

In this case, the orchestra was a group of about 20 young students under the age of 16 playing very basic repertoire, and rehearsing in an empty discotec. They gave us a short performance, and then we decided to hold an impromptu “seminario,” or workshop. We would work in small groups for 45 minutes and then get back together for a full orchestra rehearsal. We split off for sectionals: David with the brass, Liz with the winds, Graciela with violins and violas, and me with the cellos. The three cellos and I squeezed into one of the offices to rehearse. Two of the cellists were missing an “A” string, and had taught themselves to shift up to fourth position in order to play the piece they were working on. In the middle of the sectional the electricity went off and it was pitch black in the office. Luckily, the cellists had the piece memorized, so this wasn’t a problem. Things like missing strings and lack of light do not deter people here. No matter what you have to keep making music.


Carora is a beautiful colonial town with a huge núcleo of about 700 kids. The most striking thing we saw there was the choir program. They have four levels of choir: Baby Choir which is for ages 3-5, the Pre-infantil Choir for ages 6-9, the Infantil Choir for ages 9-15, and the Juvenil choir for age 15 and older. In the youngest choir there were some children with special needs. The Infantil Choir is often conducted by one of their members - a twelve year old. The oldest group was very advanced and they were singing a gorgeous piece by Palestrina. We were shocked to find out that the choir program was only two years old. All the groups (except the youngest) were singing in multiple part harmony with spotless intonation, and had a large repertoire. The oldest choir was currently working on Mahler 2. I’m sure this is due in large part to the wonderful choir director who has been working with them every day.

Santa Rosa

Just a few minutes away from the enormous núcleo in Barquisimeto is the neighborhood of Santa Rosa. The núcleo here is comprised of a couple buildings located right in the central plaza. The plaza is a bustling place, filled with kids playing music. There weren’t many rooms in the núcleo building, so students gathered together outside for lessons or group practice sessions. Everywhere you looked – in the plaza, on park benches, under awnings, in outdoor cafes – there were students with instruments. The núcleo is only seven months old, but the activities there demonstrated how much can be accomplished in a short amount of time. I think that one of the reasons they are able to move so quickly is their proximity to the main núcleo in Barquisimeto. Unlike many of the smaller and more remote núcleos, Santa Rosa has no problem getting consistent teachers. Many of the teachers are themselves students in Barquisimeto.

There are two orchestras at Santa Rosa. Each orchestra rehearses twice a week for two hours. Students have sectionals for two hours once a week, and each student has a private lesson for one hour once a week.

Back in Caracas I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, when an ad for coca-cola came on the TV. It said “There are more orchestras in Venezuela than in Germany and Austria together.” From ads on TV to residents of small towns, Venezuela is a country that is proud of its orchestras – and with good reason. Our last day in Venezuela we heard the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, one of the top children’s orchestra in the country, play Beethoven 9 together with a massive chorus. The combination of passion and extremely high-level playing made this concert both moving and unforgettable.

The importance of the orchestra in Venezuela extends from the Teresa Carreño all the way down to the small orchestra of beginners in Sarare. I was shocked again and again at some of the smaller núcleos, when I would give a cello lesson to a student who was working on a very basic piece and then see them later in the afternoon sitting in an orchestra and playing Beethoven’s third symphony. For me, the “magic” of El Sistema happens in the orchestra. The children who are more advanced raise the level of everyone when they sit together in the orchestra with beginners, and the beginners can play things they never could play on their own. When you work together you can achieve more than you can achieve alone.

Here are some observations about the orchestra from my time in Venezuela. These are meant as generalizations, not as absolute truths about El Sistema:

Students use lots of bow and start at the frog. This produces lots of sound!

Using the same bowings seems to be a high priority in most núcleos.

In rehearsals, students are asked to play stand-by-stand to make sure everyone can play a passage.

There is no impatience or frustration at others who may not be able to play a passage.

There is a mix of ages and levels in the ensemble in order to motivate less advanced students.

They rehearse A LOT.

Put instruments in children’s hands and let them play – don’t limit children and they will always surprise us with what they can do!