El Sistema Diary: A National Endeavor

Ask any taxi driver in Calabozo to take you to the orchestra and he will usher you straight to the right place (no address needed). Almost everyone, in large and small towns alike, knows where music is taking place. “Thank you for teaching our youngsters,” I’ve heard. I quickly tell my driver that most of the time, they are teaching me, and that it is an honor to be here. In Venezuela, orchestras and choirs often manifest themselves as an extension of civic life. An emblem of national culture indeed.

Yesterday, on national television, a few hundred children were featured singing Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand. With ribbons and their national colors wrapped around their necks, they sang with elation before the eyes of an entire nation. I doubt that Gustav Mahler would have ever imagined that his music would be sung by children in Venezuela; or that performances taking place here today would set new artistic standards--for generations to come.

Led by their own Gustavo, the youngsters sang in precise counterpoint against the voices of two iconic professional orchestras (the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar, the pride of Venezuela). During the broadcast, at a local restaurant, we saw a group people gravitate towards the television set, fascinated by the sight of the event. I would imagine it meant something quite special to have seen a representation of their national youth singing with such agreeable intention. I met some of these young choristers here in Guarico. Led by Manuel Lopez, they prepared their parts, working in Caracas intensively for more than two weeks. “It was the experience of a lifetime,“ they told me.

During my rehearsal with the children’s orchestra at the Antonio Estevez nucleo (named after the composer of Cantata Criolla) we set out to conquer their first reading of Venezuela, a piece that is very often played by similar groups throughout the country. Scored for an intermediate level symphony orchestra, it is in many ways, the equivalent of a national anthem. It has that kind of singular resonance to it. The melody is strikingly emotive.

Delving into our work, I thanked the children for allowing me to lead them in such a uniquely national piece. As we began solving some of the technical issues inherent in the score, we paid attention to balancing the voices. Let us hear the woodwinds soar above the strings, the trumpets need a more rounded sound, I requested. Equally important here was to ask what kind of emotions may we derive from the music that we chose to play, and for what end?

“It is a piece from my homeland, Venezuela,” a young double-bassist shouted with a decisive flair. “The piece should reflect a feeling of joy, and pride, and also love,” the students remarked. The children agreed that it should reflect aspects of their own lives. “Do you have any similar pieces from your own country,” they asked in return. The works of Jose Pablo Moncayo and Aaron Copland reflect the musical tradition of the countries I grew up in, I said.

My colleague, Julie, sitting in the viola section and also team teaching with me (a signature El Sistema practice) played us an excerpt of America the Beautiful. The children listened attentively, focusing on every note. A sign of their ability to play ambassadors and of their deeper understanding for the finer nuances of musical collaboration.

Musicians from El Sistema are deeply connected to a spirit of community and nationalism. As they grow up together, their fellow musicians become, in many ways, part of their own family. And they are part of a national family as well. Clearly, its many participants feel music as something that is larger than themselves.

Pieces like Venezuela are heard everywhere: in orchestral and choral settings. They are also meant to be played for a lifetime. Because these pieces bring forth experiences of unity and source of national pride, they are often played, and remain a staple of the academic curriculum and graded repertoire.

Folk music is also being introduced. In Guarico, the alma llanera (soul of the plains) movement, begun about nine years ago, has sprung up in cities around the state, producing a few hundred folk musicians playing cuatros, maracas, bandolas, and harps. Their hope is to bring these instruments to an academic or conservatory level status, where they may be fully accepted and appreciated as part of a “legitimate art form.” Recently, Gustavo Dudamel was heard conducting a folk ensemble (seated as a traditional orchestra) for the celebration of his country’s bicentennial. A national hero himself, he is also the subject of a colorful tile mural, just outside of his home nucleo in Barquisimeto, where out of his hand, stems a swirling national flag--a metaphor for nationalism at the heart of El Sistema.

These iconic representations, may also give us an insight into the way music-making may be envisioned. The Simon Bolivar Orchestra, El Sistema’s flagship ensemble (now a fully professional orchestra), is aptly named after the country’s revered founding father. His words are often evoked in schools, “an uneducated citizen, is an incomplete being,” inscriptions a top blackboards read.

The Simon Bolivar, is the most finished product of El Sistema. It is also the program’s most prominent ambassador, playing around the world a universal repertoire of Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Marquez with an intention that is clearly national in that the orchestra reflects not only their own collective success as musicians but that of an entire musical movement. Many children aspire to be in this orchestra. “Landing a spot there may be the equivalent of making the roster for the Olympic team,” students have told me.

El Sistema is decisively a national endeavor. The most viable option for music learning in the country, it remains a venerated staple for humanist education and a guiding light for thousands of its participants. It is both a social and an artistic program at the same time, embracing everyone who may be willing to contribute to making music together. It is not exclusive to underserved children, on the contrary, it brings an entire population of students reflecting all strata of Venezuelan society.

Music is changing lives. But most importantly, it is helping create a culture of collaboration, where the youngest voices of a nation are valued, cultured, and recognized as a source of pride, ushering in, new ideals for the shaping of a developing nation. At the end of our final rehearsal today, Venezuela sounded, beautifully. The children chanted, “si se pudo” (yes we could). We made it happen together.

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