I’ve died from sheer happiness, gone to heaven, and risen from the dead in order to write this next blog post.

I traveled from Caracas to Barquisimeto, a journey that looked something like this:

Caracas a Barquisimeto

Caracas a Barquisimeto

Or, if you prefer a bit more geographic context:

con un poquito más contexto

con un poquito más contexto

Bienvenidos a la Fundación Orquesta Sinfonica Juveníl e Infantil en Barquisimeto, housed in the conservatory here. Here’s a quick, early-morning snapshot of the foyer before the arrival of the masses. I had a beautifully tranquil few minutes of contemplation here this morning under the sun, before rolling up my sleeves and getting to work:

Calm before the storm

Calm before the storm

A quick tour of the space, now animated:

I am entirely enamored by indoor-outdoor spaces like this, which is perhaps a sign that I should seriously consider relocating to el Carribe! No, in all seriousness though, as much as I love it here, and as much as my 12-hour mega-days are exhilarating from the moment I step in the main door to teach at 9am, to the moment I leave at 9pm after intense rehearsals with the Orquesta Juveníl (the most advanced student orchestra at the núcleo), I remain wholly committed to figuring out how to bring core elements of El Sistema back to the United States, to run a núcleo of my own in a city in need of innovative new social programming for young children. For a fabulous run-down of some of these valued core elements of Sistema programming, check out fellow Fellow Ben Fuller’s most recent blog post on what he’s tracking here to bring back to his home city of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Every day is a meditation here, both invigorating and contemplative, and filled with constant learning. There are a few major gifts so far that I feel I’ve received here, that I want to now offer to you in relation to being an El Sistema practitioner:

1. Individualized Coaching:

Sistema Fellow Julie Davis coaches a young violinist

Sistema Fellow Julie Davis coaches a young violinist

El Sistema is renowned for its emphasis on the ensemble as the central unit for instruction and performance. The benefits of this have been astounding, and the possibilities for developing a collaborative ethos are tremendous. The beauty and the possibilities of individual coaching, however, must not be under estimated. So many of us have been spending upwards of 10 hours a day giving private lessons or doing individualized instruction here, and while the main núcleo in Barquisimeto houses both a conservatory and a núcleo (from 2-6pm, the “núcleo” takes effect, and students pour in from every which corner to play, practice, attend rehearsals, take theory and solfege classes, etc.). I’ve started a “viola clinic” of sorts, with the violists who are hungry for more individualized time to continue developing their technique and musicianship.

Each afternoon, I start with one violist up on a balcony of the conservatory, and the more we play, the more other violists join us. I am introduced to each violist as they come over with a hug and a kiss, and the more of us there are–playing and coaching each other, getting one-on-one or two-on-one coaching from me, or practicing individually in close proximity–the stronger the creative buzz, the energy to get better, and the snowball effect of violists present (WHICH IS THE BEST!!!!). Here’s a photo from the beginning of the snowballing:

Sculpting the opening of the Walton Viola Concerto

Sculpting the opening of the Walton Viola Concerto

Time stops existing when I do individualized and group instruction this way, sans walls, sans the restrictions of a clock. (But once I look at the clock again, I see that these clinics are lasting for upwards of 6 hours!) The individual relationships that we form, and the fluency that we develop on the instruments in this time are transferrable in the most important of ways back to the pinnacle experience of the orchestra.

2. Euphoria through Volume and Speed (Or, the creation and maintenance of passion):A group of us are performing at the end of the week with the Orquesta Juveníl, or the most advanced student orchestra at the núcleo. Here’s a little excerpt of the second movement of  Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony:

This recording is clean, calculated, precise, though still exciting. Nestled within the viola section in the Juveníl, however, I am engulfed by the impact of sound and speed that is entirely ferocious, and makes my heart race (literally). The brass players play as if they have two additional sets of lungs, and lips made of… (well, steel wouldn’t work here, and neither would tire rubber, so I may have to do a little more research on this analogy before I complete it!). The orchestra plays several notches faster than in this recording, and although it DOES feel as though we are in danger of rushing too much, the danger is thrilling, and pales in comparison to other types of danger that any one of us might face. At the end of the day, does it really matter if we ARE rushing, if the experience is transformative for us players, at different twists and turns in the piece?!

One of the viola teachers at the núcleo told me that, despite the fact that he is working on solo repertoire with some of his younger viola students, many of them spend more time practicing orchestral repertoire than his solo repertoire. Why? If you lived inside that sound–the blaring, mourning, yearning, pleading, ferocious, mysterious, soulful sound–you may very well feel compelled to spend hours a day with your instrument and music as well.

To quickly link the orchestral experience back to individualized coaching, before my first rehearsal with the Orquesta Juveníl, the assistant principal violist, a lovely 19-year-old violist named Johander, worked with me for an hour, leading me through practice of the entire viola part for the Prokofiev Symphony. We had met about 5 seconds before. I had only asked Johander for some tempo markings, since I wasn’t too familiar with the symphony. 60 minutes later–which is a lot of minutes, mind you–he had patiently coached me through the entire piece, with extra attention to the trickiest sections, so that by the time I showed up for my first rehearsal, not only did I feel like I had slightly better command on this entirely counter-intuitive piece, but I also had an ally, someone who was looking out for me as a member of his section. He easily introduced me to all of the other violists, who were equally as warm, and each day I am moved by small acts of generosity that they show to me as a guest in their section.

3. Teacher-Artist-Performer-Learner: There have been many linguistic renderings of this concept, so I would simply like to elaborate more on what I see and what I am experiencing here that is making me feel more whole than I have felt in years.

I should repeat that. I feel more whole here in Barquisimeto than I have felt in years. And this is the kind of wholeness that I want to create for the teachers and students at my núcleo, when I start and run a new program in the states.

So many of the young children I have met have ask me what orchestra I play in. The default is this: when you are a more advanced musician in the orchestra, you are not only paid a small stipend to be a pre-professional player in the group, but you are also paid to teach lessons or classes to younger students (formalizing the peer teaching component that El Sistema is renowned for), while continously learning from your own instructors, whether they are formal teachers, or other more advanced students in the orchestra that you seek out.

I have been working with violinists and violists who play in the Juveníl, who have come to me asking for some coaching. I have offered it freely, and as a result of their humility in making such requests, I have also asked others for lessons. At the end of each day, we are equal peers in the orchestra, colleagues and mentors to each other. I continue to receive help from the other violists, when I’ve misplaced some sheet music, or a rhythm has escaped me, or I have forgotten to count the rests in the middle of a movement. There is no animosity, no ill feeling, no pretense, only partnership. And we all perform together on Friday, at San Felipe, rocking the shoes and socks off of anyone who dares to be in our presence.

It has been such a blessing–una gran bendición–to be in this space; to be around hungry musicians making music in all nooks and crannies, indoors and out; to have the opportunity to sculpt young musicians and hear them develop exponentially in the course of just 20 minutes; to be coached by other young musicians, who are helping me develop a stronger and sturdier internal pulse in the face of cacophony and on the frontier of something so dangerous that it has the possibility to become a force with the impact of an explosion that does the opposite of harm, by complete invigoration.

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