Aaattt laaaaast…!

Okay, I couldn’t help myself, and Etta James happens to be one of those brilliant people whose memory deserves constant and regular tribute. But, melodrama aside, WE’VE MADE IT! We’ve finally arrived in Venezuela: the land where all things are possible; the land where violins and trumpets grow on trees; the land where musicians from around the world come and bask in the magic of El Sistema.

I did say melodrama aside. I must be re-greasing my blog-writing wheels.

So here I am, in Caracas, on a music-education Mecca of sorts, here to visit the venerated El Sistema, an anti-poverty social program using youth orchestras that was conceived 26 years ago by the equally–if not more–venerated Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu. It might be fair to say that I have been waiting for this opportunity for my entire life, born with the desire to be here to understand how music is used as a tool for radical transformation on numerous social levels. I have visited two núcleos (or music centers) in Caracas so far, one in Montalbán and the other in Sarría. More about Sarriá in a later post. Each one truly feels like a núcleo, a nucleus, a central safe haven and gathering place for children, families, and teachers in the midst of a complex, often violence-plagued, barrio. Each one seems to function as a heart in a larger system, though that system within each barrio is something I’m seeking to understand more deeply in the coming weeks: 4 more, to be exact.

Núcleo Montalbán is nestled between rolling green hills.

A group of parents wait outside the núcleo in Montalbán

A group of parents wait outside the núcleo in Montalbán

It has its own beautiful building, complete with rehearsal spaces, practice rooms with whiteboards, a small kitchen for teachers, students, and other personnel. I asked three vivacious young string players to give me a tour of their núcleo on our second day there, and they were thrilled and so proud to explain every last detail, from the location of the reception desk to the specific happenings inside each practice room on the ground floor.

I’ve seen numerous núcleos in the U.S. so far, and none of them has functioned as its own community center; they are often attached to schools (over 70% of our current 54 Sistema-inspired programs are actually affiliated with schools, with the majority of those being after-school programs, and about 2-3 of them being in-school programs). There’s a certain magic about having a space dedicated only for the pursuit of one specific thing – yet within that specificity, there is a huge range of adventures happening within.

A sample, of wind and brass players, whom I was told have been playing their instruments for between 2 and 5 years:

My personal favorite thus far: the advanced choir at Montalbán:

The variation is beautiful, and though I’ve never been a bee–and you have likely not been one either–imagine the experience of being a bee in a beehive, contributing to and feeding off of the buzz of productive excitement and directed energy, toward a specific shared goal. The sounds and movements all around are varied and cacophonous, so much so that they could be overwhelming, but there is a soothing blend of just enough of everything happening around you, that the cacophony is actually harmonious–even symphonic–and is the thing that catalyzes and makes possible the production of sweet, delicious, succulent honey. Or maybe that sound is the honey itself.

It was thrilling to be able to be in the center of the musical action:

Rehearsing with the violas of the Caracas orchestra at Montalbán.

Rehearsing with the Caracas orchestra at Montalbán.

As well as to experience the joys of connecting with new faces and new energy, even outside of a musical context:

It is so beautiful to be at the núcleo, at the center, at the heart of something so sweet. Y este es solamente el principio de nuestra aventura aquí.