An iguana hanging out on the hotel property.

After spending most of the last three weeks in small groups, the Abreu Fellows are back in Caracas. This week is Holy Week in Venezuela, so most of Caracas is on vacation somewhere along the Caribbean Sea.

More on what we’ve been up to during Holy Week in my next blog. Until then let me tell you about my group’s last two weeks.

We spent them at the nucleo in the city of Acarigua-Araure in the state of Portuguesa.  Acarigua is part of “Los Llanos” or “The Plains” region in Venezuela. Wikipedia tells me Los Llanos is a tropical grassland that can encounter a lot of flooding in the rainy season. We were there in the dry season and the average temperature was probably around 35 to 38 degrees celsius. I don’t really understand why, but Venezuelans aren’t big on shorts, even in this ridiculous heat. We were told that it was better not to wear shorts so we could blend in more. I couldn’t handle the heat in Acarigua. I wore shorts every single day.

It also didn’t help that the town, including the nucleo, cut electricity everyday for as much as 3 hours.  We tried to avoid rehearsing when this happened but the students told me that they sometimes rehearse without electricity, hence without air conditioning. Ridiculous. The nucleo is trying to acquire a new space at the local university. I really hope they get it.

Some of the younger nucleo kids partying after their concert.

The people from this region are known as “Llaneros” or “Plainsman”. The vibe in this region reminded me of being in Aspen, Colorado or Banff, Alberta. Upon arriving they advised me that the dish of choice in Los Llanos is meat. This brought a smile to my face. I proceeded to eat some the best steak and chicken I’ve ever eaten. It’s called “carne en vara” or “meat on a stick”. It tastes as good as it looks (with apologies to vegetarians):

"Carne En Vara"

Our good friend and special guest lecturer at the Abreu Fellows Program, Robert Zambrano, is the director of the nucleo in Acarigua. He had big plans for Jonathan, Stan and I. We were to spend the two weeks leading a “seminario” for his nucleo orchestra.

In El Sistema, a seminario is when the students get together over a given period of days to participate in intensive rehearsals, sometimes in preparation for a concert. The seminario can last a weekend or a month. It can take place at a retreat or at the nucleo and is often led by a guest artist. During that time the students rehearse and practice all day in an effort to put together challenging music, usually for a concert at the end of the seminario. Ok, I’ll stop beating around the bush: it’s band camp. And for those who don’t know what band camp is, think of it like summer camp but instead of buidling camp fires and canoeing, the kids play music. And when they return to school they often get made fun of for going to said band camp.

One thing seminarios are used for in El Sistema is to challenge the students to learn repertoire that is very challenging for them in a short period of time. Of course it’s also good for bonding, making friends, having fun and getting better individually and as a group. But I think the most important reason for having seminarios is to challenge the students by giving them repertoire that they think is unplayable and then have them play it in concert. It’s a confidence builder. It’s an exercise is setting goals for oneself and then achieving them.

Young violinists practicing in the backyard of the nucleo.

The repertoire Roberto chose for the orchestra to play and for Jonathan to conduct was “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo” (Glory to the Fierce People), which is the national anthem of Venezuela, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Danzon by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez.

Roberto essentially let us organize and run rehearsals the way we wanted. It ended up being great on-the-job training and a chance to practice running a nucleo for two weeks. The only constraint Roberto gave us was the times available to rehearse. He said:  3pm to 8pm Monday through Friday, the entire weekend and any other time we wanted. “What if the kids have school?” I asked. “They’ll get special permission to get out of school for this,” he responded. Well OK  then…let’s roll.

Hanging out during a break from rehearsal. The boy with the yellow shirt is the nucleo orchestra's concertmaster, at age 13.

We decided to teach private lessons and master classes in the mornings, then in the afternoons we held sectional rehearsals and full orchestra rehearsals. Stan led the brass sectionals, I led the woodwind sectionals and Jonathan led the string sectionals and full orchestra rehearsals. He also conducted the final concert, from memory, in brilliant fashion. Kudos JAG.

Abreu Fellow, Stanford Thompson, does some teaching, while our camera man, Joaquin, does some filming.

Stan and I often played in the orchestra rehearsals after having coached our sections but didn’t play in the final concert. After coaching these kids for two weeks, we figured it was more appropriate to keep the spotlight on them during the concert.  Us playing with them in rehearsals was simply a form of teaching by playing.

These were long days and a lot work. The orchestra had never played 1812 and for a number of the players the piece was very challenging. However, Roberto insisted that they all play the concert no matter what.

Sitting in on the nucleo orchestra rehearsal.

To get around this issue and still give all the kids the satisfaction of playing great music, Jonathan came up with the idea of writing out simpler parts for the less advanced players. He even had them play an audition of these simplified parts offering prizes for the best performances.

I taught 10-year old Carlos how to put a bassoon together and play an F major scale on a Wednesday. 9 days later he played 1812 in concert. Yes, I wrote him a simplified part and he had to sit through most of the piece without playing because the music was too advanced for him. But, he got to sit through great rehearsals beside older, more advanced players, play great music and play his first orchestra concert. This is inclusion.

I have to admit that it was difficult for me to understand why you would throw a kid into a concert when he can barely put the instrument together. But the way Roberto Zambrano explained it to me it was important that Carlos participate so he can see what it’s like to prepare a piece, play it in concert and experience the audience’s recognition for his work.

With Carlos and his family at his first orchestra concert. Hence he received his first Tocar Y Luchar medal.

Was he bored or discouraged? I don’t think he was.  After singing in the choir and playing recorder for at least a year while watching the older players rehearse in orchestra, he was so wound up to play in orchestra that I don’t think it mattered to him that he couldn’t play all the notes. After our first lesson, I gave him a reed, had him put away his instrument and gave him some drills to do over the week. I went for a drink of water, came back a minute later, and found him with the bassoon put back together and practicing.

"Los vientos maderas" aka the woodwinds.

The notion of always challenging their participants and always setting goals that are a little bit outside of their reach is part of the spirit of El Sistema. Their motto is “tocar y luchar” or “to play and to struggle”.  The idea is that this fighting spirit can be applied to other areas of their lives.

Throughout these two weeks I also started thinking more about how the kids in El Sistema (or other similar music programs) transfer their music skills to life skills.  One Saturday morning we called a rehearsal for 8 am. When we arrived at the nucleo there was only one student there.  We didn’t have enough people to rehearse until 9:30am. I was livid. I was upset that the kids were late, but I knew there was a more important reason why I was angry, but at the time I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I had spent most of the week coaching the woodwind sectionals. Coaching them to play the right style here, working endlessly on tuning there, giving them ideas on how to practice difficult passages and how to mark their orchestra parts. I thought I was being hard on them because I wanted them to play well and also to have some tools to keep on improving when we weren’t around. But after they arrived late that Saturday morning, it started coming together for me. I wasn’t being hard on them because I wanted them to play perfectly.

Acarigua Nucleo Director, Roberto Zambrano, gets the orchestra ready before showtime.

Through teaching them all this musical stuff they were implicitly learning skills for life. Having the discipline to practice their part at home and come to rehearsal prepared was teaching them responsibility, learning to play in tune and blend their sound with other players was teaching them how to listen and consider other people’s positions and difficulties. Telling them to write notes in their parts so they wouldn’t forget certain instructions was teaching them to be sharp, reliable and alert. Putting them on the spot and having them play alone was developing their confidence and ability to perform in front of others. Going over passages with lots of fast notes in a slow and methodical fashion was showing them that there’s no secret to success except quality practice in a progressive and consistent way. Encouraging them to play like soloists was honing their expressiveness.  Making sure they were on time was showing them that they mattered, that they were part of a large group or society that depended on each one of them and that part of being respectful of others was to be on time.

Teaching a reed-scraping class and handing out some free materials, courtesy of Sue Heineman (National Symphony Orchestra) and Matthew Ruggiero (retired, Boston Symphony Orchestra).

I guess these links between music skills and life skills are rather obvious, especially to music educators, but it wasn’t until I was put in this position of preparing these kids for an important concert that I felt a responsibility to teach them more than music.

With the nucleo staff and camera crew after the concert.

It all started making more and more sense to me. I now remember in high school how I was almost like two different people: I was a musician and I was just a normal kid doing stupid things kids do. Then slowly as I developed as a musician all the tools I was using to get better were seeping into my schoolwork and social life. The two people were becoming one: the musician took better notes in class (except chemistry class), the musician that liked playing things well in every rehearsal started hating going to class if he hadn’t done the assigned reading. When others got tired of working the musician just kept going because, that’s just what had to be done to get it right.  And the cocky high school athlete in me got tired of hearing myself talk and instead spent more time listening to and learning from others.

Abreu Fellow, Jonathan Govias, conducting the nucleo orchestra in concert.

So when the kids were late that Saturday morning, I now realize that I had gotten so upset not because we missed out on rehearsal time but because they weren’t fully understanding the importance of how their work as music students would benefit them in other parts of their lives. I voiced my displeasure to Roberto, who was just as upset as I was and he gave his students a good talking to. They did much better after that. I still don’t know if they understand what is at stake for them here, but that doesn’t matter, yet. It took me awhile to figure out too. But eventually I think they will understand that the way they approach their music will bare resemblance to the way they approach their lives.

Plaza Simon Bolivar in Araure, where the concert took place.

The concert was scheduled for Saturday March 27th in the Simon Bolivar Plaza. In the run-up to the concert Roberto had us on two local televisions shows, do an interview for the city newspaper and took out ad space in a newspaper. On one of the TV shows I somehow got convinced to demonstrate my mediocre skill at “baile de tambores”, which is a traditional Afro-Venezuelan drum dance that I’ve been working on. The staff at our hotel poked fun at me for my attempt. Apparently the whole town saw it. I’ll keep practicing but I hope a video of it doesn’t end up on YouTube.

Hanging out after the concert with two nucleo bassoonists from the nucleo. As you can see I've received my Tocar Y Luchar medal and custom-made El Sistema t-shirt complete with Canadian and Venezuelan flags.

The concert went off without a hitch. Jonathan did a fine job leading the orchestra and the kids played very well, showing remarkable improvement over two weeks. Just before playing the Danzon, Jonathan, Stan and I received our own Tocar y Luchar medals, a plaque, and homemade t-shirts with the words “I am 100% El Sistema” and the Canadian (American for Stan) and Venezuelan flags joined together.  Following this we went back to the nucleo  for a reception with the families of the participants where we did some eating, pictures and dancing.

Robert Zambrano presents Stan, Jonathan and I with the Tocar Y Luchar medal. Zambrano's son, who is holding the medals, is a percussionist student at the nucleo.

During the two weeks we also took two-day trips. On the first one we went to the nucleo in Guanare to go see Abreu Fellows Program Seminar Director Eli Epstein, a longtime former horn player with the Cleveland Orchestra. Eli spent 10 days leading his own seminario with the brass students, which culminated in a great concert in which he conducted the Guanare Nucleo Brass Ensemble. Bravo Eli!

2009-2010 Abreu Fellows Program Seminar Director (and long time horn player with the Cleveland Orchestra), Eli Epstein, is mobbed by students after he conducts them in a brass ensemble concert. Eli also received a plaque and medal.

Our second day trip was to Barquisimeto, which is Gustavo Dudamel’s hometown. Dudamel is so popular in his hometown that graffiti of his name can be found in several places. We saw the nucleo in Barquisimeto but Roberto really took us to Barquisimeto for two different reasons: to eat goat (“chivo”), which the town is famous for, and to take us to a nearby town called Quibor, to do some souvenir shopping at the markets.

There is some really big stuff going on here in Caracas this week. I’ll write about it in my next blog. If you think El Sistema is just another music program, you have another thing coming.

As always, I’m open to questions, comments and requests. If there’s something about El Sistema that you’d like to know more about just let me know. And more importantly, if there’s something about El Sistema that you don’t like or disagree with, I want to know as well.  I know and they know that the program isn’t perfect. It’s in constant development, as their motto suggests.  But what truly impresses me about El Sistema, are its philosophies and how they are applied with such commitment and to such a vast number of youth.

After Holy Week, we’re back into our groups again. Jonathan has returned to North America for a couple of weeks to do some auditions but Stan and I will be heading to Cumana, a town which is on the coast of the Caribbean Sea.  Stay tuned for more.