From everything that I had read and heard in recent years, I was well prepared for visiting El Sistema at the source. I was confident that I was not going to be surprised by the high level of playing demonstrated by the thousands of kids that grow up in Venezuela cultivating an intense connection to Classical music, just as I did growing up near Boston and attending the wonderful preparatory music programs at Longy and NEC.
One classroom in the Montalban núcleo stopped me in my tracks. It was a Venezuelan folk music class, part of El Sistema’s recently added Alma Llanera program. It offered an experience that I had only rarely encountered in my entirely Classical upbringing.
The modest room was filled with young cuatro students of varying ages and abilities, their teacher, and four young men, presumably in their late teens or early twenties, who were putting on a virtuosic display for the class when we arrived to observe.
They performed several folk tunes for us, trading solos on harp, cuatro, bass, and maracas. The Fellows were just as impressed as the kids, some of whom strummed
their cuatros shyly, accompanying the performers. After a few minutes, we had to move on to
the next classroom.
Thirty minutes later, several of us returned unannounced to get another peek. Upon opening the door, I noticed that the room’s temperature seemed to have increased since we had departed. The performance was still going strong, with the teacher observing alongside his students, and everyone was basking in the glow of the four sweating musicians.
More folk songs ensued, and I was riveted. Standing against the back wall, squeezed between a young student and a Fellow, I jotted down a list of behaviors that caught my attention.
- Shining eyes. The performers looked approvingly at each other while they played, the students watched the performers intently, and I was fascinated observing these fully engaged interactions.
- Diversity. There was a range of both age and experience in the room, as well as a range of interest—not all of the students were as captivated as I was.
- Fun. The performers were clearly enjoying their virtuosity, many of the kids found reasons to smile, and the atmosphere was upbeat and supportive.
- Energy. The temperature in the room was (literally and figuratively) elevated. You could feel the heat emanating from the performers, reciprocated by a number of the students who radiated enthusiasm right back.
- Modeling/Mentoring. The youngest boys strumming away on their cuatros were seated inches from the much older boys (young men, rather) that they might become one day with enough practice, as their teacher looked on with pride. While the teacher was most likely standing in front of the class before we arrived, he was now sitting next to his students, content to have the next generation take the lead, seemingly enjoying the performance as much as anyone else.
Then the four young men casually swapped instruments and began anew.Heath Marlow
Program Director, Sistema Fellows Program