Our first taste of El Sistema was the nucleo of Guarenas, a large town outside of Caracas. We were able to see a small part of the activity at the nucleo where there are currently 1,100 students. The building used to be a police station, so there are many rooms without windows, or the windows are barred. The hallmarks of the program were immediately evident: focus, intensity, joy, stamina, repetition, young leadership, instances of exceptional skill, and an astonishing youthful sound.
We began with a musica lengua (musical language) class where young children where learning the notes on the stave and written rhythms. Following from that, there were two strings classes taking place, the children's orchestra, the choir, and finally we experienced the youth orchestra.
The strings classes of beginner violins gave us a snapshot of the how the program uses repetition – the children were playing the same melody, whilst focusing on one aspect of technique. In this case the teacher was looking for long bow strokes, and he was moving energetically to model the movement. There was a strength in the sound created was mirrored in the children's and the youth orchestra, and also in the choir. The vibrancy and energy found in all the music-making in the nucleo was almost overwhelming, and we were able to see how it is cultivated from a young age.
This also seems to determines the choice of repertoire with the large symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich taking precedence over more the elegance of Mozart for example. The ensembles dynamic range seemed to vary from forte (loud) to fortissimo (very loud), and instances when the teachers were trying to achieve piano (quiet) were not always successful. But it is the confidence and youthful identity reflected in the sound that is important. I also noticed how the youth orchestra managed to make some passages of dotted rhythms of European music almost sound like a piece of Latin American traditional music.
The youth orchestra of the nucleo was a mix of students from Guarenas and the nearby town of Guatire. The kids had been playing their instruments for three years, and had been playing in this orchestra for two months. They rehearse three hours a day Monday to Saturday and are preparing a concert of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky for next week. We noticed how many of the players had memorised large parts of the symphonies, playing long passages with their eyes fixed on the conductor. The ensemble skills of the orchestra were very impressive - again there was a passion and a joy that gave me goosebumps throughout most of the performance!
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Sistema Fellow '14