Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Coro Manos Blancas

While in Venezuela, I got to spend the majority of my time with the Special Education program in Barquisimeto.  I have been inspired so much over the years by the Manos Blancas Choir and am excited about bringing back these ideas to the United States.  Stay tuned as more unfolds but for now I just wanted to give you a glimpse.  Please enjoy this video that unfolds more of the philosophy and commitment behind this truly amazing program!!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Changing Seats; Perspective and Humility

Changing Seats; Perspective and Humility

             “Student ticket for one please,” I asked.
 “Well you are in luck, we just received a complimentary ticket that you may have for free!” said the ticket saleswoman.  Shocked I said thank you and quickly made my way to the hall.  Every usher I passed kept pointing ahead until I realized I was in the very last row of the balcony, also known as the nosebleed section.  I have to admit working for a symphony I got spoiled with grand tier seats every performance.   In fact, the last time I recall being in the nosebleed section was for a Dave Matthews concert- quite a different atmosphere.
            As the lights dimmed, I ended my private conversation and got in “concert mode”- you know, not talking and sitting still.  However, I noticed I seemed to be the only one on autopilot.  Amongst me the chatter persisted with anticipation and excitement.  The music began yet the hushed conversations continued…for the whole concert!  At times, there were even children and young adults (!) conducting or playing drums along with the orchestra.  I was stunned.   Surrounding me were ticket goers who didn’t subscribe to the symphony and yet they were engaged.  For myself, I had a much more enjoyable experience being surrounded by people who were excited to be at the symphony simply because of the music.  I didn’t feel stifled by the typical museum culture of a classical concert and instead became enlivened.  As I drove home and reflected upon my experience, I began to ask myself how?  I confess that I used to be bothered by clapping and talking between movements or before the conductor dropped his hands, so how had my perspective changed? How was this experience so different?
            Simple-Venezuela.  My time there surrounded by humble musicians only broadened my perception of a musical performance.  Clapping is encouragement, joy, and pride so why wouldn’t we clap after a thrilling movement?  Musical experiences are different for everyone, so let’s encourage the difference not only in the orchestra but also in the audience.  If we want to break this third wall then we have to be willing to see what’s on the other side.  We have to be humble because with humility comes the chance to see and experience something new. 
            While in Venezuela, my perspective of what a musical experience should be changed.  For the first time, I saw musicians of all different ages and abilities see each other as friends and support one another through the act of music making.  My experience sitting in the balcony parallels this same notion of support.  Although it may be atypical of correct symphony etiquette the excitement is not to be ignored.  We can all learn from one another and everyone has something great to offer.  If we want to engage a wider musical audience then we have to humble and listen.  After all, life itself is just a lesson in humility.  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Monday, March 18, our last day in Venezuela, we had the honor and privilege of meeting Maestro José Antonio Abreu.  Just moments after returning back to our hotel, my roommate, Andrea, and I tried to capture in a few words just how special that moment was for us.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013


          My week with Braille

          Normally if someone were to ask me “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” I’d probably say learning a language, completing a triathlon, or performing difficult repertoire.  Now I have a new one to add to the list, Braille.  This past week, I spent my mornings in Barquisimeto learning how to read and write Braille, the alphabet, numbers, and musical notation.  My most successful sentence thus far was THIS IS HARD. 
Some of my Braille work
            When writing Braille, you actually move from right to left; however, you read from left to write.  It’s fascinatingly difficult yet I really enjoyed it!  The students would check my work usually followed by a laugh and the very occasional- good job.  Every day I’d arrive at the núcleo and the teachers would ask, “So what did you learn last night?”  After showing them my work, I’d go back downstairs and begin again.  The more comfortable I became with the Braille (and I still have a long ways to go) the more I began to think about capability.  Just how much can we accomplish when we realize what were truly capable of?  Being in the special needs program these past weeks; I began to see how every single child is encouraged to reach his or her potential.  Most students not only sing but they play, compose, and arrange.  There are no limitations.  Almost every student is involved in several ensembles even down to the teachers.  Everyone is always learning.  I had the chance to talk with one of the students in the Manos Blancas choir after a rehearsal on Thursday.  That past week, I’d not only seen him sing, but also accompany and improvise on piano with the rhythm band.   As I began to talk with him, he said, “Oh I’m not a pianist.”  I laughed and responded, “But you play in two ensembles?”  He smiled and answered, “well yes but I’m a composer first.”  Let me also just add, he was one of my mentors in learning Braille as he is blind as well.  The students are unstoppable.  In fact I don’t even know if the words, no you can’t or we’ll get to that repertoire later even exist.      
            It was a pattern that I began to see every day in the núcelo.  Students writing musical compositions in one night, learning Mahler 1, first movement in a day, and being proficient at least three instruments.  It’s inspiring.  As I continue my Braille studies back in the United States, I’m going to think of my mentors here in Venezuela.  Because they showed me that limitation truly only exist in our minds and once we let go of doubt, we truly find our capability.  Yet also for reminding me that this is truly on the beginning.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bring on the Tears

Bring on the tears…
Normally I try to hold back the tears in a work environment, but this week has brought out a different side of me.  Every day, I’ve cried.  Not a weepy cry but more glistening tears of pure joy and amazement.  This week, I’m spending all of my time in Barquisimeto in the special education program.  As many of you know, this is my huge interest in the field of El Sistema and what I hope to bring back to the United States. 
            So far, I’ve taken a class in sign language and musical Braille, observed a percussion ensemble for children with Down Syndrome, participated in rhythm band; which includes a large percentage of students with special needs, listened to a choir, and that’s just in about two afternoons.  Needless to say, this place is brimming with excitement and activity.  Barquisimeto is actually the central hub for special education in music in all of Venezuela.  It offers many workshops in teacher training, education, and about 10 or more ensembles in which students can participate.  It’s limitless.  There’s no such thing as a disability or a handicap but rather everyone has a different entry point.  It’s amazing to see how a student who is blind directs a choir of forty from behind his accompanist chair or how a child with a severe cognitive disability is playing Chopin beautifully.  The percussion ensemble and rhythm band were probably two of the most musical ensembles I’ve seen in El Sistema.  Resilience and tenacity shine in every child and I was just overcome by the passion, emotion, and energy of the room. For me, that meant tears.  As I told this to my close friend, Bekah, she replied, “Well see then you were meant for this!” And I believe she’s exactly right.  Often when we feel emotionally vulnerable usually that’s when everything falls into place.  So keep bringing on the tears!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Road to Self-Discovery

The Road to Self-Discovery

            Every child enrolled in El Sistema receives a medallion imprinted with the motto tocar y luchar- to play and to fight.  A concise yet powerful message, this tangible pendant gives a child a dream he/she can physically hold and carry.  As I talked with my roommate, friend and colleague Andrea Landin, she reminded me that sometimes we see the beauty of El Sistema for its intangible items (social change, musical excellence, collective efficacy, etc…) but often a child is just looking for something physical to hold.  There’s power in the physicality.  It’s not something that you feel but it’s something you can touch, hold, and carry and with that comes sentimental attachment.  Paralleling with this idea is the notion of singing versus playing an instrument.  So many students I’ve met enrolled in the choirs are almost always instrumentalists.  Recently El Sistema even changed its name to the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela “for the purpose of systematizing music education and promoting the collective practice of music through symphony orchestras and chorus as a means of social organization and communitarian development (FESNOJIV website).”
Monique and I with students in a núcleo outside Barquisimeto
(Diana is center)

            The notion of being an instrumentalist and a singer is something I’ve thought about a lot here in Venezuela.   Truthfully, it’s something I envy.  These kids have the opportunity to partake in both and gain different lenses in terms of not only the music but themselves.  As an instrumentalist, there’s an attachment to a physical thing, your instrument.  Your self-awareness stems from how you react to not only yourself but an object.  In return, you’re responsible for yourself and something else.  Singing is very different.  It’s completely done in the body.  You, nothing else, develop the sound, intonation, character, etc…  So how amazing is it that the kids of El Sistema have the capability to bridge the two every day?  By being in choir, you gain the opportunity of self-discovery and awareness so that when you get to orchestra you can apply that to your interaction with your instrument.  That’s not to say that orchestra doesn’t create self-awareness, quite the contrary, but it’s a different modality and approach.  These students are always gathering different tools to make themselves not only better musicians but also citizens.
Goofing around: we loved each other's sunglasses so much we traded!
            As I’ve watched the choirs and orchestras, I am still stunned by the level of commitment and passion.  The notes might not always be there but everyone sings and plays with such fervor and enthusiasm.  It can make even the toughest person tear up.  Here in Barquisimeto, hometown of Gustavo Dudamel, I had the opportunity to talk with a violin student, Diana.  When I asked her why do you come to the nucleo she said, “ Simple- it’s where I get to become a musician”. I thought about that response for a while, unsure if I was satisfied with her answer.  Then I began to dig deeper with her discovering that to her music wasn’t about proficiency on the violin or learning a choral piece but it was about becoming part of a family.  She said, “Sometimes I need my alone time, so I play my violin.  Sometimes I want to make music with others, so we sing.”  For Diana and many other kids in El Sistema, I’ve found that through music they are beginning the journey of true self-discovery and that through the help of others they are beginning to find themselves.   

Students in Barquisimeto rehearsing for an upcoming concert featuring Disney music.  This is the elementary level choir performing "I Just Can't Wait to be King".

*Try and find which one may be my favorite- hint- he/she comes through at the end!