Monday, May 27, 2013

Brazil: Week 13 - First International Meeting of Music Education in Rio

Wednesday morning I woke up to find an email from Diogo Pereira, whom I met in Rio last month, telling me that the First International Meeting on Music Education would be held in Rio during the next two days, and he asked me if I wanted to go.  Of course, I wanted to go, but I wish I had learned about this a little earlier!  Luckily, I was able to spend the morning figuring out what buses I could take to and from Rio, filling out a travel request and sending it to the Fulbright Commission so that I could get my travel and lodging expenses reimbursed, booking a bed in a hostel (for only $12 a night), registering as a participant for the conference, and packing.  By early afternoon I was heading off to the bus station to spend the next 5 hours on a bus, arriving at my hostel in Rio around 9pm.

I headed off the next morning for the first scheduled events at 9am.  The conference was held in a building of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) which was actually located just about a 2 minute walk from where I lived for the month of March.

First International Meeting on Music Education
The meeting was centered on the federal law that was passed in 2008 which requires music education in all public schools, which Diogo told me about last month, yet this has not yet been implemented mostly due to a lack of teachers.  It was organized by Felipe Radicetti, a composer and musician whom I also met briefly in Rio last month, who originally led the effort to get this law passed.  Three panel discussions over the course of the two days were held in order to decide a course of action to improve the model of implementation for the law.

The program mentioned that there were going to be some rather big names taking part: the Minister of Education, Aloizio Mercadante, the Minister of Culture, Marta Suplicy, the head of education at UNESCO, the president of the National Counsel of Education, the president of the International Society for Music Education, and legendary Brazilian musician João Donato.  However, both the Ministers of Education and Culture couldn't make it and instead sent representatives in their place.   

Symphony Orchestra of Barra Mansa
In typical Brazilian fashion, the events started late by about an hour.  First was a short concert of about 10 minutes given by the Symphony Orchestra of Barra Mansa, a small city about 2 hours west of Rio.  They also run a project called "Projeto Música nas Escolas" (The Music in the Schools Project) which obviously fit the theme of the conference well.  This project is actually where Diogo used to work, although it is not modeled on or directly related to El Sistema.  However, I have been told that the man who runs this program, Vantoil de Souza, is also in charge of organizing the huge new El Sistema initiative in Brasilia, so I am hoping at least to meet him and interview him about the Brasilia project at some point.  The orchestra consisted of about 35 strings and two percussionists, which I'm pretty sure was just a subset of their full compliment, and they performed the first movement of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 and "Mourão" by Cesar Guerra-Peixe.

While I found the panel discussions to be interesting, they seemed to me to be much less debate and discussion and more straight discourse, with several people reading straight off papers for 15-20 minutes talking about why they think music education is important for children (which I assume everyone already agreed on if they were attending this meeting.)  For the first day, they had translators in the back of the hall in booths giving real-time translations of the proceedings into English, Spanish, and French via radio headsets.  I felt like I was at a UN meeting!  But it was hard to listen to the translation as it was naturally a bit delayed, and even with the headphones it was hard to block out the sound from the loudspeakers in the hall.  The first panel discussion also lasted about 5 hours straight, and finally wrapped up 2 hours beyond when it was scheduled to end.

Panel Discussion (notice the keyboard stage!)
Despite all this, observing this meeting gave me some very interesting things to think about.  Both the El Sistema movement and this initiative to put music in all public schools share the same goal and purpose, which is to give all children access to quality music education to improve their lives.  But, does that mean that these approaches are at odds with each other?  Might it be that a lack of music in schools, and a lack of a full school day (as public schools in Brazil typically only last about 4 hours) be part of the reason why El Sistema programs can thrive?  I'm not sure about how long the school day goes for public schools in Venezuela, but maybe the short school day and lack of music in it is why the project here in Campos can have activities go from 2pm-8pm, and often beyond, 5-6 days a week.  If the kids are putting in that many hours, they will naturally progress at a much more rapid pace than if they only came for 2 or 3 hours 3 times a week.  But then again, if they had music in the schools, they may already be getting an hour of music a day.  So, what works best, having music in the schools, having it only after-school, or a mix of both?   

I think we can look to our situation in the USA in this case.  We have a long history of music in public schools, but of course these programs are disappearing left and right.  Without a doubt, music education in the public schools has done significant things musically and educationally for generations of children in America.  However, in the last 5 years or so, we have seen many new El Sistema-inspired programs begun in our country, most of which are after-school programs, which are in addition to the many selective outside-of-school music programs, such as youth orchestras and choirs, that already existed.  I think the presence of these El Sistema programs shows that there is a need in the US for what they provide, despite the many other music education programs already existing, but maybe this means they will take on, in general, a more supplementary role in the US than it is in Venezuela or here in Campos, where it occupies most of a child's day and consequently their life.

Another issue I thought about was whether having a law requiring music in public schools is actually a positive or negative thing.  At first, when I heard about this law I thought it was obviously a hugely positive initiative.  Even in the US, I'm pretty sure we do not have such a law, as school districts are able to cut music programs when they feel they have to.  However, I think it comes down to the issue that we face when deciding whether or not to make something obligatory through a law, the idea of 'do you do something because you want to and it is the right thing to do, or do you do it because it is against the law not to do it?'  I think that doing anything out of your own volition will naturally yield a result with a higher quality, but requiring something by law will bring on a much greater quantity in a much shorter amount of time.  Here again we have the age old "quality versus quantity" debate, and I don't know what would win.  In Venezuela, it does seem that they have it both, very high quality with a huge amount of children participating, but remember that it did take over 30 years to develop into what it is today.  If this Brazilian law is implemented, we could have millions of children getting music education in just a matter of a couple years, and perhaps the quality could rise afterwards, or perhaps letting great El Sistema programs like the project here in Campos take their time to grow and expand over the next few decades would be better, or maybe (and most likely) some combination of both.  I don't know.  But when you combine this issue with the possibility that the lack of music education in schools is what helps El Sistema programs to thrive, my original enthusiasm for this law is greatly diminished.

I certainly don't know the answers to these issues, but I think they are important to think about.  What are your thoughts?

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