Monday, June 17, 2013

Brazil: Week 16 - Last week in Campos

All the chairs set up for the concert
After being here in Campos for more than two months, this week I finally got to sit down and interview Marcos Rangel, who has the unique position of having grown up as a student in the project yet now works for them as the conductor of their second most advanced ensemble, the David Machado Orchestra.  He entered the project in 1998 at age 10, around the same time that the project was just getting started, yet at this point it was still just a scholarship program within a music school and not the separate non-profit organization that it is today.  Despite having no relatives with any musical experience, Marcos thrived in music, studying piano first and then horn.  He recalls that his first horn was so old and in such poor condition that it always made his hands and mouth dirty after playing it plus it had a hole in it.  Additionally, at this time they had many more students than instruments, so out of 4 or 5 hours of lessons he only got to play the thing for maybe 40 minutes.  Having a knack for working well with people led him to conducting when he was about 14.  While in high school, he enrolled in a course in the music school to learn music theory, counterpoint, and music history, while simultaneously working there doing whatever was needed in order to pay for the course.  He kept working there and conducting one of the children's orchestras while he went to study conducting for his bachelors degree in Rio, and he is currently working on his masters degree.  Marcos says that he does dream about conducting a professional orchestra in the future, but this is not his number one goal.  Eventually, he would love to be involved in helping create El Sistema in Africa, something which is already underway.  

But despite all his success, Marcos has had to overcome significant obstacles during his musical journey.  His family, who have no musical training or background at all, thought when he began taking lessons that it was a nice thing but didn't think much of it.  However, when he later decided that music was what he wanted devote his life to, he met resistance from his parents.  Coming from a low-middle class family, his parents believed that music wasn't something you could make a living in, and if you were doing it professionally you must be playing in seedy bars late at night. They wanted him to study law, medicine or something like that where he could earn a lot of money, and they believed that jobs in the humanities and arts were for people who can't succeed in anything else (much like my own country's view of college English, Philosophy, Art History, and Music majors.)  During his first 6 or 7 years studying music, his parents never even came to a concert.  But as they began to learn more about music and his work as a conductor, they grew to become more supportive and understanding, and Marcos believes this is only a natural process for someone who has no musical knowledge or background whatsoever.

Orquestra Infanto-Juvenile rehearsing before the concert
On Friday night, the project held a concert for the families, just like the concert I went to shortly after I arrived here two months ago.  Like the last one, they took advantage of having all the parents in one place by first having the resident psychologist give a presentation.  They showed a short animated film called "Vida Maria" ("Maria's Life") (the film is in Portuguese, but doesn't have a lot of dialogue at all, so I think anyone who watches it would be able to understand what it is getting at) and had an attempted discussion with the families, but everyone was too shy to talk.  What the film addresses is exactly what Marcos told me is one of the biggest challenges for El Sistema.  When the children in these families reach their mid-teens, many are pressured to make a choice between ending their studies and working a job they probably don't like in order to help support their struggling family or a sick parent, or continuing to study and follow their dreams.  Marcos was lucky that his family didn't have to worry about putting food on the table, though he did work simultaneously in order to pay for his own studies.  But if kids lose their dreams in order to help the family immediately, how will they ever make a better life for themselves, break the cycle of poverty, and avoid ending up just like the Maria in the film?

The concert then went on with all the orchestras of the project performing.  It was interesting to see the Orquestra Escola, which is the 4th most advanced orchestra, play "Russian Folk Dance," a piece which the next most advanced orchestra, the Orquestra Infanto-Juvenile, was performing two months ago when I first arrived here.  These students are certainly progressing and I'm glad I've been able to witness some of it!

There was one surprise during the concert that came before the final performance of the top two orchestras combined.  I was called up by Jony to join him in front of the the audience while they had a presentation honoring my two months with them, as I am leaving town tomorrow.  They showed a slideshow of pictures of me, and then presented me with one of the Brazilian flag jackets that the orchestra wears when it goes on tour!  It was so nice of them!  I then joined then for the last number, playing piano (keyboard) for Arturo Marquez's "Danzon No. 2" just as I did for the concert a few weeks earlier.

Me wearing my Brazilian jacket with pride!

One thing I have noticed about all the concerts that I have seen here is that there are two sides to the repertoire the orchestras perform.  Usually the first half of the performance consists of masterworks from the most famous composers of the European classical tradition, such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, while the second switches to pieces that are more "fun," closer to the popular music world, using Latin dance forms, rhythms, and lots of percussion.  During the performance of these pieces, the orchestras employ choreographed movements, dancing, clapping, twirling instruments, jumping up out of their seats, etc.  I asked Mauricio about this side of the repertoire and he told me that this is a strategy that, while in some ways is inspired by El Sistema, such as the dancing and choreography, is something unique to the project here and is used for a number of reasons.  As the idea of an orchestra is not native to Latin America but imported from Europe, there isn't a strong orchestral tradition here, especially as the media is so focused on popular music.  As a consequence, many people, especially those who are least privileged, do not have access to classical music.  Of course, this is exactly why El Sistema exists in the first place, to give people access to this music when they wouldn't otherwise.

Orquestra Infanto-Juvenile performing during the concert
But as these people are less familiar with the symphonic music of the European classical tradition, they are less likely to be innately attracted to it, both the kids who begin learning to play music through the program and their parents and families.  So playing Latin-style pieces, music that is in their blood and part of their daily lives, in a symphonic context both eases the transition to the European classical canon and helps to win over both the kids and adults.  It also prepares the students to later play Brazilian classical repertoire, by such composers as Villa-Lobos, Guarnieri, and Mignone, who use these Brazilian rhythms and instruments in their classical pieces.  This approach also serves to help break down the view that an orchestra and orchestra concerts are not always so serious, formal, and played by lethargic gray-headed older people.  A youth orchestra naturally has more energy and the kids need to show that youthfulness in their playing.  Mauricio also told me that, with a couple of exceptions, all the dancing and choreography and moving out of their seats is something that comes naturally out of the kids own improvising and having fun with the music.  Plus, this repertoire works so well at the end of concerts because, just like encores, they end "with a bang" and inspire rousing applause.  I think this can act as a great model for programming orchestral concerts, not just with youth orchestras, but professional orchestras as well.

But how could this model be used effectively in the US?  Here in Brazil they are using music that is an important part of their culture, yet adapting it to an orchestral context.  Would it work to use more Latin pieces in American orchestral concerts, even though it would be something imported from Latin American and not exactly native to our culture?  But then again, the Latin minority in the US is rapidly ceasing to be just that, and within 30 years it is predicted that 1 of every 3 Americans will be Latino, so perhaps we should embrace this music more as our own?  Or should we look towards America's unique musical traditions of Jazz, Blues, Bluegrass, Country, Rock and Roll, The Great American Songbook, Native American music, and Gospel?  Do we have an equivalent tradition of dance music with such energy that would work so well to end concerts?  I think this is a good idea to think about and should definitely be explored further.     

Jony William and I after he bestowed the
Brazilian flag on me (Photo by Anacelli Nuffer)
The next morning on Saturday, I was invited to attend an all-day seminar at the project for the student teachers.  The seminar was entitled "Projeto em Ação" (Project in Action) but was essentially a kind of professional development day for the young teachers.  We started off with breakfast, some stretching and a couple of icebreaker-type activities, which were followed by a lecture/group discussion about the difficulties and challenges in the classroom working with young students.  Jony then led a discussion about the philosophy and methodology of El Sistema before we had lunch.  Afterwards, we all took our seats again in the hall where we had the earlier discussions, but now we had a guest presenting to us who I didn't know anything about.  After a few minutes, I was really confused because he wasn't really talking about music at all, yet he was making everyone laugh hysterically (except me, as I could hardly follow what he was saying, never mind comprehend his jokes.)  I eventually realized he was some sort of comedian that they brought in just to have some comic relief to break up the long intense day.  Next, another guest, a trombone player from Rio who also was here as a teacher at the symphonic festival a few weeks ago, talked about his own journey from being a boy in a underprivileged family to becoming a professional trombone player in the Brazilian National Orchestra.  The final session was inspirational, about the power of music and overcoming life obstacles, and at the very end they bestowed upon me the Brazilian flag as a gift!  You can take a look at some of the pictures from the day here.

Tomorrow I leave Campos, but I have definitely had an incredible experience here.  It certainly started out rough during my first couple of weeks, but I will greatly miss the students, teachers, and friends that I have made here, and even the strangers that have helped me when I've needed it.  I have been welcomed with open arms (literally) and accepted as a member of the Orquestrando a Vida family.  I'm proud to have had this experience in a city well off the beaten path, and I've learned so much during my time here.  Now I head back to Rio for a few days to conduct a few interviews, then it is up to Salvador to work with NEOJIBA for the next two months.  Obrigado e tchau, Campos!

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