Monday, August 19, 2013

Brazil: Week 24 - Accessibility vs Inclusion, and an Interview with a Member of both El Sistema and Neojiba

Last week the Youth Orchestra of Bahia performed Mahler's Symphony No. 1 for the first time.  To begin rehearsals this week, the orchestra was shown this video:

This is the concert that the National Children's Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela performed earlier this month at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, where they also performed Mahler's Symphony No. 1, and the Neojiba orchestra together watched the 4th and final movement as played by the children's orchestra.  After performing this work themselves for the first time, watching this video of 250 8-14 year-olds was a reality check for the Brazilians and showed them how far they still have to go.  Ricardo Castro explained how these kids were chosen from all around Venezuela and they are just like the kids of Bahia, as many come from cities that still have poor infrastructure and resources, many of these kids are not yet receiving scholarships, have similar social situations, the same amount of rehearsals and lessons per week, and the same quality of instruments.  He said that after watching this, there are two things you can do: either give up and say that we could never reach that same point, or set that as your goal and say that in 20 years that is what we will have in Bahia.  This concert is really a turning point, he said, and caused him to reflect deeply, as Abreu brought 1400 children and youths to perform at the Salzburg Festival (including this orchestra, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra, the Venezuelan Brass and Choir, the Youth Orchestra of Caracas, and the White Hands Choir) which must have come at a huge expense (plane tickets alone must have cost around $2 million dollars!)  There is no doubt that the way these kids play is well beyond their years.

A couple weeks ago, I was introduced to a clarinet player in the top orchestra, named Amanda Muller.  Amanda is also a doctoral student at the Federal University of Bahia and doing her dissertation on comparing Neojiba and El Sistema, so naturally I wanted to sit down and talk to her, which I had the opportunity to do this week.  Amanda is not Bahian but is from the city of Porto Alegre, which is located in the far south of Brazil close to the border with Uruguay.  After finishing college, she met a clarinet teacher from Venezuela named Jorge Montilla (who now teaches at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA) with whom she really wanted to study.  At the time, Montilla was teaching at Arizona State University, so she studied English and applied for her Master's degree there and to several other universities in the US.  But just when she was ready to accept a scholarship to go study in the states, Montilla moved back to Venezuela and said she should come there if she still wanted to study with him.  Not knowing knowing what to do (and not knowing of El Sistema yet), he told her she should watch a film called "Tochar y Luchar" to help her decide.  The moment the film was over, she decided to go to Venezuela.

She planned on only spending 2 years there in order to finish her Master's degree, but ended up staying a total of 5 years.  She entered the Simon Bolivar Conservatory, which as a private university that is not technically part of El Sistema, yet has a partnership with El Sistema, and she also performed in the Simon Bolivar Symphonic Band.  Within El Sistema, she entered the Latin American Clarinet Academy, which is the most select group of clarinetists from around the country (they have academies for all different instruments).  She said that El Sistema there is somewhat like a world of its own, because often her whole week would consist of rehearsals, classes, and teaching, filling her whole day from 7am to 7pm, and often then going to a concert at night.  She taught in 2 different nucleos during her time there, first at the Los Chorros nucleo, which used to be essentially a juvenile detention center, at later at another nucleo in Caracas.

"Advancing," home of the Bairro da Paz nucleo
Amanda first heard about Neojiba in 2008 when a Colombian friend of hers who played in the Youth Orchestra of the Americas mentioned that the orchestra did a residency in Bahia and learned about a project similar to El Sistema based in Salvador.  At that time, she searched for information on Neojiba on the internet but found nothing.  Later, a group from Neojiba came to Venezuela for a seminar, but her busy schedule prevented her from meeting any of them.  Then later she was back in Brazil on a break from classes when she heard something on TV about an orchestra from Neojiba was going on tour, and then she started to find and hear more about the things they were doing.  When she finally decided to return to Brazil after 5 years (she told me that it was very hard to pull herself away from Venezuela,) she knew she wanted to help create something like this in her home country.  Luckily, she met the clarinet teacher at the Federal University of Bahia whom she really liked as a teacher and decided to start her doctorate in clarinet performance there while writing her dissertation on comparing Neojiba and El Sistema.  She arrived here in January of this year, and after spending several months just observing and learning about the project (much like I am doing right now,) she was asked if she would like to perform in the top orchestra as well.

In her own personal observations comparing the two programs, she finds most everything is similar.  The biggest differences she finds is that here it is developing much faster than it did in Venezuela, and that most people within the organization don't even realize how fast it is growing and what strides they are making.  She also says that the feeling of ownership by the students of the project here is much stronger than in Venezuela.
Band rehearsal at the Bairro da Paz nucleo
I also asked her if she had any advice for El Sistema-inspired projects in the US.  While she has only visited the US one time and only knows a little bit about projects there, she said the exact same thing that Ricardo Castro said when I asked him, that there seems to be a lack of diversity in the kids they serve, both economically and racially.  She says that both in El Sistema and Neojiba there is a great mixture of different kinds of people.  She remembers performing in her first concert in the symphonic band in Caracas and looking out in the audience to see rich and poor, young and old, black and white, all together, and the same kind of diversity exists in the ensembles of El Sistema as well.

Perhaps we outsiders get a little to hung up on the idea of El Sistema helping disadvantaged children. (I myself have often explained El Sistema as a system of music education for disadvantaged and high-risk youth.)  Of course, El Sistema does this and helps these poor children, but we must not forget that El Sistema is primarily about inclusion, which means including children of all socio-economic backgrounds.  I think we are so focused on the children that are traditional excluded from classical music that we are inadvertently excluding others, or at least not actively trying to include them.  This separation only ends up doing a disservice to all, maintaining the ideology of separateness, of "us" and "them," and I'm afraid down the line it could turn into an unhealthy battle of who can create a better orchestra, the traditionally disadvantaged through El Sistema projects, or the well-off with their traditional youth orchestra programs.  We must realize that including children from upper and middle class families would benefit everyone, including these very kids.  They would learn and grow by making friends and music with children whom they usually would have little interaction with, and thus they would be breaking down the stereotypes and misconceptions that our society thrusts upon us all.  El Sistema is open to all and shows us how all people can come together through music.

Having fun during rehearsal
Interestingly, both Jonathan Govias's Five Fundamentals of El Sistema and Jamie Bernstein and Tricia Tunstall's Can El Sistema Thrive in the U.S. and Beyond? list "Accessibility" as one of the essential qualities of El Sistema, and explain it by writing that "El Sistema programs are open, with no auditions, and free for all children."  But "accessibility" does not necessarily equate to "total inclusion," which I would replace "accessibility" with in their lists.  In Venezuela and Bahia, simply giving everyone access to El Sistema and Neojiba has created a well diversified group of youths of all different kinds, but I think this is due to the fact that before these programs came along, there was very little quality music education and/or youth orchestras in their societies.  These programs quickly assumed a position of providing the best quality music education around, and naturally attracted children from all backgrounds and economic classes.  In the U.S., however, we have a long tradition of quality youth orchestras and private music education, but these charge money and hence are not accessible to those who cannot afford them.  So now that these El Sistema-inspired programs have popped up around the country, yes, they are accessible to everyone, but are kids (or their parents) who have the means to choose between private lessons and traditional youth orchestras or joining an El Sistema program ever choosing the latter?  Not only do we need to provide the best quality music education as possible through our El Sistema programs, but maybe we should actively seek to diversify the group of children instead of having it open to all and hoping a diverse group will come join.

Chamber group of Neojiba at the Teatro Vila Velha
featuring Edicson Ruiz (on left)
I made a visit this week to the newest nucleo of Neojiba, in the neighborhood of Bairro da Paz here in Salvador.  The name of the neighborhood is a bit ironic, as it means "Neighborhood of Peace," although I've been told it is actually one of the most violent and dangerous in Salvador, which happens to have the 22nd highest murder rate of any city in the world.  The nucleo is through a partnership with and housed in a organization called "Avançar" ("Advancing") which usually provides classes in professional training that typical last just 3 months.  This nucleo opened in January of this year.  As there were not any symphonic bands in Neojiba, they decided to have this nucleo dedicated to providing instruction in winds, brass, and percussion only, which balances out the fact that they have another nucleo which only teaches string instruments.  The students in the morning class had only been playing for a couple weeks, so of course the level of musicality in that class was very low.  The afternoon group was a bit older and have been playing since January when the nucleo opened.  However, only a few weeks after they began classes, they had a 3 week vacation for Carnaval, and when they returned in March they had forgotten almost everything and essentially were starting anew, so they are certainly still at a beginning level as well.  On September 11th, the more advanced group of students will be giving their first performance outside of their neighborhood, opening for another Neojiba concert downtown.

All the performers at the chamber music concert
That same evening, I attended a Neojiba concert at the Vila Velha Theater, a nice small blackbox theater not far from the Castro Alves Theatre.  The concert was all chamber music, the first chamber music I have heard in this project that of course focuses on orchestral training.  The performances, all by members of the top orchestra, were solid, and included a guest performance by Edicson Ruiz, who was still in town after playing with the Youth Orchestra of Bahia last week.  There was even a short encore of a Venezuelan popular tune with Ruiz on bass, a Venezuelan member of Neojiba on Cuatro (a Venezuelan traditional guitar-like instrument), and Amanda (whom I guess you could consider part Venezuelan at this point) playing clarinet. 

I also got to briefly meet Alex Klein this week.  The Brazilian oboist, and former principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony, was here this week as a guest teacher, and at the end of this month I will be moving farther up the coast to spend 2 months studying his own El Sistema-inspired program, PRIMA, in the state of Paraiba.

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