El Sistema Diary: A New School of Social Life

At Barquisimeto, I sat down for a long conversation with Maestro Luis Jimenez, one of El Sistema’s founders and most fervient advocates. “We are living a dream,” he said. And rightly so. The nucleo was one of the first in the country. The musical home of Gustavo Dudamel, it now serves three thousand beneficiaries making-up nine youth orchestras, numerous choirs, and also special needs education programming.

I asked Maestro Jimenez, a father-like figure in the nucleo, what had made him decide to dedicate a life to teaching music for social change. “Maestro Abreu had a broad vision, from the very beginning.” “In 1975, when we started the first truly national orchestra of Venezuelans, he was already thinking about a movement. I was in the cello section, and during our rehearsals, he incessantly cultivated a way of forward thinking, planting seeds, and sharing the future.” The model that the orchestra had built in Caracas was meant to be replicated, many musicians began plans to build similar programs, all over the country. This wasn’t just an orchestra, it was a group of individuals who would lead change, in profound ways.

From the very beginning, the orchestra has been the framework from which El Sistema has evolved. It guides the pedagogy and all social aspects of music-making. Here, students don’t ask where you are from, but rather what orchestra you play in. You may find children playing side-by-side in between rehearsals as duos or trios, to perfect a certain passage, learning from each other. Or teenage musicians at the areperia during lunch hour, trying to make sense of a certain difficult rhythm pattern, scores in hand, in preparation for their rehearsals that evening. The orchestra is the conduit for learning and measuring achievement.

Here, in Barquisimeto, all orchestras lead to another, in a pyramid scheme, culminating in the Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil de Lara, a semi-professional orchestra that is playing Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony this same week. There is ample room for everyone here, students transfer to advancing ensembles when they are ready, no matter the age (a few 12 year-old children are playing Prokofiev). Many of them spend as many as ten years participating in the program. The majority of graduates do not become professional musicians, yet continue their education as professional in a wide-variety of careers.

Maestro Jimenez asked me to work with the Orquesta Doralisa de Medina, the pride and joy of the nucleo. This ensemble, is their student’s first opportunity to come together as a symphony orchestra, complete with woodwinds, brass, and percussion sections. We worked on arrangements by Purcell and Charpentier. Our orchestra’s timpanist, a brand new musician to the nucleo, was supported by a tallerista (an itinerant teaching-artist), playing side-by-side, a common occurrence in El Sistema.

During the rehearsal we emphasized listening to each other, to realize our instrumental voices as interdependent. How are the flutes articulating the melody? Can we match the sound with the cello section’s counterpoint? Making artistic decisions--both conductor and musicians--together, is a way to begin thinking of the orchestra as a model for dialogue and as Maestro Abreu describes it, as "a new school of social life.”

As I’ve experienced, a nucleo is about building infrastructures, not just of orchestras, but of new citizens, equipped with tools to lead change and build a more promising future of their own and in benefit of their nation’s wellbeing. Music matters, profoundly.




1 comment

  • SEth Mausner

    SEth Mausner

    Beautiful !

    Beautiful !

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