El Sistema Diary: Finding Purpose

At Valle de la Pascua, a small rural town in the heart of Venezuela, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet never sounded so endearing to me. It is a score that is undeniably compelling: lyrical and dramatic--the story of two star-crossed lovers, one that we know almost too well. In our rehearsal, I asked the students to imagine themselves in the story of the music and to throw themselves freely into the drama of the Shakespearian narrative.

Without hesitation, the musicians quickly became absorbed by the music. I was also taken with them, in an exchange that allowed the orchestra members to communicate among themselves freely and passionately, in and through the music. During our rehearsal, the electricity went out. The orchestra didn’t miss a beat. For a moment, we continued in darkness, finding our way back to the dimly lit room. Here again, it was not about finding perfection, but rather, finding purpose.

El Sistema in Venezuela has fashioned persuasive paradigms for the rationale and purpose of art. Music is never seen as a luxury, but rather as a natural extension of a young person’s life. In Mahomito, a humble elementary school just a few miles away from our home base, we heard a group of choristers singing a repertoire of boleros, merengues, and musica llanera (songs from the Venezuelan plains).

I saw young children holding hands, feeling every nuance in the songs, and cherishing the splendor of their doing something well together. Many of them immersed in the musical experience, eyes closed, as if somehow they had found their own sanctuary of peace. They were proud to perform for us.

Very few times have I experienced such powerful music-making. In their performance, I heard a new kind of intention and aesthetic of sound. Their music in two-part harmony juxtaposed by the energetic strumming of a cuatro, shined with palpable relevance, illuminating the crowded rehearsal room, bringing many of us to tears. What made their performance so moving?

I couldn’t help but to think about the children’s own life stories. Why do they sing? Why does it matter so much? It is clear to me that the children of El Sistema sing and play because it brings them to a world of tangible opportunity, giving them a new sense of unencumbered freedom that allows them to express themselves.

Music serves as an instrument for social transformation in that it adds concrete value to their lives, providing for new perspectives, amid the challenges that they may encounter where they reside (where more often than not, the living conditions are precarious on many levels). In a space where opportunities are scarce, music is the conduit for striving for a better life. And this is why every note might be purposefully and intentionally defined with a unique texture, colored with a sense of urgency and care at the same time.

In an orchestra or a choir, participants blossom through the sharing of profound artistic experiences and the rendering of beauty through collaboration (a theme that has been consistent throughout my immersion into El Sistema in Venezuela). In pursuing music, students generate a level of motivation that leads to re-imagining a new intention for life, creating both improved social environments and poignant music-making experiences. This framework gives us a new aesthetic of possibility where students’ capacity for growth is extended as far as the universe of music. It is only up to each individual to decide how far they may choose to go.

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