I am writing to you from the backseat of a van full of fellows. Yesterday was our last day in Calabozo, and today we are traveling to the Caribbean coast, to a nucleo in the gorgeous city of Coro. I’m looking forward to a full week imbedded in another nucleo, another fabulous community, and some beautiful beaches.
Throughout the past many weeks, I’ve been focusing on staying open and wide-eyed, allowing myself to soak up the experience, the atmosphere, the pedagogy, the structures, the friendships, the youthful exuberance, and the joy that I’ve encountered in every site we’ve visited. Processing the full depth and breadth of this experience will take a considerable amount of time, and I imagine learnings and realizations will continue to appear long after I’ve left this place, brought into focus by some resonating future experience, an insight blossoming into existence without warning. Invigoratingly, a few glimmers have already begun shine.
One of my favorite spanish words is “todavía.” It means ‘yet’. As in:
“I haven’t seen the beaches of Coro… todavía.” or
“I don’t eat arepas at every meal in the U.S. … todavía.” or
“There isn’t composition in El Sistema… todavía.”
Try saying todavía after every seemingly negative statement. It’s fun! Recognizing the possibility inherent in every blank page. “But I’ve never written music! ... todavía”
I entered the fellowship with a personal quest to learn about and envision the possibilities for composition and improvisation within El Sistema inspired programs. When we started, I knew very little about what the composition world looked like within El Sistema in Venezuela. Now I’m starting to get a better idea.
As we travel, I’m talking to teachers, students, and administrators, attempting to begin to draw a picture of composition from a few different points of view:
- Curricular point of view
- Is composition a part of the theory curriculum?
- Are there independent composition classes (private or in a group)?
- Cultural point of view
- Do you play new music? In an ensemble or otherwise?
- Do you or your teachers talk about composers?
- Individual point of view
- Do you write music?
- Do you have friends that write music?
- Do you want to write music?
So far, throughout our journeys, I have found very few programs that include a composition element as a part of their theoretical study. Also, I haven’t visited a nucleo that has a separate composition class or private composition lessons. Though there are forms of composition instruction in nucleos imbedded in ‘conservatorios’, what we might call arts high schools, but usually only for older students. I have yet to visit a program that is playing works by living composers other than Hollywood tunes. That being said, in every site we’ve visited, I have been approached by some student in the nucleo who wants to share their music with me. Or the nucleo director or a teacher hears I’m a composer and excitedly points me towards the 7 year old who just wrote a string quartet, or the 13 year old who is puzzling out how to harmonize the melody he just wrote for violin. I have been approached by so many young, excited composers, scores in hand, eager to show and tell. These encounters bring me to a realization:
Composers are everywhere in El Sistema.
There just isn’t a structure within the system to nurture them… todavía.
While I was studying composition at New England Conservatory, I moonlighted as faculty for the preparatory school at NEC, teaching theory courses to children ages 5-18. I worked with a lot of kids. Yet, there seem to be exponentially more young, budding composers in these nucleos than there were that sprouted out of the fertile musical environment at NEC Prep. In fact, I have encountered more young composers here than anywhere else I’ve been. It makes sense, in way- there are large numbers of youth that understand the language of music, and all their friends do too. Implicitly, they are introduced to the idea of composers and composition through the music they play. Intrinsic to the act of playing classical music, they have composition role modeled for them. And they are immersed in that environment for 4-6 hours a day, 5-6 days a week! I am excited by this potential. I am invigorated by the questions.
Questions of the day:
Is the concept of composition intrinsic to an El Sistema environment?
How could composers be identified and nurtured within El Sistema and El Sistema inspired programs?