Sunday, March 28, 2010

Week 21: Early Childhood Programs - Never Too Early to Start

When I first started researching El Sistema, most of what I could find online was footage of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel - both never cease to amaze me, but as an elementary music teacher, I wanted to know how they got there. What were these exceptional musicians doing at 5 or 10 years old in their local nucleo?

After observing ten different sites throughout Venezuela this past month, I now have a better picture of what their experiences might have looked like. Rodrigo Guerrero, International Affairs Coordinator of FESNOJIV, shared with me in Caracas that most of the nucleos begin their programs for children between the ages of 6 and 8, but that they hope to expand their programming to reach even younger children.

La Rinconada and Maracay are doing just that. These two nucleos are recognized for their early childhood programs, including classes for parents and toddlers. I also observed a Mozart Orchestra in Barquisimeto that had children playing brass and woodwind instruments as young as 4 years old! Like the miniature stringed instruments seen in most nucleos, Barquisimeto provides smaller brass instruments to fit the hands of these very young musicians. Even though you’ll see one or two students struggling with an instrument that’s just too big for them, it's been obvious to us throughout our travels that the nucleos are dedicated to meeting children where they are.

Before sharing a 3-minute movie clip highlighting the early childhood instrumental programs at La Rinconada, Barquisimeto and Maracay, I wanted to share a few observations:

Human Values: Cesar Rangel, the President of OSA (Orquesta Sinfonica de Aragua) shared this: "The magic of the system is human values. The orchestra provides that." The early musicianship classes focus on these values.  Children learn to take turns, respect their instruments and care for their fellow classmates.

Child-Size Instruments: Although the general rule across El Sistema for wind instruments is to wait until the child's permanent teeth come in, we saw children as young as 4 and 5 years old in Barquisimeto playing these instruments, miniature-sized. When asked how teachers deal with the "missing teeth" problem, the answer is: wait until the process is complete and then start up again. The recorder still plays an introductory role for wind instruments, as well as helps develop pitch discrimination for all of its young musicians.

Paper Orchestra Debate: Many of the teachers in the nucleos of both states of Lara and Aragua have not heard of the Paper Orchestra concept. When we explained that in Caracas the Paper Orchestra is used as a pedagogical step before a child plays an instrument (see La Rinconada posting for more details), one of the violin teachers in Maracay responded, " El Sistema is about getting instruments into the hands of children at an early age."  She felt that a paper instrument might confuse the child, rather than help prepare them.  Interesting contrast. So far, Caracas is the only place where we've seen the Paper Orchestra. 

Solfege and Singing: In an earlier post, I shared that the nucleos we've visited view singing as an important precursor to playing an instrument because it helps develop the ear. Singing and solfege continue to play a key role in the early orchestras as well. When practicing a melody or rhythmic pattern on their instruments, these younger classes alternate between singing lyrics, solfege and playing their instrument.

Parent Investment: Many of the baby classes have parents learning right alongside their child or participating in a parents only orchestra or chorus class. These classes have a specific purpose: to strengthen support at home for the child's musical development.

Student/Teacher Ratio: El Sistema's core value of investing early couldn't be more evident in their student-teacher ratio. Wherever we go, these young orchestras have on average a teacher or teaching assistant for every six children! Nucleos also invest in their young adults by giving them teaching roles and responsibilities. Becoming a teacher is a much sought after goal by these young musicians and considered quite an honor.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Week 20: Cultural Exchange in the State of Aragua

Students Outside Cagua Nucleo

The staff and faculty of FESNOJIV (El Sistema) have been incredible hosts to the Abreu Fellows and have given us so much information and inspiration. Now in Aragua, we have a chance to give back.

While visiting five different nucleos throughout the state, Rebecca, David and I have been able to teach classes to students and adults, including a workshop in Maracay focused on singing games and dances for teachers coming from all over Aragua. These five nucleo sites are:

Cagua: We were fortunate to attend the opening ceremony of Cagua's new site along with their honored guest, Dr. Abreu! This nucleo has a very strong orchestra and Venezuelan Folk Music program, which is an extraordinary feat considering the students have been playing their instruments for just one year. The nucleo began in September 2008 in a school building across the street.

Colonia Tovar: This town was founded in 1843 by a group of German settlers who recreated their homeland in the Venezuelan mountains. The nucleo of 300 uses the university during the weekend and a church during the weekdays for its orchestra and choir rehearsals. One unique component of this nucleo is its lutiere training program for string instruments. With 21 students and 6 teachers, this workshop serves the entire state of Aragua.

La Victoria: While their space downtown is being renovated, this nucleo is being temporarily housed in a post-independence colonial home. With an enclosed courtyard and enough rooms to house 650 students, the nucleo echoes with the music of choirs, cellos and even electric cuatros. Rebecca, David and I were treated to mini-concerts throughout the center, including an early childhood program sung in English and Spanish.

Maracay: This nucleo has the most comprehensive program in Aragua and is recognized for its early childhood program. In one evening alone, we observed a toddler program (1 to 3 year olds) packed with moms and dads tapping sticks together with their child to the beat of Mozart; a beginning orchestra for parents learning alongside their child and a strings program for 1 to 6 year old children bowing a rhythm together on their miniature instruments. This strings program has 90 students enrolled with 30 of them still in diapers!

San Vicente: This nucleo is situated next to the largest garbage dump in the state of Aragua. San Vicente serves about 250 children, many whose families work in and live around the dump. After working in a building at the dump's entrance, the local government provided FESNOJIV with a building designed specifically for the community's musical needs, including beautifully hung artwork throughout the center.

Wherever we go, nucleo directors and staff have opened their doors to us, taken time to be interviewed, shared their programs and invited us to watch their classes. In return, Rebecca and I were thrilled to be able to share some of the musical songs, games and dances that my students back in Juneau, Alaska request over and over again. With Rebecca translating in Spanish, we taught at each nucleo and held an evening workshop for teachers from all over the state - some whom had traveled over an hour to get to Maracay. Thank you to both Alvaro and Rebecca for translating several of the songs into Spanish.

I'd like to dedicate this 3-minute video documenting our cultural exchange to the incredible teachers of the nucleos in Aragua, as well as to the staff and students at Glacier Valley Elementary School who will recognize the tune of these songs now sung in Spanish.

Teacher Workshop Participants in Maracay, March 2010

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Week 19: Latin Music - A Common Thread

After two weeks in Venezuela, the Abreu Fellows have visited many nucleos, attended concerts and met with key FESNOJIV administrators and teachers in Caracas, Guarico and Miranda who keep this incredible network of music centers operating and growing throughout Venezuela. Now in our third week, we've split into three groups to travel to different areas of the country. First stop:

State of Aragua: David, Lorrie & Rebecca; State of Guarico: Alvaro, Christine, Katie & Dan; and State of Merida: Dantes, Jonathan & Stan

My team is based in Aragua's capital of Maracay where we have visited four nucleos: La Victoria, Cagua, Maracay and San Vicente. In total, since arriving to Venezuela we have observed nine nucleos, all unique and reflective of their communities.

One surprising thread that I have seen running through all of the nucleos is Latin music. I was prepared to observe high caliber orchestras playing classical repertoire (and wasn't disappointed), but didn't expect to see equal attention paid to Latin classical and folk music. Without fail, every nucleo was incorporating some aspect of Latin influence - whether through dance, song, instrumentation or orchestral pieces. The joy, energy and enthusiasm that the students express when playing this music are contagious.

I've tried to capture this spirit in a short iMovie representing the nucleos I've visited. In less than 4 minutes, you will see fourteen unique experiences representing ages from three to thirty including:
  • youth choirs singing works by Venezuelan Alberto Grau, who incorporates movement into his compositions;
  • an electric cuatro as part of a duet;
  • Venezuelan folk music ensembles playing traditional instruments - Criolla harp, cuatro, mandolas, guitar, mandolin and maracas;
  • the White Hands Choir, composed of deaf students, who sign the words their peers are singing (See Christin's blog for more information on the special needs program in Guarico);
  • dancing violinists, cellists and horns and:
  • a 500-member performance of the Venezuelan national anthem integrating all of the diverse music programs offered in Guarico.
Muchas gracias, FESNOJIV, staff, faculty and students for inspiring all of us! Viva La Musica!

    Sunday, March 7, 2010

    What about Percussion, Woodwinds and Brass?

    A reader asked in an earlier blog, "At what point do students start learning wind and percussion instruments?" This has been a big question on the minds of the fellows as well. Back in Boston, we'd hear from varying sources that kids might start on brass and woodwinds as early as age six, but what about the challenges of developing lungs and missing front teeth?

    During our visits to the nucleos of Montalban and La Rinconada, I asked about this topic and was given answers specific to these two sites. One thing we are learning from our time here in Caracas is that nothing is written in stone and each nucleo is unique, so I preface by saying that this information is specific to Montalban and La Rinconada at this particular moment in time. El Sistema is flexible and continually responds to its students through a collaborative teaching process (see previous posting on this subject). Dantes and Jonathan also posted responses to Dr. Abreu's statement of "El Sistema as no system" in their blogs and both are worthwhile reading.

    Recorder and Choir: Laying the Foundation

    Percussion is a part of the early childhood classes from the beginning where they learn rhythmic and melodic notation and solfege in a fixed do system. Students also learn to play the recorder as early as five years old to help with intonation and pitch discrimination. The recorder serves as a precursor to the wind instruments. Generally, students don't begin playing a brass or woodwind instrument until they have their permanent front teeth - so it depends on the child.

    Oftentimes, it's the recorder that helps students learn to sing in tune. Half the students will sing, while the other half accompanies them on the recorder or everyone plays the first verse and sings the second. It's in these early childhood classes where the musical foundation is laid and discipline, focus and attention are developed to prepare for the demands of the orchestra rehearsal. Students who enter the nucleo at an older age need to sing in choir for one or two years before starting an instrument.

    Children Changing Instruments:

    Many of the fellows wondered what the process was regarding a child's wish to switch instruments. Rodrigo Guerrero explained that El Sistema allows children to change instruments, but the decision is taken seriously. Here are the steps:
    1. Teacher talks with the student to find out if his or her decision is based on a physical or attitudinal change and is more than just a casual thought.
    2. Student and instructor discuss the reasons with the nucleo director.
    3. If an instrument is available, the child has a trial period with the new instrument.
    4. Ultimately, the goal is student engagement.
      And engagement is what we are seeing at all levels throughout the nucleo. As these young musicians advance in skill level, there is an ensemble ready to meet them. In my posting on Montalban, I documented the orchestras offered there. In this video, you'll see a progression from the early musicianship class and two levels of recorder, to a choir and an advanced wind ensemble. It's a short video, so I hope you'll watch the very last clip of a recorder solo from a 5 year-old at Montalban.

      Saturday, March 6, 2010

      Week 18: The Abreu Fellows Meet Their Namesake

      As we travel to different nucleos throughout Caracas, we are discovering that each site is unique and flexibly adapts its planning to meet the  needs of its children and community.  In fact, Dr. Abreu himself explained that El Sistema is not a system, but rather a living, breathing program that continues to grow and develop through the collaboration of many generations of its teachers.

      The process may vary, but the goal set forth by Dr. Abreu is constant: "creating better human beings." This mission drives the decisions of its teachers and permeates the walls of every nucleo we visit. We hear it in the impassioned voices of the young nucleo directors and teachers (not much older than their students) and see it in the determined faces of children in the orchestra focused so intently on the music that they seem unaware of the crammed spaces and stifling heat. 

      Folks who had visited Venezuela and its nucleos told us the experience would be life-changing and now I see why:  it's become commonplace to enter a room of a nucleo and be deeply affected by music played in ensemble by hundreds of kids.  Each nucleo is living out Dr. Abreu's conviction that "the culture for the poor cannot be a poor culture."

      When we met Dr. Abreu last week, he confessed that he had created a scandal when he first insisted that El Sistema be enrolled in the Ministry of Social Development, rather than the Ministry of Culture.  He expressed to the President of Venezuela at that time that he wanted only one thing: "To have the state acknowledge that this (El Sistema) is a social program and as an artist, I demand that my art be dignified with the mission of creating better human beings."

      His teachers are living proof of that.  Having lived through El Sistema as children, they are now the young teachers and directors of the 180 nucleos across Venezuela.  Their collaborative teaching spirit creates an environment of constant learning and sharing, which is why we won't find a how-to-manual here.   Dr. Abreu left us with words I imagine he shares with any new nucleo director or teacher:
      We will not give you a manual or dictate what you should do.  What we want you to do is to live with us for a while in the most chaotic possible way.  See schools with different programs and look at the interactions of the orchestras and their community so that you can see how this happens, make a concept of your own and find a way to incorporate yourself as you see fit into the process.
      Thank you, Dr. Abreu and FESNOJIV for opening the doors of your nucleos to the Abreu Fellows. Your musical "chaos" is restructuring the way we think.

      Monday, March 1, 2010

      Week 17: Montalban - Witnessing Support Every Step of the Way

      After visiting the El Sistema nucleos of La Rinconada and Montalban, I feel as though I have witnessed the power of what Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone terms the "conveyor belt" strategy. This strategy focuses on providing children with a continuous network of support from infancy through high school so that progress made in one program is not lost in a gap of service between the next.

      From La Rinconada's Baby Vivaldi program for parents and their 2-year olds to the many nucleo youth orchestras varying in age range and skill, the goals among staff at all levels were quite clear: meet the children where they are and provide opportunities throughout their time in the nucleo to develop tools for life and to feel a sense of advancement through hard work.

      At Montalban, we moved from one room to the next, listening to the incredible performances of the different ensembles and experiencing first hand how each orchestra built and expanded upon the skills of the previous one. In just a matter of one hour, we had traveled through the musical life of a child attending Montalban from ages six through seventeen!

      Here is a short iMovie I created to document this progression:

      On Saturday, we returned to Montalban to watch the early childhood classes for ages three through six, a component of El Sistema that many of us are convinced is largely responsible for the high level of discipline and musical skill we are seeing in the older grades. As Frank di Pollo, one of the founding members of El Sistema put it, "That is the system - teaching 3-year olds. That's what is most important."

      James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago Economics Professor, couldn't agree more. His research is referenced in Whatever It Takes, an account of the Harlem Children's Zone and validates many of El Sistema's objectives. He found that social skills such as persistence, attentiveness and impulse control when combined at an early age "help create capable and productive citizens."

      Much like we saw at La Rinconada, these young students were developing those same skills through play: waiting for the right moment in the song to shake their egg maracas, listening to the first few notes of a piece played on the recorder to see who could guess it's title and always making music together as a group. We saw all of these skills played out in more sophisticated ways in the older grades as intense focus on the music and conductor, waiting quietly for considerable amounts of time for another section to rehearse and playing passionately together as an orchestra.

      El Sistema has hit the mark on so many levels: from investing in early childhood and instrumental music to offering a consistent "conveyor belt" of services through after-school hours and ensembles that encourage children to advance.

      After gathering research from economists, sociologists, psychologists and neuroscientists for Whatever It Takes, author Paul Tough writes in the afterword why a program like the Harlem Children's Zone is so promising:
      To change the trajectory of a poor child in an inner-city neighborhood, this research shows, you need to: intervene early in the child’s life, continue to intervene throughout adolescence; give him extra time in school and extra support outside of school; involve his parents if possible but be prepared to compensate for their absence; focus on improving his cognitive skills but also nurture his noncognitive, social and emotional skills.
      This quote could very well be about El Sistema.

      Thank you, FESNOJIV, Rodrigo Guerrero and the staff and students from La Rinconada and Montalban for opening your doors to your classrooms, curriculum and our questions!