If an ensemble is driven by passion no obstacle is large enough

First of all thank you for letting me be part of one of the most inspirational weeks of my life. Prior to the trip I was very keen to find out where the passion of the Venezuelans came from. Upon reflection I see now the passion comes from the complete dedication and commitment they give to music, in all its forms, and now not only do I feel I understand the passion but that passion has taken over my entire being. I feel El Sistema is one of the most exciting and important musical initiatives happening in the world right now and to be a part of it humbles me to my core.

I was anxious before the trip as to whether the passion was perhaps unique to what for me was the face of El Sistema, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra (B). I was even to a point cynical that the passion was real at all and perhaps it was all a very convincing act. It was a question that I gave much thought to throughout the week. Oh how I was wrong. Seeing the percussion ensemble on Saturday afternoon, their youthful faces so filled with glee, happiness and that all important passion was a truly moving and unique experience. Throughout the week I saw some of the most amazing young musicians I have ever met. Others seemed to be copying the actions and movements of the more developed musicians. My first thought turned to the negative, feeling this was them merely copying actions to give the illusion of genuine emotional involvement. I see now this is the way in which they learn to communicate what they feel inside. Much like a small child learns to copy words from the parent, going on to independent speech of their own, the student learns to communicate through music by copying others until their own voice is found. This followed by hearing one of the Nucleo directors say “passion is transmitted, not taught” was revolutionary for me. It made me realise that it is down to me to be a constant source of inspiration to the children I see and teach every day, to transmit the passion that has consumed me and to let that be the driving force for their musical development. I think that only by the successful transmission of this all important passion will musical standards be reached. I fully understand that El Sistema is a social programme, however, only through the realisation of musical talent and the planting of the seeds of self-confidence, empowerment and equality does worth within society grow. By achieving in this aspect of life the student can apply the same discipline, patience and commitment to all aspects of life.

The rigor and time they dedicate to rehearsals is truly remarkable (Usually 4 hours per day, 5 days a week). Seeing the students being drilled in a way which highlighted each time what could be improved and seeing that the children each time embraced the criticism, applied it and went on to play with continued enthusiam and vigour was astounding. Some might see this approach as ‘old school,’ I think of it as essential. Learning an instrument is all about repetition. The muscles need time to learn, grow and muscle memory to form, which is essential for instrumental playing. The brain needs the time and repetition to improve the co-ordination of the relevant body parts in order to produce a clean and articulate sound. The ensemble takes time and repetition to blend and become one. Yes drilling students is nothing new but to do it in a way which engages them, plays on their strengths and constantly improves their weaknesses is anything but ‘old school.’ I see this approach as revolutionary and for me is the reason why the students of El Sistema reach such high levels of musical achievement. It proved for me that children can achieve remarkable things with the right attitude and encouragement. It showed the fundamental Venezuelan Sistema’s concept that there are no excuses when it comes to musical excellence and achievement. This was something particularly evident in the Guarenas Nucleo. These children, from one of the most deprived areas in Venezuelan society, performed not only difficult orchestral repertoire, in a building that can only be described as dilapidated, with such passion, enthusiasm, commitment and joyous youthful vitality but did so with instruments lacking hair on the bows and cracks in the sound box. Nothing could demonstrate for me more that if an ensemble is driven by passion no obstacle is large enough.

The fact that within each Nucleo there is a pyramid of increasing standards of ensemble is another factor that drives the development of musical excellence and is something I may suggest to be trialled within In Harmony Newcastle. It is something that will allow the most talented children to achieve their full potential whilst being able to support those who need it which I feel will increase the rate of improvement dramatically. In the long term I feel that this could be extended to a national programme culminating in a National In Harmony orchestra. I wish to also give more responsibility to each child. I wish to encourage the more natural players to help those who are struggling. The nurturing of this peer mentoring scheme as In Harmony grows, I hope, will lend itself very well to the El Sistema’s approach with regards to students teaching students. Plans have already been discussed about possible tutor exchanges between In Harmony and El Sistema, could this method also not be applied to student exchange internally within In Harmony itself? I feel it is very important to be united as one In Harmony and not as six isolated units and exchange between the projects of everything from repertoire to staff and students could be a very effective method to strengthen bonds and improve the feeling of unity within the project.

The El Sistema choral programme was very insightful. The fact from a very early age they sing in polyphony is very encouraging and obviously is a key element in their musical development, after all, performing difficult choral repertoire at an early age trains the ear from the very beginning and teaches the student about intonation, ensemble, rhythm, timbre and balance which, because they have done it for a number of years prior to being introduced to an instrument, they instinctively apply to their instrumental learning. This is something I feel In Harmony could develop and is something that I am going to improve by enrolling in some professional development in this field. Certainly the idea of an In Harmony choir greatly excites me not only as a means to improve instrumental learning but also as a means of inclusion for children who do not immediately take to instrumental performance (for which a choral programme designed to develop aural proficiency is only going to help) and in the long term a choir could be a means of allowing children not selected to be part of the national In Harmony Orchestra to be included in performance.

One of the most influential aspects of El Sistema for me (of which there were so many) was the total inclusion and equality across social divisions within society, ethnicity, gender and disabilities. To see people from the barrios and people from higher in the social ladder mixing and playing as one, to see white, black, Hispanic and Asian children all uniting to create great music and to see people with severe physical and learning disabilities in ensembles with people without and having just as much worth in the ensemble was inspirational and very moving. Watching the White Hands Choir perform demonstrated not only that people who maybe can’t even hear or see what wonderful things they are displaying to the audience can perform with such commitment but what they are doing (signing the words of the song) enabled people with audio impairment that would not normally be able to gain enjoyment from a concert become part of the experience, to feel with the people around them the sentiment and passion that the performers are conveying and transmitting is beautiful. Yet again demonstrating the TOTAL inclusion for EVERYONE in El Sistema. This, in part, is where I feel the social change comes from. This coupled with the highest levels of musical achievement, giving each child a sense of worth and importance, is a very powerful combination.

In Venezuela it is the musicians that have come through El Sistema that teach for El Sistema and indeed are the musicians who fill the top orchestras of the country. This is in my mind a huge contributing factor in the aspirational goals of the students. This is only possible as El Sistema is 35 years in the making. Generations have passed through it and are putting their experiences and passion back into the network. This is a point that we at In Harmony will reach in the long term. In the short term, to have a professional orchestra attached to the projects is a huge honour. Not only will the children be continually exposed to world class music making but this intimate contact with musicians will hopefully be a factor in dissolving the stigma that music is only for the elite.

The trip has given me an ever growing list of ideas but also reassured me that we at In Harmony are doing a lot of the right things and are definitely heading in the right direction. Hopefully in 35 years time, if we are even close to what they have achieved in Venezuela, it will be revolutionary for all involved within the project. I think there is a lot to take from the project and having such an open access to the wealth of knowledge and experience of the Venezuelans will no doubt prove invaluable.

Venezuela is a different culture and we in the UK will face different hurdles on our journey. Classical music in Venezuela was a relatively unknown art form, its introduction was something new. This of course must have been a challenge for Maestro Abreau in the beginning, to convince the public of the power of music to change lives. We in the UK have a similar yet very different problem. People know classical music but are afraid of it, be it because of the stigma of social elitism or as a result of ignorance, scared to open themselves to it because of the feeling they don’t know enough. I’m not sure which is more challenging, the teaching of something new in Venezuela or the re-educating of the public in the UK but both share a common outcome, Change. Experience has taught me change can be both good and bad, I could not be more certain that In Harmony Sistema England is the best thing for the musicians of tomorrow.

John Connolly is a music tutor at In Harmony Newcastle Gateshead.