Showing posts with label In Harmony. Show all posts
Showing posts with label In Harmony. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Venezuela, El Sistema and the end of Chavez

Hugo Chavez is dead. What now for Venezuela - and for El Sistema, which has spread from the country to revolutionise the role of music in children's lives worldwide?

Opinions split. First of all, it would be a mistake to associate El Sistema too deeply with Chavez. It was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu - long before Chavez came to power. It has been supported by the state, but it's Abreu's baby, not Chavez's. But some accuse Chavez, perhaps with good reason, of having used its popularity and influence as a whitewash to gild his image and that of the iniquities of his regime. Abreu and Venezuela's most celebrated musical figurehead, Gustavo Dudamel (left), meanwhile have both insisted that music is above politics.

This article from the New York Times, published just over a year ago, presents some arguments and opinions very well: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/18/arts/music/venezuelans-criticize-hugo-chavezs-support-of-el-sistema.html?_r=0
The situation evokes age-old questions about the intersection of art and politics: Should they remain separate? Should artists denounce politics they don’t agree with? At what cost should culture be kept alive?
The Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero has been extremely outspoken against the current state of Venezuela. This morning she has commented via Facebook:
Today, Chavez died. Venezuela needs a renewal. We don't need the emotional and social disease that has infiltrated our society. We need POSITIVE change for all. We don't need the attempts of the government to instill more paranoia. The "Imperialists" did not poison Chavez and cause his cancer. We need to work towards a Venezuela free of these toxic thoughts that defy logic and manipulate the emotions of the Venezuelan people. We need good people to lead. I congratulate the students in my country for being so brave and selfless. To all those people who are mourning the death of one man, please, mourn the 21,000 plus people who were murdered in Venezuela last year. Think about that very real figure. Who is mourning all those victims? Think about the social decay that Venezuelans live in, day in and day out. Let's keep the perspective of our recent history, and be conscious that a lot of work needs to be done.
So the end of Chavez means an opportunity for real and positive change in the country - if it can be brought about as Gabriela hopes.

But nobody is suggesting that that should mean the end of El Sistema. At least, I hope they're not. Art and politics become terribly intertwined, as you know, at all the wrong moments. Those opposed to "socialist" policies and to state support for culture in general tend to turn guns on El Sistema for their own ends. We'd like to think that the worth of music goes beyond that.

Besides, the fact is that El Sistema works. It's been proven to work - and it is even working on this island of ours. Here's Sistema Scotland. And here's In Harmony, the expanding English branch.

(If anyone is still confused about the loss of empirical fact as a core value under the slews of political opinion, I recommend Adam Curtis's latest fascinating blogpost.)

To condemn El Sistema because it has been supported by a dubious state would ultimately mean throwing out a lot of babies with the murky bathwater. Remember, there are many more than 50 shades of grey in this world. Let's maintain those matters that do most good for humanity as a whole, please. Music is one of those.

The positive influence of El Sistema will outlive Chavez. And Mahler will outlive us all. Here's the Simon Bolivar Orchestra with the Dude doing a spot of it at the Proms.










Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Heat and light...

Kicking off the Olympic cultural festivities in style, The Dude and his Simon Bolivár Orchestra of Venezuela are back in Britain. Dudamel & co are taking over the Royal Festival Hall this weekend (concerts to be streamed live on The Guardian website, btw), and right now they’re in Raploch, Scotland, visiting the Big Noise project – Sistema Scotland’s own take on the Venezuelan music education scheme, revolutionising children’s lives through the making of music (an illuminating read about it here). We can see this concert on TV tomorrow, live on BBC4

But one question remains: why are we all so potty about Venezuelan young musicians when the UK has plenty of its own?

Britain’s got talent. And the real talent has little to do with Simon Cowell, but everything to do with our youth orchestras. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is a prime training ground for the best young orchestral musicians in the country; to hear them is to be bowled over and out by the standard of their playing, and the passion and dedication they show for their music.


Nor are they alone. The National Youth Orchestra of Wales claims to have been the first national youth orchestra in the world. The National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, the NationalYouth Choirs and the award-winning National Youth Choir of Scotland are all flourishing. The Aldeburgh Young Musicians, based at Snape in Suffolk, takes around 40 talented kids aged ten to 18 from the East Anglia area and provides them with high-level courses in school holidays, treating them not as children, but as young artists who compose, conduct and perform their own music. 

What’s the matter with us, then? Why do we fête the Venezuelans instead? What on earth do they have that we haven’t?

It would be easy to say “Nothing”. It would be easy to pretend that the Simon Bolivárs are all show and no substance: the twirling basses, the football shirts, all that Latin heat and light. But, though it pains me to say it, there is something. And it’s the other way round. It’s something that we have that they don’t have that’s the cause.

In a recent interview for The Strad, I asked Levon Chilingirian, leader of the Chilingirian String Quartet, what he thought about this. He and his three colleagues visit Caracas regularly to coach the students of El Sistema in chamber music. “One aspect which is very different from here,” he says, “is that they don’t have any limits set for them.” Many children learning music in the UK work their way through the Associated Board grade exams system by hook or by crook. “Mostly by crook as far as I can see,” Chilingirian adds. “It can be a case of: ‘You do your Grade V this year and next year I’ll give you a nice present when you do Grade VI’. And if you suggest to someone that they might learn a particular piece, they’ll say ‘No, no, that’s Grade VII and I’m only Grade IV.”

That doesn’t happen in Caracas. Chilingirian met a young violinist who’d been learning for only a year, but brought the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 to a lesson and was determined to perform it with an orchestra soon afterwards. The group also told me about a 23-year-old taxi driver who, bored with his job, met some youngsters from El Sistema, heard about their work and decided to become a cellist, having never touched an instrument before. “Nobody said ‘You can’t’ - so he did it,” says Chilingirian. “He’s a very accomplished player.”

Music exams in Britain are an extremely mixed blessing. On the plus side, they provide a target to work towards, a chance for youngsters to prove themselves and gain a sense of achievement. The exams set by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in particular are a global success story, a system embraced wholeheartedly in countries the world over, notably the Far East.

And yet, and yet... How many people in the UK have horror stories to tell about childhood music exams? How many youngsters who might have gone on to enjoy making music socially are left with a terror of performing after an unfortunate sojourn in the exam room? How many have had a bad experience and given up, because working for an exam is no fun at all? For many of us, these exams are our first-ever try at playing to other people, and an unhappy start can leave deep scars.

This set-up is satisfactory for very few. The examiner has little space to write notes and very, very little time in which to do so. Sight-reading tests rarely bear any relation to real music. The pieces offer a bit of choice, yet so little that often a child has to spend months practising something that he or she doesn’t even like – and then, of course, it often sounds like it, too. And sometimes a candidate’s chin wobbles or the eyes start to brim, but an examiner can’t take time to reassure them, because the system is a conveyor belt - the next candidates are in the waiting room building up their own store of nerves and mustn’t be kept waiting. This is an exam all right. But is that any way to make music?

It’s worth reflecting that in a target-oriented, achievement-focused society blighted by the class-ridden nature of the education system, children have to be very lucky to find themselves making music for the sake of enjoying it. Oftener than not they do so to please their parents, to win a music scholarship (few parents realise the hard work involved in that), to pass exams that will allow them to go on and pass more exams. It’s all about measurement and competition. But for El Sistema, it’s about personal and social transformation. 

Maybe it’s no wonder that many successful British professional musicians of my acquaintance never went through the graded exam system at all; if someone is more than averagely talented, exams quickly become an irrelevance. Do they hold the students back? I believe so. Just think about scales. You could learn them all. But if your grade prescribes only a certain number of them, you’re probably going to bother learning just those few, aren’t you? Levon Chilingirian is right: music exams instil the sense of an invisible ceiling that we dare not shatter. Rarely are we encouraged to chuck out the exam books, find a piece of music we love and damn well learn how to play it, even if it’s by Rachmaninov. That would be real motivation: a passion from within.

Plenty of other ways exist to learn and make music, and plenty exist in the UK. There’s Colourstrings, for example – a Saturday morning music school derived from Zoltán Kodály’s famous Hungarian system in which every child first learns to sing; they subsequently develop excellently trained 'ears'. The kids perform to one another in relaxed concert days, play in ensembles together early on and seem confident with their instruments.

And now we have pockets of El Sistema too: with enthusiasm for these schemes taking root around the country - the Big Noise in Scotland and In Harmony across England, in centres including Lambeth, Liverpool and more - there’s hope that our youngsters may also discover, like the Venezuelans, that making music is about joy, life and love. Not about quaking in your shoes alone with your half-size violin in a chilly school gym in Hatch End.

The Venezuelans are back? Bring 'em on. We need their inspiration. It’s working. It needs to work some more.

UPDATE, 5.40pm: This is clearly ringing some bells, and not just in the UK. Try this post by John Terauds from Musical Toronto: http://musicaltoronto.org/2012/06/20/music-exams-can-be-limitations-instead-of-goals/