Sunday, October 28, 2007

best news in a long time

I wrote an e-mail to David the other day in which I commented that my mother, though trained as a pianist and an accomplished musician, seemed to have absorbed the assumption prevalent in our culture (meaning, roughly, American+European) that musical education is dispensable: musical theory is not taught in schools as a matter of course, but my mother was not appalled and convinced that she must fill the gap by personal instruction. I had piano lessons for about a year when I was 9, from a teacher I didn't get on with; my sister never had lessons, is still unable to read a score and knows nothing about the theory of harmony underlying the Western musical tradition.

David then drew my attention to a splendid article by Arthur Lubow in today's New York Times on Gustavo Dudamel, a young Venezuelan conductor who is the product of a remarkable programme designed to include every child in an orchestra and provide every child with a musical instrument. Dudamel has recently been appointed conductor of the LA Philharmonic and hopes to introduce the programme to LA.

In selecting Dudamel, the L.A. Philharmonic is also allying itself with a uniquely successful education initiative, of which its new music director is the most illustrious product; this week the philharmonic will announce plans to inaugurate a program, “Youth Orchestra L.A.,” that is directly modeled on a Venezuelan prototype. Youth Orchestra L.A. will begin with youngsters between the ages of 8 and 12 in a disadvantaged district in central Los Angeles, but its ultimate goal is much grander: to provide a musical instrument and a place in a youth orchestra for every young person in Los Angeles County who wants one. Borda says that she was inspired by her visit late last year to Caracas. In vivid contrast to the situation in the United States, where arts-education programs have been snipped from school curricula as unaffordable frippery, the Venezuelan system provides a place in an orchestra for children, no matter how poor or troubled their backgrounds, throughout the country.


The most remarkable feature of the Venezuelan music-education system is its instant immersion: the children begin playing in ensembles from the moment they pick up their instruments. Their instructors say the students are learning to behave as much as they are discovering how to make music. “In an orchestra, everybody respects meritocracy, everybody respects tempo, everybody knows he has to support everyone else, whether he is a soloist or not,” explains Igor Lanz, the executive director of the private foundation that administers the government-financed sistema. “They learn that the most important thing is to work together in one common aim.” Across Venezuela the sistema has established 246 centers, known as nucleos, which admit children between 2 and 18, assign them instruments and organize them into groups with instructors. Typically practicing for two or three hours every day, the children are performing recognizable music virtually from the outset.

Not long ago I visited a few nucleos, including one in a concrete-block building in the Los Chorros district of Caracas that was constructed in the mid-60s as a detention center for juvenile delinquents. It now houses youngsters who have been taken from the streets or from violent or crime-ridden homes into the protective custody of the state. Only 57 kids were residents of the shelter, but 300 more who lived in the neighborhood came there for daily music instruction. I watched several orchestral groups perform, including a string ensemble of 7- and 8-year-olds sawing away at Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the first violinists scratchily bowing and the second violinists fingering pizzicato notes. The harsh overhead fluorescent lights, the white and ocher paint peeling off the concrete walls and the bars on some windows (dating from the building’s origins) might have cast a gloomy air over the proceedings. Instead, the pleasure and pride that the children took in their collective effort was infectious. “It was a shot in the arm,” Matias Tarnopolsky, the artistic director of the New York Philharmonic, told me of his own tour of the sistema in Caracas. “It reminded me of the reasons I went into the music world as a profession.” Rattle has called the sistema “the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world.”

Like a far-reaching catchment network that comprises 1,800 teachers and some 600 orchestras, the sistema pulls in youngsters who, depending on talent and ambition, advance to statewide orchestras, with the younger ones in children’s orchestras and those in their late teens and 20s in youth orchestras. The best are funneled into the national Bolívar Youth Orchestra. (One of them, Edicson Ruiz, a double bassist, at 19 became the youngest musician admitted to the modern-day Berlin Philharmonic.) Directed by Dudamel since 1999, the Bolívar Youth Orchestra enjoys a worldwide reputation for a sound that is not only passionate — to be expected with youth orchestras — but also surprisingly polished and balanced.

the full article here

1 comment:

Jenny Davidson said...

That is a good one, nice to see an encouraging story for a change...

My mother's an elementary-school music teacher (of great genius, in my opinion!). She was trained first as a pianist at the Royal Academy of Music and then as a Montessori teacher, and sort of combined the two to specialize in K-6. She does quite wonderful things with her kids (they all learn to read music and play the recorder & ring handbells and such, often by way of musical games of one kind or another; private lessons are separate/optional, but there's a lot of stuff integrated with the curriculum, like African drumming or medieval music when the middle ages are being studied etc.), but it's awful thinking about how few schools have that sort of thing.

(One of the funnier & more appealing things she does is run the lower-school orchestra--this involves thinking about what the 40 or so kids she's got, say 7-8 on up to 11-12, play and how well they play it--so that she is always orchestrating music for, you know, 1 quite accomplished cellist but who can't read music because of having learned via Suzuki, 3 beginning flutists who can only play three notes, a decent clarinetist, etc. etc.).

I heard a story from a colleague's wife (whose son plays the violin very well) about the tragedy that has followed the largescale abandoning of music lesson int he NYC private schools--she described visiting a warehouse in one of the boroughs that was just heartbreakingly full of quarter- and half-size violins....

There are various programs round the place trying to remedy this, but it will take serious government investment rather than just private. The trouble is that a lot of people feel that music is optional--personally I would say that next step down from the actual technical skills of reading and writing, musical literacy is at least as important as learning about history or anything else (and of course the two can be integrated)...

all right, overly long comment, sorry! This topic is close to my heart!