O.K. so I am going through my midlife crisis. My priorities shift. What interests me is changing dramatically and what brings tears to my eyes is becoming quite different.
First it was China. Now it is Guatemala.
Following two solo recitals in Guatemala not too long ago, I visited the youth orchestra of Guatemala City, which is modeled after the Simon Bolivar orchestra of Venezuela. The now famous orchestra that has taken kids from poor villages throughout Venezuela and gave them a home, a shelter, through a life in music, has become an inspiration to many. It was my first encounter with "El Sistema" – an encounter that lasted five hours, though feels like it still goes on.
As I walk up the uneven stairway of the old abandoned post office building turned music school in the center of Guatemala City, I help my hostess Alex to carry bags of used clothes. These are for the children I am about to meet.
One thousand five hundred kids, ages four to about twenty gather here daily between 2pm and 7pm to make music (and to give meaning to their life).
My first stop was at a classroom filled with the very young children most of which are four years old, who lined up to form a choir. They began to sing for me. What joy! They were so proud.
I will never forget the little girl who looked up at me. She did not remember all the words. She was shy. She was tiny, and yet she was part of something so big - bigger than her, bigger than me. Being together, singing together gave them a sense of purpose which was extraordinary. I became very emotional, and had to hide my tears. On the left side of the choir I noticed about a dozen older kids who were deaf and sang in sign language.
I was enchanted and did not want it to end but had to leave.
My next stop was the "six to twelve year old orchestra". All sorts of noises were coming from outside the building – cars, sirens, jack-hammers, and other unrelated sounds, however it looked to me that the children heard ONLY the sound of music making. Inquisitive eyes were staring at me – whispering, giggling. All of a sudden the nine-year-old concert-mistress got up and everyone was silent (including me). They tuned. Discipline is very important. In that classroom, it came out of respect for your peer as well as for what was about to happen. They played for me. I could not help but play for them also. They asked me questions. I, on the other hand, was speechless. I did not know what to ask.
We went to the courtyard where I saw a twelve year old coaching a six or seven year old kid.
Alex told me that one of the principles of the system is learning from the older brother – learning from someone who is just a few years older (under some supervision.) Consequently the twelve year old will learn from the eighteen year old and so the pyramid is constructed. This is a very close-knit web, where one nourishes as well as dependent on the other.
From the courtyard I went to hear a rehearsal of the twelve year old orchestra. If I heard correctly, then they have about FORTY-SIX different ensembles!
I was then introduced to a new program of "Instrument renovation and maintenance program". The teenage kids, who receive instruments from all around - instruments, which are usually in bad shape - learn how to fix them and bring them to a descent condition.
In retrospect, all of this was in preparation for my visit to the mature orchestra of children, which are in their late teens. They all sat in a large room that could barely fit them. A piano was waiting in the corner. There was electricity in the air. They started playing a Latin American piece, which was dedicated to me. My response was in the per(form)ance of three dances by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera - the closest to their musical language that I could get to.
At this point it was me who could not help it anymore and started to ask them questions about their upbringing, their goals, hopes, dreams. I heard stories mostly about their concerts all around Guatemala introducing music as well as themselves to the people of their country.
A ten-year-old kid then got up from within the orchestra and came forward to conduct the overture from Verdi's Nabucco.
In a day filled with extraordinary highlights, there was still one moment that stood above others.
...to be continued