Monthly Archives: September 2012

Time to get out the measuring spoons

Published Sept 2012 – 3,486 words:  A September 2012 report on El Sistema, leading to the question, where exactly might El Sistema be headed at the moment?

Many of us have just turned a sharp corner. A matter of days ago it was summer, with whatever it was that we had hoped for from the annual holiday interlude still flirtatiously, if tenuously, alive. Now we are past the middle of September: for around half the world dark nights beckon, a new cycle has begun, and it’s time to get out the measuring spoons.

So it was that I found myself staring reflectively out of my Caracas window last week, whilst – as usual – contemplating Pico Oriental’s unseen 2,700 metre drop down to the Caribbean Ocean (the other side from the picture below I’m afraid, but that’s the point), also wondering where things are headed in the year that is about to unfold.

Caracas last week

Last week inside La Sede – Caracas’s Social Action Music Centre – it was unusually quiet. The two Bolivar orchestras were still on holiday, the nucleos in Caracas were yet to reopen, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra was rehearsing in the afternoons and evenings, so that in the mornings there was only the occasional sound of a very few of Espíritu (my baroque group) rehearsing, together with sectionals for the Caracas Youth Orchestra preparing to go on tour.

Then a few days ago it was all change. The older orchestras returned, the nucleos reopened, and on Wednesday (see below), the front yard of La Sede filled with the Caracas Youth Orchestra gathering together to leave for Maiquetia airport and a tour to Italy, Russia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Austria and Germany, a tour which they are by now well into.

At the same time, the Simón Bolívar choir are on tour in New York, and as soon as both groups get back, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra prepares to leave for Europe. By that time the Sistema’s Percussion Ensemble will have been to the UK, and the Simón Bolívar String Quartet during 2012 will have been performing in Canada, Europe, and the Far East. The Brass Ensemble will be in the US, and later in the autumn Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra also head to Washington, New York and other points North American. From now until Christmas there is hardly a day without one of seven El Sistema groups on tour abroad in one continent or another, something that must surely be on the minds of Askonas Holt, the unflinching music agency charged with regularly moving these approximately one thousand people around the globe.

And then there is Maestro Abreu. Last week in Ravello Italy he announced a bilateral Italian-Venezuelan orchestra for next summer, signed concordats with the Italian Sistema delle Orchestre e Dei Cori Giovanili e Infantili d’ Italia, was given the freedom of the city of Ravello, revealed plans for the Opera Academy that no less an organisation than Milans’s La Scala is going to create with El Sistema in Venezuela, and oh yes, mentioned that in 2015 he will bring Venezuela to Milan’s Expo ’15, including the presence of some four Venezuelan orchestras (including the hotly anticipated Venezuelan National Children’s Orchestra) and two choirs to include the famous White Hands chorus. And that is just the news from the opening days of the current tour. A talk by him at Carnegie Hall in New York on December 8th recently went on sale. It’s probably sold out by now. Between now and then who knows what reordering and development of the musical world will be heralded by his remarkable peregrinations and their attendant announcements.

These happenings are of course merely one part of a continuous array of action that has occurred throughout the Sistema world during the last year. My initial point then is this: the measuring spoon says it has been another astonishing year for El Sistema.

For anyone who doubts this conclusion let me briefly recapitulate just a few of these highlights. (I’m going to keep this to a few headlines or your day may be over before it has begun.) El Sistema began 2012 with the mother of all symphonic projects when Gustavo Dudamel, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed all Mahler’s symphonies, twice, once in LA and once in Caracas, including performances beamed into cinemas around the world, and eventually some of it committed to disc. In Caracas El Sistema marshalled 1800 young Venezuelans to play for – and bring tears to the eyes of – the stalwart Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians. In the same month El Sistema signed separate concordats with South Korea and the New England Conservatory.

Between May and June a bi-national orchestra of 160 Norwegian and Venezuelan musicians, performed side by side at the Bergen Festival and in the Norway Academy of music, Oslo, the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble also sharing a concert with the Norwegian National Brass Band.

And then as part of the Cultural Olympiad of the London 2012 Olympics the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra under Dudamel performed in Scotland in Raploch with the Scottish Sistema Big Noise, culminating with a major concert on the first night of Festival 2012. In London they performed as part of the Sounds Venezuela programme with a special Olympic residency and concerts in the Royal Festival Hall at London’s Southbank Centre that saw the site turned into a Venezuelan nucleo for a week, involving hundreds of young English musicians. The Simon Bolivar String quartet followed up a concert in London with a launch of their first CD. Now the autumn tours beckon.

Against this backdrop of events consider where Venezuela’s Sistema has arrived: According to figures from Venezuela, in its 37th year the programme begun by Maestro Abreu in Venezuela with 11 musicians now consists of around 400,000 children and young people studying in 286 nucleos in 23 Venezuelan states with 100 pre school orchestras, 150 children’s orchestras, and 146 youth orchestras, giving a total of 396 orchestras from a population less than a tenth the size of the USA. El Sistema is said to operate 9 special education programmes, 7 conservatoires, 20 instrument repair centres, 8 prison orchestra network programmes, 42 Venezuelan popular music groups, 22 student orchestras, 20 bands, and 342 choral groups.

And although Venezuelan soloists have yet to make big inroads abroad, the crop of new conductors is doing exactly that, with a growing number of musical directorships and chief guest positions: Dudamel in LA, Diego Matheuz in Venice’s La Fenice Opera House and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and Christian Vasquez with the Gävle Symfoniorkester and the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. To this could be added Rafael Payare winning a conducting competition in Denmark, and other conductors such as Joshua Dos Santos and Manuel López-Gómez slowly but surely establishing themselves on the international circuit.

El Sistema has also advanced plans to establish seven national music centres which will bring state of the art performance, recording, rehearsal and practice facilities within reach of every part of the country.

The first centre – La Sede referred to above – has already been operating in Caracas for a number of years, but work has just begun (left) on a massive extension to La Sede, with construction on both sides of the building going on which will provide larger concert halls and more facilities.

Of course all of the happenings that I have so far mentioned (with the exception of the development of the national centres) are really just the icing on the cake. No, really. The really profound achievements are the steady regular improvements to the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Sistema children and young people in the regular programmes throughout Venezuela, the sort of thing I see whenever I walk into or work in a nucleo in Venezuela. So this year’s progress – a progress which I am only just touching on then – is I believe, to underuse an overused word, humongous. So that’s it then, end of article.

Not quite. For in the annals of Sistema history I don’t believe that 2012 will be remembered for any of these events, wonderful and extraordinary though many of them undoubtedly were. No, something else will I believe take centre stage in the history books: and it is not, unusually, a matter of what the Venezuelans did, as much as what they caused others to do. Because 2012 will I believe come to be seen as the tipping point in the process of the adoption of El Sistema around the world. It is time then, to get out the second measuring spoon, and look at the emerging burgeoning international development of El Sistema around the globe.

The first event I will mention was the ‘Take a Stand’ conference in Los Angeles that coincided with the previously mentioned Mahler Project. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bard College and Longy School of Music had recently formed a new Masters course in Sistema teaching, providing a significant addition to LA’s Sistema activity, and complementing the work of the YOLA nucleos. To celebrate this launch, the ongoing Mahler project, and to take the temperature on (mainly USA) Sistema work outside of Venezuela, hundreds of delegates from several continents gathered in LA.

Hardly had this finished when the New England Conservatory announced an extension to its Sistema Fellows Programme as well as a new batch of Fellows for 2012-13. And elsewhere in the US more Sistema training courses are springing up. OrchKids in Baltimore and YOURS in Chicago (partnering with North Park University) are some of the latest examples of this. The USA Sistema movement itself has taken some interesting strides this year with the formation of a national association composed of dozens of Sistemas (there are currently around 55 Sistemas in the US), the very recently named National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programmes. In August the action moved north with a Sistema Teacher and Leader Conference held by New Brunswick Youth Orchestra and Sistema New Brunswick, with participants from Canada, the USA and Venezuela.

But new Sistemas and ideas for new Sistemas have been springing up all year. Armenia, Greece, Malta are some examples in Europe. The Chilean Sistema is now working through the schools system. In Asia the Korean Sistema has expanded its activities following its new agreement with El Sistema in Venezuela, and Sistema Japan took a huge step forward with an international conference and launch in the Fukashima area north of Tokyo that was so devastated in the tsunami and nuclear leak last year.

And all the time Sistemas are visiting each other, learning from each other and planning together. At Southbank Centre’s Festival of the world in June, coinciding with the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, a day devoted to the idea that art can change the world included a session bringing together Sistema Directors from Brazil, Columbia, the US, Canada, England, Scotland and Sweden. A story board (below) recorded the discussion:

Whether it is Sistema New Zealand’s recent trip to Europe, a set of Danish schools on a fact finding mission, the Kenyan Youth Orchestra looking at how it can employ Sistema techniques, the Director of the Guatemalan Sistema on a sabbatical in Europe, the Iraqi National Youth Orchestra working with In Harmony Sistema England’s Julian Lloyd Webber, the Czech Republic Harmonie project basing itself on In Harmony Sistema England whilst the other Czech Sistema visited Big Noise in Scotland, or the Turkish Sistema one of a number Sistemas about to visit Caracas, there are now regular joined up Sistema conversations going on right across the globe.

Then there are the non Sistema organisations wanting to become more knowledgeable about, and work with, Sistemas: ECHO (The European Concert Halls Association), The RSA (Royal Society for the Arts), ICO (The east European I, Culture Orchestra), The Institute of Education, the British Council, a Swedish media training course: these are just a few of the organisations that I personally have met with to discuss international El Sistema work in the last few months.

As a blunt overall measure, a couple of weeks ago I had cause to send someone a list of the countries where I had had contact with Sistemas or Sistema inspired activity during the last year. I put down the following, in no particular order: Scotland, England, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Armenia, Bosnia, Slovakia, Rumania, Turkey, Malta, Greece, the Czech Republic, Russia, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Columbia, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, The Republic of Congo (though I think there may also be interesting things happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda, South Africa, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Japan. And there are another dozen projects in different countries I would have liked, but did not have the time to be in touch with. Meanwhile I note that this blog has been accessed by people in 70 countries, people, presumably, who have only done so since they are interested in El Sistema developments. This is not evidence of a 25 hour a day work pattern on my behalf, but the sheer number of people and places focusing on El Sistema projects in their own backyards.

Of course of the list I have just given you, not all the projects are classical Venezuelan Sistemas. Some like the USA, Colombia and Italy are huge, (as I have mentioned there are dozens of different Sistemas or Sistema inspired organisations in the USA, and Colombia has over 20,000 students), whereas some, like Iraq and Afghanistan, are not really Sistemas as much as music schools and youth orchestras for the most underprivileged, that happen to operate with most of the principles and quite a few of the practices of El Sistema. And some are no more than nascent ideas, like the lady who is determined to start a Sistema in Russia, or musician Gabriel Prokofiev who is intent on starting one in Congo-Brazzaville, whilst in Bulgaria there is a group that probably don’t even know that what they are doing is essentially like a Sistema. But most of the examples are the classical sort that we would recognise from the work in Venezuela.

But it is not simply a matter of individual Sistemas or new Sistema training programmes. The new word on the block is ‘networks’. I mentioned above the new National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired programmes in the US. Another major new Sistema network, one that I have been involved in setting up, is in the new hot spot in Sistema formation, Europe. Sistema Europe was launched in February 2012, and whilst it currently has eleven member countries, I would estimate from current relationships, that that number will soon be around 25. That’s getting on for a significant proportion of the continent. One of the members of Sistema Europe, Superar Austria, is in the midst of putting together a European Union (EU) application for a cross Sistema project on the Roma who live in several European countries, whilst another EU application is linking Canada’s and Europe’s Sistemas in an application. In England the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) is beginning to look at the question of international research networks. And in July a special interest group composed of 15 nations gathered as part of the ISME International Society for Music Education’s 30th World Conference for Music Education in Thessaloniki to investigate, and share knowledge and practice of El Sistema.

Another flavour of the growing storm of network activity is given by the newly established Sistema Global network, the labour of Glenn Thomas from San Diego. It currently exists as a LinkedIn group and a Facebook page, and is beginning to become the place where international Sistema news can regularly be found. Then there is the Ensemble magazine, produced for the American Sistemas by Sistema author Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth, one of the El Sistema movement’s greatest teacher teacher. Mention should also be made of Jonathan Govias’ blog (more about that below). Glenn Thomas, writing in the Ensemble magazine earlier this year, cast an eye over the international development I have alluded to here: he estimated the current number of children and young people in Sistema inspired work worldwide to be around one million. And climbing.

So what does all this mean, and where is it all going?

Well before we get to that, it’s worth mentioning that there are of course some naysayers. And apart from them, there are also Sistema supporters like Jonathan Govias, a key Sistema thinker precisely because of his naturally doubting, sceptical and anti-bullshit mindset, who often like to put the cat amongst the Sistemas when people get unthinkingly over-enthusiastic about El Sistema. Leon Botstein, an intimidatingly muscular intelligence if ever there was one, gave a remarkable talk at the Take a Stand conference in January, cautioning too much blind belief in the possibility of the USA being able to be a copy of El Sistema. He said, if I have got this right (I can’t seem to find the video of the talk on the LA website anymore: can anyone help?), that El Sistema is not a movement. Well Mr. Botstein, I respectfully but avowedly disagree. That’s exactly what I would say it is. And the evidence is forming before our eyes, popping out with real speed and vigour. Imperfect, sometimes a pale emulation of what has happened in Venezuela, but definitely on the move.

Of course, many people have been saying for quite a long time that it won’t work ‘here’, where ‘here’ means anywhere that is not Venezuela. Others doubt that it has really been conclusively shown to work even in Venezuela. Of these, Geoff Baker, in a recent blog is the most interesting I have come across.  Whilst I disagree with much of what he alleges about the supposed presence in El Sistema of a continuing cultural imperialism, and also his analysis of the Venezuelan politics of Maestro Abreu and President Chavez, he makes good points about the evidence base, and in particular the state of the Inter American banks evaluation reports. And the El Sistema movement really needs serious critics like him to pull us up from some of the more intense bouts of hysteria.( I prophesies that the moment we will realise that will be when his book about El Sistema is eventually published).

Another area of concern could be one that Dan Trahey from Baltimore and I discussed in an almost chance encounter in the Alba Hotel in Caracas earlier this year: dilution. As the attraction of starting a Sistema increases so perhaps do the number of people saying, ‘Oh I’ve started one’ when they have either done nothing of the sort, or taken such a watered down approach to what constitutes El Sistema that in practice it’s just a very ordinary project dressed up with the slogan ‘Kind of Made in Venezuela’. As Sistema travels it must, for sure, adapt, but the devil is in the detail, and we need to keep asking when adaption becomes an excuse for just doing what we have been doing for years, but changing the name on the tin to an increasingly marketable ‘El Sistema’

And so the debates continue. And should. But whatever else happens in the last few months of the year I believe that one thing is certain, and that is that 2012 will be seen as the tipping point for an apparently inexorable international development of El Sistema. Yesterday I had a meeting with the Worshipful Company of Musicians in the UK to discuss an Honorary Fellowship I have been offered for 2012-13 to further work I have been doing on El Sistema. We discussed the options. International development won hands down, and not simply because it was my vote. Then today it was off to the Royal Society for the Arts to discuss a joint project proposal: agreed item, the international development of El Sistema. In two days time I travel to Vienna for a concert by the Caracas Youth Orchestra, but the big meeting will be Sistema Europe and a batch of new applicants. Next week the British Council to look at international networks. And so it goes on.

And with that I suggest that you put away your measuring spoons for another year and start thinking instead about what part you are going to play in this development. If you want help, it’s very much a ‘ just ask’ scenario with El Sistema, such are the number of places that new enthusiasts can be pointed and directed to. My e mail address on this blog can be relied on to serve as a start whoever or wherever you are, but with people like Glenn Thomas, Eric Booth and Jonathan Govias around it’s hardly the only one. And it’s not as if you hadn’t been warned. As a blog article earlier this year announced: Not hopped on the bus yet? You better get going. ‘Nuff said.


Scotland: “We look in awe at what the Venezuelans have achieved, and get back to rehearsing”

Published September 2012 – 29 words

A great story in the UK Guardian about the potential, but frankly inevitable, development of Big Noise Sistema Scotland. Mark their words: the die is cast throughout the country.

Fireworks in Stirling as Dudamel and the Venezuelans bring down the Big Concert in June 2012

Baltimore Orchkids job opening

Published September 2012 – 107 words

The Baltimore OrchKids program has an interesting position open in their newest nucleo, as Site Coordinator. This position will work closely with Dan Trahey in shaping and advancing the program in a predominately Latin American neighborhood. The Site Coordinator will also have the opportunity to work with YOURS Founding Member, Kassandra Lord as she takes OrchKids 3rd nucleo into it’s maturity as the 1st year of its after-school program. This opening is ideal for anyone interested in being immersed and closely mentored in the El Sistema movement from every aspect of this work including artistic direction, teaching artistry, public relations, child management,fundraising and community building. Details here.


Opportunity Knocks: calling all Latin American Sistema musicians

Published September 2012

Calling all Latin American performing musicians with direct experience of El Sistema and a hunger to be paid to study in the US. What? Yes, you did hear that right: A full-tuition scholarship is being offered by North Park University, partnering with the YOURS Project, for a LatinAmerican student to come and study in Chicago, USA and work with the YOURS Project.

The YOURS Project, Chicago, USA

This sounds like a great way to be paid to travel, learn, improve your English and use your expertise. By the way, you may be wondering why I’m writing this in English. Answer: you need good basic English to take advantage of the offer. Want to know more?  Have a look at the details in this PDF which explains the background and application procedure. These offers don’t come along everyday. Piensa bien!

Rita Simo Full Tuition Scholarship in Music background and Application Process

New Blog Listing

Published September 2012

Possibly small news for the world, but big news for anyone wanting to look for a past blog on this site: there is a new blog archive page listing all the blogs from this site in a way that you will hopefully find clear. Have a go here! or click on the NEW BLOG ARCHIVE menu above.

Bienvenidos a Venezuela …

Published September 2012. This is a blog version of an article written for the Strad Magazine in summer 2012 about the work of El Sistema’s first specialised baroque ensemble, commissioned as part of the magazine’s August issue dedicated to Latin America. 


It began innocently enough. In the interval of a concert in Manchester in early February 2011, Eduardo Mendez, Executive Director of El Sistema, took me by the arm and intoned, deliberately yet quietly, “Maestro wants you to start a baroque orchestra in Venezuela”. His words were uttered in that soft yet persuasive manner that characterises much of El Sistema’s communication, very different from the clichéd image of Simón Bolívar mambo madness. For years Maestro José Antonio Abreu – founder, director and godfather of the Venezuelan Sistema, and whom I have known since the late 1970s – had mentioned to me his interest in bringing baroque music in depth to Venezuela. Around 2006, whilst CEO of the OAE, I had begun a proposal for a partnership with Venezuela to do just that but then I moved to Southbank Centre and the idea fell dormant. Now it had returned.

In a way there was nothing surprising about the request. As El Sistema had developed from its humble but committed beginnings in 1975 it increasingly began to expand its work into new areas of music making. From the Venezuelan Brass and Percussion Ensembles to prison orchestras, from ‘paper’ orchestras for three year olds to a national instrument repair centre, and festivals dedicated to almost every instrument of the orchestra, El Sistema’s voracious hunger knew no bounds in its desire to develop into new areas. It was natural therefore that at a certain point the Venezuelans would want to absorb for themselves the lessons of the period instrument movement of the last half century, no matter the complexities of accomplishing such an aim in a culture so apparently far removed from European period instrument ideas. There would be doubters. As one hugely respected director of an internationally renowned orchestra put it when I discussed the invitation with them, ‘are you sure the baroque approach will work with the Venezuelans?’ Well that sounded like a decent challenge. I agreed almost immediately, with no thought whatsoever for the practicalities.

So it was that I found myself, almost exactly six months later, sitting in splendid isolation in Venezuela’s Maiquetia International Airport customs office, explaining to a baffled official why I was carrying 54 baroque bows commissioned from a company half way around the world called ‘Brijwoo an Nicer’ (that’s ‘Bridgewood & Nietzert’ for the rest of us). They had never seen anything like it. This two hour ordeal – actually the customs people were incredibly polite, even if they did in the end keep the bows for about a week – was just the first of a number of hurdles that required constant jumping practice in order to get the project going.

One reason I was interested in this project was because of my experience of the Venezuelan string playing tradition. During the 1970s, after a spell in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, I had been concertmaster of a Venezuelan orchestra and a professor with El Sistema’s first youth orchestra, and during the intervening period I had regularly heard Venezuelan Youth Orchestras performing in dozens of concerts in several continents. Their string playing style derives almost exclusively from one violinist, a lovely player called José Francisco del Castillo with whom I had worked in the 1970s. A beautiful player actually, but because so many hundreds of thousands of young players learnt so quickly within the Sistema, many ended up without his refinement, but instead with rather horizontal angular bow arms. Speed group learning, fast wide intense constant vibrato, and huge orchestral string sections meant that the true sound of the string players was often hidden. So I had an immediate aspiration: giving a group of Sistema players baroque bows and leading them away from constant vibrato and a continuously intense but monotone sound, a route – I hoped – to getting them to phrase with the right rather than left arm, and to thereby discover new sounds, a new aesthetic, a new world even.

People have asked me, what was the ultimate aim of the work? Well about a month after agreeing to the venture I worked up a five year plan with aims and objectives and mapped out projects. I showed this to Abreu. He looked at it, and when we next met he placed it on the table between us and said kindly, “maestro, I want you to start a baroque orchestra in Venezuela”. This perhaps needs translating. It has been said, and rightly I think, that for the Venezuelans the planning is the doing, rather than as in Europe and the US, where futures are often so excessively mapped out in advance that reality can become something that fights with, rather than supports, the plan. The aim, was to set up an orchestra. The rest would follow naturally. Bienvenidos a Venezuela.

Eventually I agreed that I would go out to Venezuela once every two months for a few weeks at a time and initially work in two different ways. One idea was to establish a small string group with whom I and colleagues from Europe could work in real detail and focus, and a second area of activity in which the Venezuelans could send me anywhere they liked throughout the country – from the Andes to the Orinoco, and as far as the borders of the Caribbean, Brazil and Colombia if that was what they wanted – to spread the word about what wonderful baroque repertoire exists, and to get as many people as possible, from young starters to experienced players, performing it. (Remember El Sistema currently has getting on for 400,000 young players spread throughout the country in more than 200 local nucleo centres). In addition I now also sometimes work with the Caracas Youth Orchestra on larger scale symphony sized projects. In this article, however, I am going to concentrate on describing my journey in the last eight months with the first of these activities, describing how we have begun to put together a new group of dedicated string players, and introducing them, bang in the middle of the New World, to the sound of the old. Welcome to the world of Espíritu Barroco Venezolano.

Espíritu in October 2011 (above), and then (right) in April 2012

OK. It was pretty chaotic to begin with. Any of you who have tried to set up a new group will recognise the symptoms. The players were not quite sure what was going on or what the end result would be; it was not at all clear how any of the busy rehearsal and study schedules of the students could be made to fit with a new programme of work (students often go to university in the morning and rehearse in the afternoons). It was also not clear who was administrating, how the work related to their current teachers, how the precious bows would be distributed, to whom the orchestra reported, where the piles of music I was bringing across the Atlantic could be kept, who actually was being asked to play, where rehearsals would be, what sort of keyboard instruments existed, and exactly (did I say exactly?) what budget was available, or indeed, let’s be honest, how any of these decisions would in fact get made. Oh yes, and my plane ticket might arrive a couple of days before flying if I was lucky. There is a moment that returns a number of times in the film Shakespeare in Love when Geoffrey Rush is asked a succession of questions about how a diverse list of things will actually come to pass. ‘It’s a mystery’ is his constant reply as he shakes his head and looks in the direction of heaven, then simply walking off camera to get on with things. I know how he felt.

It had always been my plan to begin with baroque bows and modern instruments and modern strings. I wanted to catch the interest of players with what a baroque bow can do before they might lose interest due to the added difficulty of using gut strings and no chin rest or (for the ‘cellos) spikes to anchor the instrument to the ground, or indeed get put off by the idea that they needed to change to become ‘authentic’ performers. For the future we will see, but this is not a project about making echt baroque players; it is rather a method of introducing a new way of producing sound into El Sistema’s world, together with playing the extraordinary repertoire of the baroque period. I would rather spread a way of playing that can sail happily through the whole country than create just one great string baroque orchestra dependent on a constant supply of gut strings, an approach I think is much more in sympathy with El Sistema, and indeed with the whole Latin American attitude to life. So it’s not about creating new boundaries between old music and new, old techniques and new, but, as in Europe, it is about relearning and refinding string techniques that got lost in the post French Revolution rush, traditions that got trampled by the new music making of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Eventually we agreed to work with players from the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, an orchestra of the best 17 to 25 year olds nationally (the next age group down from the more famous Simón Bolívar ‘B’ Symphony Orchestra that tours with Gustavo Dudamel) adding in a few players with actual baroque ‘gut string’ experience from the oldest of the Sistema orchestras, the Simón Bolívar ‘A’ Symphony Orchestra. The Ensemble numbers just over twenty.

Boris Paredes leading Espíritu.

The two or three older experienced players, mainly in their thirties, are a great boon. They already know the baroque ‘language’ and can carry on the work with the younger players both when I am and am not in Venezuela.

Espíritu Barroco Venezolano at the Social Action Music Centre in Caracas where we rehearse.

When I am around in Caracas, the players get a combination of lessons and ensemble rehearsals, and I also encourage the players to discuss things via Facebook, and to listen to recordings and to search, watch and listen on platforms such as Youtube, with its unbelievable quantity of performers and repertoire at everyone’s disposal for free. We have also begun a series of informal concerts and joint play throughs in different Caracas nucleos, spreading the word, performing for and then playing together with nucleo children of all ages. In this way the work of Espíritu can begin to filter out to everyone in El Sistema.

David France, who has just graduated as a Sistema Fellow from the New England Conservatory, came along to one of the nucleo days in April, and ambushing me with a video camera recorded a short piece of Youtubevideo that pretty accurately catches the – how shall I put this – informality of it all (See the picture below of another visit, this time to the 23 de Enero Nucleo, and a quick lesson in a corridor complete with Yeniree as impromptu music stand).

So far we have done a couple of informal concerts. There has also been talk of Espiritu playing with the Teresa Carreño when they are on tour, but actually we’re in no hurry. This is a slow burn project. Next year we will begin to add wind players and have outside directors. Then the instrument question will become more tricky.

I guess the big questions from other musicians however are likely to be, what actually happens when you are working, what are you actually trying to teach, and what specific changes, if any, are you noticing in the players techniques and style of performance?

At the moment the most important aspects of teaching as far as I am concerned relate to the bow, particularly bow speed and shape of bow stroke. We are gradually getting away from a generic horizontal bow stroke in which pretty well all of the available bow space between heel and point is used whenever possible, thereby producing a lot of fast bow speed bulges of sound as the bow speeds between heel and point, and also a fair amount of unintended portato. As a result phrases are broken up and might only last for a quaver or crotchet, thereby bearing little relation to harmonic movement. So first we are looking at the technique of making different shapes of sound with the bow, often slowing the bow speed, not using all the available length of bow, creating different shaped often ‘curved’ bow strokes, all aimed at making the bow the servant of the harmonic movement, and particularly for the upper strings who so often (and I am sure as a violinist I have been a guilty of this one) tend to have less knowledge of chord changes than bass line players.

Then there is the quality of sound. That means getting the bow to work into the string, but doing away with a pressed hard sound, unless it is being used for occasional particular effect, learning how to change bow so that the up bow comes out of the energy of the down bow. For this I find the analogy of a bouncing ball useful. Bounce a ball on the floor: you actually only touch it once, the touch as you pat it down being like a down bow. The ball bounces back up itself; it’s springing off the floor back up is thus like the up bow, which you don’t need to always ‘re-push’ in order to get it to go back up. This upbow accenting is even more the case where a down bow quaver on a strong beat is followed by two semi quavers up bows on a weak beat. Unless there is a harmonic need to the contrary, such up bows need to be light, but all I could hear to begin with was an unwanted accent on the two semi-quavers as the up bow ‘wizzed’ with too much bow speed and pressure.

Behind all of this is the need to relearn about hierarchy, taxis (a short explanation of taxis can be found here), strong and weak beats. I say relearn because I am sure that as children we have an instinctive understanding of this. So a bar of eight eighth notes (quavers to UK musicians) on the same note is characteristically played with the same stress on each eighth note. So now we are trying to find a way of ‘coming away’ from the strong beats, and when such a figure continues for a number of bars of playing the phrase over those bars according to the harmonic movement rather than as a brute sequence of equally stressed quavers. Taking away vibrato always helps this process; there are less places for the sound to hide.

Then we work on pitch as a harmonic device: lowering the thirds and sevenths notes of the scale so that intervals of a third are purer, and the third formed by playing the mediant and dominant is pure enough to use, using open strings for acoustic effect, beginning to play with temperament (a couple of basic explanations of what temperament are can be found at Wikipedia and a good one by Pierre Lewis), tuning open strings using chords rather than the modern string instrument practice of simply tuning perfect fifths. Tuning as a group not as individuals. In all of the techniques so far outlined, relearning to hear the harmonic movement is everything, so that both left and right hand techniques serve rather than overlay the harmonic line. As one of our former UK leaders should have said, ‘harmony, harmony, harmony …’.

Then there is a whole area related to communication and performance rhetoric which I would love to spend more time on, as well as the practical matter of introducing the players to a constant stream of new and wonderful repertoire.

I appreciate that to many teachers a lot of the ideas above will all appear as basic grammar. However I cannot overstate the amount of time that we are needing in order to really absorb such things. But before I get beyond this mere scratching the surface of what we are up to with our tropical melange of baroque bows and modern strings it might be useful to hear what some of the players themselves have to say. All of the players are products of Venezuela’s Sistema, and one thing for sure can be said about them: they are a dream to teach. Enthusiastic, endlessly joyful, hungry to learn, always willing to try a new idea no matter how bizarre it seems. There seems to be nowhere they won’t let you try to take them. And when harpsichordist Roger Hamilton and ‘cellist Robin Michael came with me on my first trip in October 2011, alongside their blistering enjoyment of everyone’s enthusiasm was their amazement at the speed of learning. My experience is that it is true what they say about El Sistema; on the ground I find that it does seem to produce wonderful people, a social as much as a musical example.

Bass player Carlos has been fired by the experience, including its difficulties: ‘It’s wonderful to get to know this music, and even more so in such a detailed and beautiful way. I maybe thought that this music was boring, but now seeing even a little of how great it is I love it! Beforehand I thought that one would not need to study much to play it well; but in reality it is quite the contrary. It’s a new and difficult technique to learn, but the good thing is that after studying it in this way I see and understand that it helps me with all the [different] styles, and music in general’. Violinist Karem Silva agrees with the broad benefits of the process, ‘I think it is essential for my musical education to learn to play baroque music in this style, and I enjoy getting to know a style that I was ignorant of. I hope that in the long term, apart from introducing the baroque style into my solo repertoire, that Espiritu Barroco will become a real entity of El Sistema’s orchestras, and we will be able to take it to the nucleos.

Jonás Villegas, bass player stresses the work on the bow arm, ‘what I like about this way of learning is that it helps us to play musically not just with the left hand but also with the right hand … you have to sometimes play really lightly and keep a lot of control of the bow. I hope we can develop this style more, and expand it throughout Venezuela.’ But let us end with violinist Anaïs Ribera Esteves. ‘One of my favourite composers is Bach, a real baroque composer. I believe that his music is the nearest to God, because it is capable of moving you in a solo movement of a sonata, partita, suite; it achieves completeness, peace, serenity. … but for me it is necessary to play this music as it was in this period, because if not, one loses its sense. I hope that Espíritu Barroco Venezolano can become a really specialised baroque group, with a good formation and regular concerts, and with a cultural exchange with specialists’.

Meanwhile the contest of zestful joyful Venezuelan musicality and semi chaotic ingenius invention continues. Want to know where will we be with this project a year from now? Search me. Bienvenidos a Venezuela.