Prior to arriving in Colombia this past summer, I had numerous preconceived ideas of what to expect based on my previous trips to Venezuela. Given their proximity on the map, similar heritage, and testimonies by numerous visitors, I came away from my three-week trip realizing that Colombia was a country headed in a very different direction from its neighbor, both in their development of society and El Sistema.
With tourism thriving and a rough history with drugs mostly in its past, each of the four cities I visited in Colombia were unique. I packed for weather ranging from 40—90 degrees as the changes in climate and landscape were as diverse as the Sistema-inspired programs I visited.
My trip started in Medellin, a very large city bustling with traffic, mountainous views, perfect temperatures, and stunning properties. The youth instrumental programs in Medellin are run by an organization called La Red, which serves students in over 30 neighborhoods and schools throughout the city. Funded by the city government, the program serves both affluent and underserved areas—a unique concept in Medellin, where lots of effort has been placed on equalizing the playing field between residents with a varied levels of income. I was introduced to two schools in La Red by two of my former Boston colleagues, Rebecca Levi (Sistema Fellow ’10) and Claudia Garcia. When visiting the programs, we witnessed a less intense, but more creative approach to music making. Each program showcases a different type of ensemble, caters to all ages, and also provides instruction in music literacy. For instance, In Claudia’s nucleo, a theatre teacher taught a class on how to use their body’s to communicate and build trust within an ensemble. When visiting the wind ensemble in another part of the city, the ages of the students ranged from 12—22.
After a quick vacation in the popular city of Cartagena, my next stop was Santa Marta, a warm, tropical, costal city on the Caribbean. Another former Boston colleague, Antonio Berdugo, hosted me as we spent our time hosting seminarios with students in Cajamag, a private organization that uses public funding to serve youth in the area. The music program is only a small branch of the organization, which leads to an insufficient quantity on resources, limiting their ability to grow artistically. This was a huge contrast to Venezuela’s national Sistema, which is able to offer more support and resources to their teachers, helping them improve the musical level of their program. The students in Santa Marta, of course, were fantastic to work with and displayed enthusiasm and hospitality that made rehearsals in the intense heat totally enjoyable.
The final leg of my trip was in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city situated at over 8,000ft, where the temperature stays in the 50’s year around. I had a wonderful time working with the musicians of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of Batuta, the largest music for social change organization in the country. Given their flagship status, my first instinct was to compare their Metropolitan Youth Orchestra with the leading youth orchestras in Venezuela. However, given that the organization has branches in fewer cities, focuses more on fundamental musical training rather than orchestra training, and has been around for only just over 20 years, I realized that the leading “Sistema’s” in both countries are quite distinct. The lack of one governing organization throughout the country made it more difficult to achieve the standardized resources, which has led to so much artistic success in Venezuela. However, the more localized approach to building a Sistema in each city, rather than to form a national system has yielded some flexibility is allowing for each city to have numerous organizations create their own programs and customize their approach to each community.
The difference in infrastructures in Colombia and Venezuela was certainly unexpected at first. While Venezuela has clearly invested much of its resources into developing a national system of youth orchestras that serves as many youth as possible, Colombia had a feel much closer to that of the United States and Europe--separate organizations created localized programs without much outside leadership. The clear commonality between the two South American countries was the children, who were eager, passionate, and relentless in their pursuit of music education, which instilled the joy that will motivate me to plan my next trip to South America soon.
For a video containing photos, rehearsal footage, and student testimonies from my trip to Colombia, please see the video below!
From 2013 on, this blog will serve as a photo-blog encompassing students, friends, family, and other fun life events!