For the past month I have been choosing repertoire for Solid Ground, our young singers, and Safe Harbour, a small group of talented and experienced singers who will support our young singers in concerts and rehearsals. As we plan our year’s activities, we will need music that is seasonal, challenging, inspiring, and most of all, fun. Fun is built into the El Sistema philosophy. Gustavo Dudamel is El Sistema’s most famous graduate. He is a world-renowned conductor, having come through the system in Venezuela in a small community program where he began by playing second violin in the orchestra. Now Dudamel is the highly–acclaimed conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

Gustavo Dudamel Photo by: Chris Christodoulou
Gustavo Dudamel
Photo by: Chris Christodoulou

In speaking about the El Sistema philosophy, Dudamel once told an American audience, “We start by making sure that each child feels like an asset, because they don’t come in feeling like that. And we make sure that we never forget fun” (Booth, 2009).

In May of this year, Barb Henderson (our president), Deborah Henderson (our string specialist) and myself went to visit the El Sistema program in Toronto, run by David Visentin. We saw children move through a series of classes that began after school at 4 pm and ended at 6:15 pm. I watched a group of children move from a string class to a choir class, to a drumming class—each lasting 40 minutes. Throughout this time the children were engaged, listening attentively, having fun. At one point, the string instructor (David Visentin) spoke with the class to tell them that they could miss rehearsal to go on a class trip next week. One 11-year-old child put up her hand and said, “I’m not going on that trip, I’m coming here”. Three other students said “me too”, “same here”. As observers, we listened in amazement. It was clear that these young string players were committed to their learning.

Last week I spent many hours researching repertoire for Safe Harbour. It’s tricky because the singers are just forming now. We have SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). My intention is that we will come together for a short rehearsal time—say six to eight weeks or less, depending on the requirements of the music. That means that we are looking for experienced choral singers who can sight-read, learn music quickly, and work together easily for expressive, creative singing.

My hope is that Safe Harbour will be an inspiration to our younger singers. Throughout the year, Safe Harbour will perform with Solid Ground (our young El Sistema choirs and drumming groups), take a break, then come back together again. My hope is that Safe Harbour will be ambassadors for our young musicians: a shining example of what can happen with fine singing, exceptional community, and concentrated effort.

One pedagogy of El Sistema is that great music is revisited many times in a singer’s lifetime. In his article about El Sistema, Eric Booth said,

Revisiting of pieces over the years deepens and enriches the performers’ understanding and expression, and supports their self-assessment of accomplishment because they can viscerally appreciate how much mastery [the older performers] have gained. Students grow up personally, artistically, socially, and spiritually inside that piece (Booth, 2009).

This is an exciting idea to me. There are so many beautiful gems in the choral literature. In early June of this year, Shannon and I did demonstration classes using a fun piece by Canadian composer Stephen Hatfield. We will continue rehearsing this song, and add repertoire that inspires, challenges, and makes learning fun. We have a piece for choir and bucket drumming called The Beat Of A Different Drum, by Canadian composer Sarah Quartel. Because we will be singing with the internationally acclaimed Finnish choral-rock-star group Rajaton in May 2014, we will learn a song called Ihme Ja Kumma. And let’s not forget the campfire favourite Fish and Chips and Vinegar (don’t throw your junk in my backyard…). Some Praetorius, Bach—so many choices!

Our first formal performance will be Sunday, December 1, at Victoria Hall. Before that, we will create opportunities for small performances: singing for school classes, interested visitors, whatever we can think of that will help the singers become comfortable singing for an audience.

Music has been ordered. We are inviting singers to participate.

One step at a time.

– Posted by Marie