Saturday morning, 7:20am, quiet streets, the bright little square around the church was already getting lively for the service. After an early breakfast in the morning light on my small balcony, I walk to the quiet subway. On the way to "Acevedo" station, half an hour by metro towards Niquía, the otherend of the metro line about 20 km into the valley. There I meet Dario, Derk's socio, who is another music friend of Maite Hontelé. Dario and Derk have set up Movimiento Manglar and work together with the Caminos Foundation.
We board the Metrocable (a kind of ski lift) and we fly up the mountainside to Santo Domingo. The city is getting smaller, and meanwhile we are doing a quick introduction of our music experience, education, passion for music and social work, education, accompanied by the impressive views. We cross the chaotic, steep and noisy street to jump into a bus, which artfully balances its way up the deep ditch. Everything creaks like crazy, we rock back and forth on the low plastic bus seats, buses and cars maneuver around, past, above and under each other on the small strip of asphalt. The energy and streetscape here are distinctly different from downtown. It is rougher, but also more authentic. Some roads seem to drive straight into the sky, we pass colorful dilapidated houses, many children on the street and regularly a dog near the fried chicken stalls, and after an exciting twenty minutes we arrive at the school of the Caminos Foundation. The musical day may begin.
The school has wide views over the valley, is surrounded by grass and floweryplants, and on the right I see a concrete soccer field. A foundation for "non-formal" activities, they have a cabinet full of prizes from football tournaments - one of the school's focal points - and provide extracurricular classes in English, music, andjournalism, among others. Upstairs, the music lesson begins, as children slowly join in.
Twins of about eight years old also come in, they are new but are allowed to join right away under the condition of Dario's three rules: Discipline (good behavior), Assistance (also during the weekday classes), and performing the Exercises. The twins nod and they immediately explain the rules to the next new student. Everyone grabs a chair, and the class begins with Body rhythm exercises, where they use their own legs as a kind of drum kit to tap different rhythms together. Meanwhile, some music theory is explained, and the group splits up between three older students who have been chosen as mentors. There is quite a bit of chaos and a lot of laughter, especially for the more difficult rhythm on the right side of the board. Mauricio, the other music teacher walks in, and slowly the kids (between around 7-16 years old)
get the hang of the idea of the assignment. Then there's Mike, with Down's Syndrome, who at first seems very angry and stomps past me, but eventually opens up friendly towards the new twins. His mother watches from the side, and Dario laterexplains that despite his lack of knowledge with these types of students, he still tries to get everyone to join the group. After an hour we walk through the football field to a new house under construction at the back of the site: A music studio in the open air.
Guitars, percussion, amplifiers, cables and two electric pianos are carried along, and via a short steep grassy path we reach the floor under construction. Everyone is enthusiastic, Mike is in love with his guitar, chairs are positioned and Dario introduces me as a piano teacher from the Netherlands, from Europe, a continent with a lot of musical development, history and discipline. Lots of big eyes looking at me.
Well, how do you do that? Giving piano lessons to a group of about 15 children,some of whom are ten years apart in age and level. The piano is a plastic keyboard with 66 keys (not the full 88), children know different instruments, only with Spanish terminology of course, and also only learn in the Do-Re-Mi system, while I always learnt by letters (from the middle C key). I start by asking what they already know
about the piano. How many keys does the piano have? How are you going to sit behind it? How do you hold your hand? What is a scale, how do you play it? A twin sister in the front row has already had some lessons, and knows that when walking scales you walk your thumb under the middle finger. At first glance, the knowledge of the class goes about that far; the children are shy, but with focused interest. I explain that you can hold your hand as if you were picking up an orange - that's how my teacher used to teach me - and hold my hand in the air like an upside-down bowl. I also briefly tell them who Chopin is (here they say "Chopien"), and that he once said that you should actually move your hand like an octopus; strong, flexible, relaxed and not cramped, and each finger/tentacle as an independent instrument. They nod, smiling but a little dazed. "So your hand is like a fish in water, it can swim wherever it wants" - or something like that I pop out. It is also quite entertaining to observe how this lesson develops - I had prepared some ideas, but it soon became purely question and answer with the students.
After that we walk the scales on our legs, because there is not the time and spacefor all children to feel the instrument. I play some more chords and tell them how useful they are to accompany playing together, like in a band, and the children nod a bit and seem satisfied, but they also seem to lose their attention a bit. Of course it's also bizarre to have music lessons with such a distance, without every student having their own instrument - but this is of course my perspective on how you learn music. How different is this experience from those luxury pianos on which I gave private lessons to students in Amsterdam South... Although those children did not all have a pleasant home situation, the environmental factors could not have been more contrasting. Interesting to think about, because many of the things I improvised in those lessons in Amsterdam come in handy here: conveying enthusiasm for the piano, focusing on posture when playing, trying out, and most of all encouraging to practice at home and to have fun - it remains a universal language.
The group splits up, the wind instruments join Mauricio, the percussion with Daniel(one of the mentors) - to the drum kit about 5 meters away from the keyboard, and four girls stay with me with the piano. Dario circulates to keep an eye on things. It takes some yelling and listening carefully to weave the piano lesson through the drumming, but I get used to the noise and the girls don't even seem to hear it. We
practice some scales, chord exercises, and luckily the twins have a keyboard at home. A younger girl has never played before, and the girl from the drum kit is trying to produce a scale with full concentration. We calmly focus on a straight back, both legs on the floor, shoulders relaxed, and I try to help them relax a bit more behind the instrument. Then I encourage them to mentally sing along with their playing. "Piano
is like a song of our fingers", I explain, and immediately things improve! I hear the youngest humming along the scale and it sounds smoother, exactly the purpose of the remark. A little ‘Eureka’ moment that always makes a lesson worthwhile, but even more so in these circumstances.
Then they ask if I know "Para Elise". After some frowning I get it: they want to hear"Für Elise". After a quiet start I stop at the first chord and ask if they recognize it. "La menor!" They rejoice. Indeed, A minor, one of the easiest chords on the piano whichthey already had in their repertoire. Connecting Beethoven with pop music always works well to enthuse young students. We talk about the context of the music, I tell them that the piece is written as a kind of love letter, and tell them that the piano should always be played with love, especially this kind of romantic music. For example, with the intention of telling their mother something sweet. To my surprise, I immediately hear one of the girls play some notes and softly say something along the lines of "Ma-ma-te-quiero" (Mommy I love you) as she plays some keys in an
upward direction. They pick up all kinds of tips and ideas very quickly, even though the concentration sometimes seems chaotic. When we finish the lesson, Dario comes to ask how it goes and asks them to thank "Profe Maite". The twins promise to practice at home, and one of their friends will come over to play with them. The youngest actually plays clarinet and is already running around - she actually does a
different instrument every week, says Dario with a grin. The kids run home for lunch, and we get a fresh meal from the school cook - with a vegetarian option!
Mauricio joins us, we talk about music education, Barcelona, and about possibleteaching methods to develop different levels with the students, to offer the talents at the school some real growth opportunities. Then Dario and I walk into the village, the neighborhood is called "Bello Oriente" and consists of clusters of busy houses, streets, steep green hills and large regional buses that connect that network. We get coffee in a plastic cup, I can go to the toilet behind the bakery, which also turns out to be the toilet of that family - there is a toothbrush next to the sink. Dario talks about the context of these students. The mentors are selected by talent and age, and receive a mini-salary to give music lessons to the little ones a few times a week, and therefore really participate in the music school; a similar system to the school I saw earlier in Urrao. They don't get the salary if they don't practice well and teachdiligently - that's how they get a little experience with the idea of 'working for money'.
Then we talk about one of the oldest students, enormously talented, but with a difficult story. There are many situations like this, I am told: growing up without parents, placements out of the home, violence, life on the street, drug problems, in the absence of safe home situations and with lacking prospects for the future. The music is then really a powerful hold for these students. We continue talking about the students he has known for a long time, and I ask if he stays in touch after classes. Occasionally, if he succeeds, he says - when the students approach him.
Recently, he witnessed again the risks of living in this environment, which theactivities of the foundation try to prevent. One of his most loyal students whom he has known for more than a decade joined the army for a time. On his return, he had developed schizophrenia, failed to show up in classes, and lied about everything. Very painful to watch, says the music master, who, as it gradually turns out, actually just runs a huge family of children with absent father figures (or so I imagine). The musician we are talking about disappeared from the map, and after a while called with all his problems, said he was kicked out of the house and lived off the streets and drugs. Later today we will meet him: he is doing a bit better, and he has tremendous musical guitar and singing talent and looks defiantly over the microphone. With full devotion he sings about love and loss, with long outbursts and occasionally closing his eyes - with the story in mind, the message hits right in the heart.
At the coffee shop before, a friendly-looking older boy walked in to greet the maestro—a friend of the other former student, and with a similarly paradoxical air of hope and desperation. He talks openly about problems with his ex-girlfriend, that he can't find direction and discipline in life, that he walks around with all kinds of worries, but that he really wants to continue with the music. On the walk back together to the school at the top of the village street, Dario gives a short pep talk about keeping direction, focusing on taking care of himself, nutrition, discipline, exercise, sports, studying theory, teaching music; that he is young and has a lot of potential that is really only to be found in himself. An improvised speech, calm and friendly but also strict, and that on the way between lunch break and band rehearsal in less than five minutes.
You can write so many theories and studies about how to deal with social inequality, youth problems, poverty and problem neighborhoods; but I suddenly feel that these are the actions that matter. To be there, on a consistent basis, listening, talking, empathizing critically and attentively with the young people, giving resistance where necessary and offering a direction. Very powerful to experience.
The afternoon is for band rehearsal. There's jamming, improvisation, a micro-Englishlesson on pronunciation of the lyrics to Beggin', a jazzy song performed with amazing sensibility by a 16-year-old musician in a leather jacket, and a number of Latin melodies accompanied by Dario. It starts to rain, the grey-green valley frames
the view from the open-air studio. They are working on rhythm, the new bass playeralready has a good groove and three of the guys take turns sharing the microphone. Impressed, I watch and see their faces change. The boy from the coffee is watching and I see him thinking. He turns to me and asks if I'm coming back. Of course, I promise. Music always gives me good thoughts, decisions and solutions, he says. His gaze falls back on the drum set and I literally feel for a moment what an excuse, and at the same time the direction of life this music resort brings the students.
The afternoon comes to an end, instruments are cleared away and they discuss thethree concerts planned for next week. An intercollegiate music competition, a performance at the Macro (supermarket chain), and a concert on the soccer field for the Saturday afternoon celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Caminos Foundation. Their eyes sparkle and it can be felt how this kind of prospect gives meaning, and they suddenly seem a lot older than they are. I promise to come and take a look next week with a banner, and wave goodbye under all kinds of impressions as we walk to the gate. On the way back, Dario and I reflect together, while enjoying the bus driver's really artistic reverse maneuvers, straight back through streets a few inches past cars parked at different angles, lively eateries and pedestrians - at dusk. We agree to schedule a next day, and also visit the other two schools, about an hour south of here in Dario's village El Carmen. He and Derk also love cycling and we will soon be combining cycling and music again - a magical duo that appears to be possible here more often, very pleasant!
On the metro ride back I sit alone and look past the city whizzing by (the metro here really is an impressive system, a kind of ultra North-to-South line, where you can see the entire cross-section of the valley.) Many thoughts, statements, faces, stories and sounds to process, and only when I get home I see in perspective how grateful I am for this day. How much remains to be done, how much is already being created, how many options there are for the future to participate in these kinds of projects, or perhaps, one day, to set them up...
(c) Maite Hes 2022.