Musical happenings and Education realities in Peru: on paper and in practice

Nelson Mandela has left us today; may people everywhere remember what he believed in, fought for and suffered through in his determination to improve the lives of his countrymen and women. He was a great man, an example to humanity.
And while it is not directly linked, today is International Volunteer Day; may volunteers and community leaders working in their own countries and abroad remember the ideals of cooperation, peace and prosperity for all behind the work they do. Few will be recognized on a worldwide level for their tireless work to help those in need, but we are all connected in spirit.

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Life has changed since the Bach concert with the chamber orchestra happened 12 days ago; without the group ensayos (rehearsals) with my fellow string players it feels like something is missing. After several months of playing together (plus sharing tastes in music, telling stories, picking on each other, laughing and of course, concentrating on our playing at rehearsals); of eating the famous Peruvian pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken); of walking through the streets of Chiclayo after rehearsals; of relaxing in a park near where we rehearsed; of going for coffee and to the movies, it feels strange not to see my musical friends regularly.
Quite frankly, I miss their company.

Since Chiclayo lacks string players, several musicians from other cities joined us the week of the concert to balance the first and second violins, add to the viola section and represent the entire cello section. Luckily, we all got along well and pulled off an excellent concert together. The auditorium was just about full, something rare for instrumental music concerts in this city, and the audience was very attentive and surprisingly quiet for Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, his Concerto for Two Violins in D minor and his Violin Concerto in E major. El Concierto Doble (for Two Violins) was the favorite of the night.

Thanks to our wonderful maestro, we had una parrillada (a barbecue) two days after the concert with the majority of us, plus a few friends, as a conclusion to the season. It was a relaxing evening with lots of genuine smiles and laughter –the best kind, where you can no longer breathe!!
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[Rewinding to the previous day] the day after the concert I went to the small city of Tumán (about 30 minutes east of Chiclayo by car) with violinists Cinthia and Luigi to a private high school where violin classes are mandatory for all entering students (Grade 7). A violinist and a violist who had played in the concert teach in Tumán and asked us after the concert if we would volunteer to give a demonstration to their Grade 7, 8 and 9 students and talk about our experiences playing the violin, mostly to inspire them and show them where years of playing an instrument can take you. Cinthia plays in La Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional Juvenil (National Symphonic Youth Orchestra in Lima) and Luigi in the Symphonic Orchestra of Piura, a city 3 hours north of Chiclayo.

The morning began with the three of us talking about our music experiences: when we began playing, what genres of music we enjoy playing, what ensembles we have played in and what we like most about playing. I tried to find the words to express the power of music, those magical moments you feel when you play in unison or harmony with others that make you feel truly alive. I also stressed that as an international language, music is an excellent way to meet wonderful people. While I didn’t give my life story, while talking to the young musicians, I thought about how lucky I have been: I began the violin in Bermuda and then took my skills with me when I moved to Canada and later took them to Mexico and France during exchange programs. Playing in orchestras and small ensembles also helped me to improve my Spanish and French and learn about the cultures of Mexico, France and now, Peru. I cannot imagine how my life would be if it were not for music.

After helping tune the students’ violins (owned by the school), Cinthia, Luigi and I were treated to a mini-concert when the students played a few of the songs they know (in unison, by memory). Many were well known Peruvian or Latino songs and they finished with (of course) Pachelbel’s Canon, although they haven’t tried playing it as a canon yet (but I’m sure they will be ready soon). Some students were visibly nervous to play in front of an audience in what is their classroom, but their nerves slowly washed away as we encouraged them along. Others had the confidence to play individually…
???????????????????????????????Next it was time for Cinthia, Luigi and myself to each play a piece for the group. Having been invited to go to Tumán at 10pm the night before, we hadn’t prepared anything special, but each chose a piece we knew by memory to interpret (Bach, Mozart and Argentinian folk music, respectively). Then we wanted to play all together and for lack of a piece for three violin voices, we decided to play Pachelbel’s Canon in three voices to show the students what they will be capable of playing if they continue practicing. It felt so wonderful to play in harmony with two violinists, people my age who I had only just met a few days before and while it would have been better to have prepared a more complex piece together, it was satisfying to be able to play a piece together in front of captivated youth without ever rehearsing it!

After about an hour of mingle time with the students to give tips and answer questions, photos were taken, and of course, email addresses and Facebook profiles were exchanged. We said hasta luego to the young violinists who seemed eager to keep in touch.
???????????????????????????????On the left is 11 year old Amanda, the daughter of the school’s founder.
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Afterwards we met the founder and head of school, a man who grew up in Tumán and decided better educational opportunities were needed in his city. Tuition is minimal in comparison to other private schools here at 140 Nuevo Soles ($53.35 CDN or $49.97 US) a month and as the founder said, he is obviously not in it for the money. Founded just three years ago, the school is named after a Spanish priest who had dedicated his life to the community and it is founded on four pillars of learning: Academic, Arts, Sports and Community Service. When I told the head  that is how my high school back home was, he seemed pleased and mentioned that Canada is one of the countries he admires in terms of education. [I would say that Canada still has much to improve, but that is another story]. He said that from what he has read, the ‘four pillar’ model is much better model than what is currently offered in most Peruvian schools. I agreed. The school system here is very academic and students generally achieve poor results for a combination of reasons including lack of access to early childhood education, lack of trained teachers, lack of adequate facilities and supplies, lack of support (such as literate parents), malnutrition and child labour. And of course, a lack of opportunities to develop skills in other areas, which end up overlapping with the skills to succeed academically.

It turns out the OECD Program for International Assessment (PISA) was just released…

PISA1PISA2(To see the full article from the Guardian click here.)

…and while I was not happy to see how Peru ranked (65th out of 65 participating countries), the survey confirms that the homework help programs offered by Centro Esperanza, not to mention the variety of other skill development programs we offer, are indeed needed. I am not much of a fan of standardized tests such as the PISA because they do not tests many useful life skills, ones that often cannot be tested on paper. And one could question how culturally sensitive they are or how the types of questions asked favour students in certain countries over those in others. But nonetheless, it is a starting point for seeing where countries can improve. There are so many factors to consider in education and PISA is trying to analyze things such as student happiness. A BBC article noted that unlike in certain Asian countries such as South Korea where students are generally very unhappy in schools due to the high levels of pressure put on them to achieve high test results, in Peru, Albania and Indonesia (among the lowest test performers), one “witnesses the highest proportions of children who like being at school.” 🙂

From what I can see, CE’s programs are working well to improve the educational success of children and youth. One of my students who has been Project Chiclayo for several years now voluntarily showed me her report card last week and I was pleased to see that she has the 2nd highest marks in her class, not to mention excellent English, drawing and public speaking skills and good self-confidence. Other students are showing improvement in reading, math, English and artistic and self-expression. They clearly benefit from learning and studying together in the homework help sessions and playing and creating in the skill building sessions and workshops. With improved confidence in themselves and a stronger sense of togetherness, cooperation and eagerness to learn, from what I can tell, Project Chiclayo participants are active in extra curricular programs at school and are more out going than their peers.

Sadly, most students in Peru have little to now access to extra curricular activities in the form of art or sports–and community service is even less present. They don’t attend a private school or have anything that resembles Project Chiclayo. Watching the news here is downright depressing and politicians only seem to talk about what could be done to improve the education system, not to mention health care sysem. There is a sense of frustration with the political system and the police as the prevalence of physical and psychological violence and robberies increase while the majority people struggle to make ends meet. A national breakfast program for elementary school children called Qali Warma may be dismantled due to inefficiencies and corruption and a recent case of food poisoning. There are nearly constant debates about the mining industry, with the men at the top promising jobs and workers and activists pointing out the human and environmental dangers of the industry. When I am not around my optimistic co-workers at the Hope Centre, it is feels like there is a gray cloud over Peru.

Yet there are some programs aimed to help those most in need, such as one funded by the national phone company to keep children in school and find solutions with families so children do not need to work until at least the age of 14 (the legal minimum age for children to work in Peru, which is clearly not being followed). I could indeed continue the list of programs that have been established in the past decade to improve the quality of life for women and children, but analyzing their short-term success and prospects to change Peru for the better in the long run is more challenging.

What is clear is that socially conscious political, educational, health and business leaders will be needed to improve Peru, especially the education system in Peru. Graduates of a school such as the one in Tumán which embrace more than academics will hopefully help improve the local and national vision for education. Visiting the school and meeting its visionary founder (who plans to one day open a university in his city) and his wonderful 11 year old daughter –who is clearly going to go far in life– gave me a renewed sense of hope. 😀

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