The National Children’s Orchestra of Venezuela spent their semana santa living, breathing and eating Mahler 1. Quite literally, the 357 piece orchestra of auditioned 8-15 year olds from around the country even ate meals in front of a projected Mahler 1 performance. The week long seminario was the first of several to be held in preparation for a major July workshop and Venezuelan tour, which Sir Simon Rattle will direct.
While national youth orchestras have been created regularly in the past, this is the first time in 12 years that young children from around Venezuela have been rounded up for a national children’s orchestra. The last time this happened, the seeds for the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra were planted. Therefore, the expectations and demands are high for these young musicians. With wind sections filled out (16 bassoons, 18 horns, 6 tubas, etc) and four rotating concert masters, the room is packed with students working from the early hours of the morning until late at night.
And of course, the level is mind blowing. The commitment to the music from the teachers and students is unshakable. The bar is set to the highest possible artistic standard- even the 8 year old bass player who stands on top of a box to play his instrument is accountable for every nuance in Mahler 1. No one places limits on what these children can achieve, so they achieve the impossible.
The horn section is a good example of this.
I sat through their second round auditions that took place towards the end of the seminar and was shocked. The majority of the students were 10 or under and could hardly play a single requested passage. But, only a few hours before, I had watched them play a full orchestra rehearsal at a high level. I turned to the horn professor after the auditions, baffled.
“It is incredible. There is something like magic that happens to them when they are playing in a section. They find a way to communicate, to understand. You heard them, most of these students couldn’t play anything- the level was very low- and yet when they come together, they play years beyond their ability. Most of these young students will not be invited back- we will audition more horn players- but they will go back to their nucleos knowing how to work hard and how to hold themselves to a high standard and they spread that energy.”
If you think of music as a language, it makes sense that these young horn players could not function alone, but sitting next to me in a sectional played Mahler 1 well. Full immersion. There was no way these students were ready to play this piece of music and yet… they did. And did it well.
The National Children’s Orchestra has managed to beautifully balance trusting children with maintaining the highest standards. The students who are not ready will not come back to the next seminar- they need time to grow and share their experience back home. But many students will return, and the stakes will be even higher. As Dudamel commented on a surprise visit to the orchestra, “when I was in the National Children’s Orchestra we were playing Marche Slave… you are playing Mahler 1!”
Trusting our students to achieve things we could not conceive of at their age is essential. It is how they will surpass us.