Tocar y Luchar means "to play and to fight." It is the motto of the National Youth Orchestra program instituted 30 years ago in Venezuela. It is also the title of a wonderful documentary about the program that is available on DVD. This extraordinary film which a friend gave me recently displays the talents of many Venezuelan children who have benefited from this program. Indeed, the conductor-elect of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, is a product of this program and conducted the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra on a spectacular tour of the world that opened the eyes of many to the explosion of classical music taking place in Venezuela. It is truly amazing to see all these children playing at professional levels and thoroughly enjoying themselves while doing so. My friend wants to know why the same thing can't be done here in the U.S.
I watched the film the evening after my students played for their annual Certificate of Merit evaluations. This program is sponsored by the Music Teachers' Association of California and I am sure there are similar programs in other parts of the country. The idea is to have a graded system of testing (I hate to use that word, but that's what it is) to provide students and their parents with some idea of the progress their child is making with their private music lessons. Like passing their grades in school, my students like to see themselves advancing one level, year by year, and expect to finish the top level (which for violin is Level 10) by the time they reach their senior year in high school. The high school years are tough for our kids with so many demands on their time that not all make it that far. To encourage them, there is a special medallion awarded to high school students who manage to stick with the program until their senior year.
The evaluation includes a playing portion where students are expected to demonstrate proficiency in the technical areas of playing with scales and etudes, as well as performing two or three pieces of contrasting styles with piano accompaniment, one of which must be memorized. Then they are required to take a written exam that tests their skills at analyzing music and their knowledge of music history and composers on a very simple level. There is also a listening exam to test their ability to identify scales, intervals, rhythms, etc., by hearing them only. All in all, the whole thing is very thorough. In fact, there has been some complaining that the written tests are getting too difficult. And they are more difficult than the placement theory test I took when I entered music college.
When they showed the Venezuelan children in the film at home, their bedrooms were very sparse—bunk-beds only, indicating the rooms were shared with siblings. There were no toys in sight, no computers, video games, etc. It was touching to see the children clinging to their instruments, constantly fingering them, hugging them. They had nothing else. The film gave no indication that there is any testing, no auditions, no fighting for the first chair in the orchestras. Perhaps that is done, as it is an integral part of the orchestra system, but we were not given any glimpse into that aspect of music-making. We only saw joyful children making wonderful music. And that's where I think the Venezuelan program would fail in the U.S. (besides the fact that our children have no time for practicing an instrument). We are too competitive. We emphasize testing all the time. We want our children to be the "best" at whatever they do and they are expected to do a lot. With each generation, we raise the bar even higher and then tell the children to enjoy themselves!
I am so against competitions that I rarely enter a student in one. And that's another reason I love chamber music and encourage my students to get together with friends to play informally. Chamber ensembles are democratic. With one person per part, there is no fighting for first chair. There are two violin parts, but these days most of the violinists I play with would rather play the second part! The first part is too hard. When playing chamber music, we are all "amateurs" in the true sense of that word, "lovers of music."