U.S.A. National Sistema Orchestra Members Visit the Barbican

by Gerdlie Jean Louis, student, Kids4Harmony | 18 Degrees, in Pittsfield, MA, U.S.A.

Since last July, I have had the distinct pleasure of participating in the inaugural cohort of the YOLA National Institute (YNI). YNI, an initiative launched last year by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, is an in-depth training program for young musicians interested in pursuing a career in the field of music. It consists of selected members of the YOLA National Symphony Orchestra, an audition-only ensemble that is the first nationwide El Sistema orchestra in the United States and that performs every summer at the YOLA National Festival.

YNI extends the activities of the YOLA National Festival into a yearlong program. We have traveled internationally and received mentoring from L.A. Philharmonic musicians, chamber music coaching, support with the college application process, and career guidance.

This past November, we had the exciting opportunity to travel to London together for a six-day residency at the Barbican Performing Arts Centre. For me, three experiences there were especially significant: improvisation workshops, a concert, and an open rehearsal led by Gustavo Dudamel. Each of these illuminated the power and potential of music.

The improv workshops, in which we were joined by students from London’s Sydney Russell School, began with inspiration taken from an image of a Japanese bridge beside a lake. We worked together as a group to find ways to transform the image into music, and we settled on three main ideas: echoes inspired by ripples, a placid string chorale, and a contrasting fanfare to represent the boldness of the bridge. We developed each idea in independent groups, then combined the elements into a single piece.

Musicians from YNI and Sydney Russel School pose together after improv workshop.

The next day, we YNI students led a follow-up workshop, sharing our improvisation with a group of primary-grade students to introduce the concept of visually inspired music. We used our collective composition as a foundation over which the younger students could improvise. The results were inspiring. One group heard our piece and imagined a forest. They chose to add melodies and lyrics to the foundation. A second group imagined a grand intergalactic adventure, complete with the discovery of alien bears represented by the bassoon, a bird played by the violin, and a string bass squirrel.

It was exciting for us all to make new music and to express ourselves, but beyond the improvisation skills I developed, I noticed how these workshops changed our group dynamic. As a group of foreign students entering the space of another group of students, we felt awkward at the start. No one knew each other, and no one spoke much, even within our respective groups. But once we started to fill the room with music—our own music—we revealed ourselves to each other. Improvisation served as an excellent vehicle for interaction and self-expression. We all took risks to share our personal music with a room of many strangers, and this bound us together.

In the days following the workshops, we attended concerts and traditional rehearsals with our new friends. The L.A. Philharmonic’s concert with the famed jazz pianist Herbie Hancock demonstrated how a traditional orchestra could collaborate with jazz and electronic musicians. It was challenging for me to shift my classical mindset away from the rigors of form and motive to focus on the joy of performance. By the end of the concert, however, I was up on my feet dancing to Herbie’s encore.

We closed our Barbican stay with a rehearsal of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, led by Gustavo Dudamel. At the start of the rehearsal, the piece was in bad shape; we weren’t playing well together at all. But in a short time, Gustavo transformed us. He encouraged us to listen to each other and work together. This simple change resonated through our playing.

Until I participated in YNI, I hadn’t given much thought to my relationship with music and what I want to achieve through it. Music has been a big part of my life—rehearsals, performances, practicing—yet I never considered the difference between “little p” practice, what I do in a practice room, and my “big P” Practice, the larger interaction between my individual musical goals and society. YNI has been instrumental in unpacking these ideas, broadening my experience and introducing new ways that music can function in my life and the world.

In London, music was everywhere. When we weren’t in rehearsals and workshops or attending concerts, we were hearing buskers on the trains and live performers on the streets. And music was the connection between me and many new people—in fact, a whole new country. I am excited to see where music takes me next.

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