Orquesta de Peñalolén:  A Source of Community Pride in Santiago, Chile

Orquesta Infantil Chimkowe

The Peñalolén Orchestras Program began in 2000 as a social program dedicated to the ideas that children are most important, and that their instruments are the bridge to improve their quality of life. With a very small budget, we are installed in a municipal school in the neighborhood of Lo Hermida, the Antonio Hermida Fabres School.  Formed as a result of the eradication of the most vulnerable neighborhoods from more affluent communes, Peñalolén is a populous low-income community with serious problems of poverty and vulnerability.

Even today, the Lo Hermida neighborhood is a symbol of the struggle against the inequality inherited from the military dictatorship of the 70’s and 80’s.  In the following years, the project expanded to two other schools whose students are at serious risk of social vulnerability, the Matilde Huici Navas school and the Arab National Union.  Increased funding from public and private sources supported the maintenance and growth of the program.

More recently, the program has been able to move to the newly built Chimkowe Cultural Center, which has rooms equipped for musical work. In addition, more instruments have been acquired, including clarinet and flute as well as stringed instruments.  Teachers give individual theory and solfeggio lessons as well as ensemble lessons.  Currently, all the activities of the orchestra program operate at CHIMKOWE Cultural Center, with exception of brass and beginner group violin lessons, which take place in two schools: Juan Bautista Pastena (beginning violin) and Matilda Hichi Nava (brass).

Gala Orquesta 2018

The program now has 82 students, with 48 in the children’s orchestra (directed by Amanda Castro Montoya); 26 in the youth orchestra (directed by David Saavedra); and 9 in beginner level music lessons.  Master teachers José San Martin and Mireya Alegría have been with us for many years.

In the community, a sense of respect for the students has been growing—respect that is passed on to their families and their surroundings, changing the face of the neighborhoods to which they belong.  The community is proud of the school’s ensemble music training—a kind of training that is not found even in the nearby, prestigious private conservatory.

The young musicians are showing positive changes in their schoolwork, with regard not only to their classroom behavior but also to their academic performance. They are learning more elaborate repertoires, and every year they perform a concert in the most important venue in Chile, the Municipal Theater of Santiago..

As the number of students has grown, the program has been restructured to include two ensembles, a children’s orchestra and a youth orchestra.

Among these students is Rain Escalante Silva, who, in 2014, began to attend the Eduardo de la Barra School, in the sector of San Luis de Peñalolén. Rain’s case is special. He has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which is manifested in problems of socialization, communication, and behavior. The day that the Peñalolén Student Orchestra visited the Eduardo de la Barra school to recruit interested students, Raín was there. He went straight to the violin. Since that day, he has never put it down.

“Since he was a kid, I knew that he liked the violin,” says Veronica Silva, Rain’s mother. “When he listened to music, he always made the gesture of bowing a violin.  I don’t know where he got it from, but he already knew that the violin existed and knew how to recognize its sound.  For me it was difficult, because I did not have the money to buy one, much less to pay for classes. The good thing is that the Peñalolén Orchestras Program has an open door policy for any child who would like to learn music and play an instrument.”  She adds, “He does not like loud noises; he gets uncomfortable when there are a lot of people, and if he does not want to do something, he does not do it. But with the violin it was different from the very first day. Now he does things alone; I no longer have to accompany him everywhere. He goes alone to his classes.  He even got a job as a gardener, saved his money, and bought his own violin.  And right away, he brought back the violin the program had loaned him, because he knew it could be used by another child who needed it.  I do not know how to say this—it was like my son blossomed.”

Rain is now 15 years old.  He has already played violin for 5 years and is part of the 48-member Children’s Orchestra. The next step will be to move to the ranks of the Youth Orchestra.  That step could mean that Rain, along with his colleagues, will travel abroad to show what they learned in the Peñalolén Orchestras Program.

Our ensembles perform frequently in Santiago.  In their home community, they perform at schools and fairs, and in the community orchestra.  Since 2014, both the children’s and youth orchestras have toured Chile, north to Atacama and south to Isla Grande de Chiloé, where they have performed in the most important settings of the country. Last year, they made their first visit outside the country, traveling to the United States to play with the Youth Orchestra of Washington (DCYOP), who had visited Peñalolén the previous year under the project “Two Countries, One Passion.”   Theirs favorite pieces are Holst’s “St. Paul’s Suite,” Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, and a version of Carlos Gardel’s “Por una Cabeza.”

Author: Cristian Sottolichio Leighton, Institutional Relations Director for Chimkowe Cultural Center

Date: 31 May 2019

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