The first time I smelled tear gas, it was a January morning around 10:00 a.m. I was sitting in the car alongside Franco Toro Contreras, the Music Director at Enrique Soro Music School in Quilicura, Chile. Franco picked me up every morning from Monday through Friday at the “Zona Cero” in Santiago, ten miles from the school. Against a backdrop of political and economic upheaval, we drove every morning through the smell of tear gas that had been deployed against protesters the previous night. Despite this troubled socio-political situation—and the fact that I was teaching summer classes—I noticed that attendance never wavered throughout my time at the school.
The Enrique Soro School of Music was established in 1997 in Quilicura by the local government with a mission to offer a free and public music/academic program for its citizens. Today it serves 650 students, ages 5 to 75. The school offers lessons in Latin percussion, South American percussion (bombo legüero and cajón andino), flute, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, oboe, bassoon, charango, quena, zampoña, guitar, electric guitar, piano, violin, viola, cello, double-bass, electric bass, and singing. Both classical and popular music genres are taught. My job was to teach improvisation classes and piano masterclasses, conduct the Lab Band rehearsals, coach the popular music ensemble, and perform with students in their final recital at the week’s end. The students were incredibly passionate about learning, showing genuine interest through their active participation.
The vision to create a free, public music school as a local initiative is indeed a model for the Americas. I have never seen a school like this in the U.S.; though I am aware of a few music institutions that emulate this model, they are the exceptions to the rule. Only a few countries, like Venezuela and Cuba, have been successful in creating world-class music programs that are both free and sustainable. For example, Venezuela’s El Sistema has prepared world-class musicians such as Gustavo Dudamel, Alcides Rodriguez, and Aristides Rivas. The Enrique Soro School of Music follows that same model, providing low and medium-income families with access to a free music education. Time and time again, these institutional endeavors have proven to help underprivileged students improve their academic performance, learn interpersonal skills that lead to more positive social interactions, and become better prepared to face the nuances of a complex society.
Despite the school’s emphasis on popular and folk music, it became very clear to me from day one that improvisation and music theory were not its strongest fields. As a native Spanish speaker, I knew communication wasn’t going to be a problem—but when I asked about simple topics such as modes or chords, many students were lost in the exercises I proposed. While learning music “by ear” is central to their curriculum, YouTube music videos are probably their most accessible resource for learning about advanced music concepts. Despite this obstacle, their eagerness to learn was impressive, and their learning skills were superb. By the end of that week, the students assigned to me were not only performing complex music theory exercises, but also improvising over the standard Latin-American music repertoire.
In a country that became “the economic experiment of the U.S.’s globalization agenda” (and which is currently consumed by an ongoing public massive protest amid the pandemic), it is clear that Enrique Soro lacks access to qualified human and material resources. The School has 26 music teachers, eight classrooms, two administrators (the School Director and the Secretary), and one janitor. The academic curriculum encompasses a four-year program, though most students take longer to complete it. The school’s annual budget is approximately $370,000 USD, which is used for instrument maintenance, salaries, and purchasing new instruments. While some funding comes from private donors, the major source of funding for the school is the municipal government.
One downside of this is that the school is required to follow a uniform academic curriculum that can be applied to all public music schools equally, jeopardizing each school’s individual needs. In addition, it can feel almost impossible to teach piano, or a masterclass in improvisation, in a school where only three small upright pianos are available for use. Currently, a limited number of classrooms are designated for all classes, and there is no structure that addresses the different levels of musicianship among students. Still, this systemic disorder felt close to “organized chaos,” wherein students learn constantly and intuitively from each other. In other words: there was potential for growth.
In working within the school’s pre-existing framework, I came up with several exercises to engage each student at their own level. One of the most effective exercises I used was teaching the simple relationship between a major scale and a “mode.” By simply starting any major scale (e.g., the C major scale) on any of its notes, students soon discovered the nuances of the major scale’s different sounds. This is called in music “scale-note extrapolation,” like thinking about the color blue versus looking at a palette of blue colors. With these new sounds in our toolbox, we moved to create a simple melody. This part of the exercise strengthened the relationship between what students hear individually and the mechanical and physical application on a given instrument. By the end of the class, students were improvising simple melodies over standard chord progressions, demonstrating the capacity to make their own melodies.
Not only were the students able to grasp difficult musical concepts in the popular and jazz music fields, but they demonstrated genuine interest in learning and improving. During the week’s final recital, students across ensembles participated in a collective improvisational concert. The recital concluded with the participation of the Chile Big Band, which I had the opportunity to conduct and coach as well. This little final concert was a fresh reminder of the power of popular and folk music to unify us as humans, connecting us to our cultural roots. It was also a simple affirmation that public and free music schools—the crucibles where great talent is nourished and developed—deserve real opportunities to grow. With more free schools like Enrique Soro, we would not only have more popular and folk music played regularly in our communities, but also a deeper understanding of our cultural building blocks and a greater sense of who we are as a community.