Musical and educational realities in Peru: on paper and in practice

Nelson Mandela has left us today; may people everywhere remember what he believed in, fought for and suffered through in his determination to improve the lives of his countrymen and women. He was a great man, an example to humanity.
Today happens to be International Volunteer Day; may volunteers and community leaders everywhere practice cooperation, peace and prosperity. We are all connected in spirit.

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Life has changed since the Bach concert with the chamber orchestra 12 days ago; without the group ensayos (rehearsals), it feels as if something is missing. After several months of playing together, sharing tastes in music, telling stories, picking on each other, laughing, and concentrating on our playing; of eating the famous Peruvian pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken); of walking through the streets after rehearsals; of relaxing in a local park; of going for coffee and to the movies, it feels strange not to see my musical friends regularly. I miss their goofy company.

For our final concert, several musicians from other cities joined us to balance the first and second violins, to add to the viola section and represent the entire cello section (Chicalyo seriously lacks string players). We all got along well and pulled off an excellent concert, together. The auditorium was nearly full, something rare for instrumental concerts here, and the audience was attentive and surprisingly quiet for Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, his Concerto for Two Violins in D minor and his Violin Concerto in E major. El Concierto Doble (for Two Violins) was the favourite.

Thanks to our wonderful maestro, we had una parrillada (a barbecue) two days after the concert, with the majority of us, plus a few friends. It was a relaxing evening with lots of genuine smiles and laughter–the best kind, where you can no longer breathe!!
[Rewinding to the previous day] The day after the concert I went to the small city of Tumán (30 minutes east of Chiclayo) with violinists Cinthia and Luigi, to a private high school where violin classes are mandatory for all entering students. A violinist and a violist who had played in the concert both teach in Tumán and asked us, after the concert, if we would volunteer to give a demonstration to their Grade 7, 8 and 9 students and talk about our musical experiences. Cinthia plays in La Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional Juvenil (National Symphonic Youth Orchestra, in Lima) and Luigi in the Symphonic Orchestra of Piura (three hours north).

The morning began with the three of us talking about our general music experiences, namely, what we like most about playing. I tried to find the words to express the power of music, those magical moments you feel when you play in unison or harmony with others that make you feel truly alive. I also stressed that as an international language, music is an excellent way to meet wonderful people. I thought about how lucky I have been over the years and how playing in orchestras and small ensembles also helped me to improve my Spanish and French, learn about several cultures, especially those of Mexico, France and, now, Peru. I cannot imagine my life without music.

After helping tune the students’ violins (owned by the school), Cinthia, Luigi and I were treated to a mini-concierto by them. Many were well-known Peruvian or Latino songs and they finished with Pachelbel’s Canon, although they haven’t tried playing it as an actual canon yet. Some students were visibly nervous, and others had the confidence to play individually…
???????????????????????????????Next it was time for Cinthia, Luigi and myself to each play a piece for the group. Having been invited to go to Tumán at 10pm the night before, we hadn’t prepared anything, but we each chose a memorize piece to interpret (Bach, Mozart and Argentinian folk music). Then we wanted to play all together, and for lack of a piece for three violin voices, we played Pachelbel’s Canon, as a true canon. It felt so wonderful to play in harmony with two violinists, people my age who I had only just met a few days before, in front of a captivated audience, no less!

After about an hour of mingle time with the students for giving tips and answering questions, photos were taken, and Facebook profiles were exchanged. We said hasta luego to the young violinists [as of August 2017, a few are still in touch!].
Afterwards, we met the school’s founder, a man who grew up in Tumán and decided better educational opportunities were needed in his city. Tuition is minimal in comparison to other private schools here at 140 Nuevo Soles ($53.35 CDN or $49.97 US) a month; as the founder said, he is not in it for the money. Founded just three years ago, the school is named after a Spanish priest who had dedicated his life to the community; it is founded on four pillars of learning: Academic, Arts, Sports and Community Service. When I told the head that my high school back home is similar, he seemed pleased and mentioned that Canada is one of the countries he admires for education. [Canada still has much to improve, but that is another story]. He said that from his readings, the ‘four pillar’ model is much better than what is offered in most Peruvian schools. The school system here is very academic and students generally achieve poor results for a combination of reasons including lack of access to early childhood education, lack of trained teachers, lack of adequate facilities and supplies, lack of support (such as literate parents), malnutrition and child labour. And of course, a lack of opportunities to simultaneously develop in other areas (arts, music, sports, social/self-confidence).

The OECD Program for International Assessment (PISA) was just released…

PISA1PISA2(To see the full article from the Guardian click here.)

…and while I was not happy to see how Peru ranked (65th out of 65 participating countries), the survey confirms that the homework help and skill development programs offered by Centro Esperanza are indeed needed. I am not a fan of standardized tests as they do not tests many useful life skills and the questions are usually not culturally sensitive (favouring students in “developed” countries). However, they can be a starting point to gauge areas for improvement. PISA is even trying to analyze student happiness. BBC article noted that unlike in certain countries (such as South Korea), in Peru, Albania and Indonesia (among the lowest PISA test performers), one “witnesses the highest proportions of children who like being at school.” 🙂 (In South Korea there is extreme pressure to achieve very high test results).

Centro Esperanza’s programs are working well to improve the educational success of children and youth. Last week, one of my students (a Project Chiclayo for several years now) voluntarily brought me her report card; she has the 2nd highest marks in her class, not to mention excellent English, drawing and public speaking skills and good self-confidence. Other students are showing improvement in reading, math, English and artistic and self-expression. They benefit from learning and studying together in the homework help sessions and playing and creating in the skill-building sessions and workshops. With improved self-confidence and a stronger sense of togetherness, cooperation and eagerness to learn, our participants are active in their schools’ extra-curricular programs and often more outgoing than their peers.

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Sadly, most students in Peru have little to now access to extra-curricular activities in the form of art or sports; they don’t have the benefits of a private school or anything that resembles Project Chiclayo. Watching the news here is depressing and politicians only talk about what could be done to improve the education system, not to mention health care system. There is great frustration with the political system and police force, as the prevalence of physical and psychological violence and robberies increase while the majority of people struggle to make ends-meet. A national breakfast program for elementary school children called Qali Warma may be dismantled due to inefficiencies and corruption, plus a recent case of food poisoning. There are nearly constant debates about the mining industry, with the men at the top promising jobs, and workers and activists protesting the human and environmental dangers of the industry. When I am not around my optimistic co-workers, it can feel like there is a gray cloud over Peru.

Yet there are some programs aimed to help those most in need, such as one funded by the national phone company to keep children in school and find solutions together with families so children do not need to work until at least age 14 (the legal minimum age for children to work in Peru, which is followed). I could list the many programs that have been established in the past decade to improve the quality of life for women and children, but analyzing their short-term success and prospects to change Peru for the better in the long-run is more challenging.

What is clear, is that socially conscious political, educational, health and business leaders will be needed to improve Peru, especially its education system. Graduates of schools such as the one in Tumán, which embrace more than academics, will hopefully help shape the local and national vision for education. Visiting the school and meeting its visionary founder (who plans to one day open a university) and his wonderful 11 year old daughter gave me a renewed sense of hope.

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