Music that Opens Doors
UMaine virtuoso mentors youth orchestras
bringing social change to Guatemala
(Editor's note: Full-length version of story.)
From his student days, Anatole Wieck learned
that music "is an indicator of a spirit that exists in a society."
The idea was ingrained in the Latvian-born violinist and violist as a
youth studying in Riga and Moscow, then at Juilliard from 1973.
Throughout his career as a soloist, conductor and college professor,
Wieck imparted this philosophy inspired by his mentor, the iconic
Russian composer Iosif Andriasov, to audiences and students across
Europe and North and South America.
But in 2006, it was a youth orchestra Wieck mentored that showed him the
ultimate ability of music to not only lift the spirit of a society, but
also to bring about social change.
It happened in Guatemala.
Wieck was invited to spend three weeks in residence with the Jesús
Castillo Orchestra and the national youth orchestra of the Music and
Youth Foundation in Guatemala City, which provides classical music
education and instruments to children and youth from all socioeconomic
backgrounds, especially the rural and urban poor.
"Some of the kids are from middle-class backgrounds and others are from
poor and underprivileged backgrounds without a chance to study music
except for this program," says Wieck, a professor of music at the
University of Maine since 1986. "But that's the amazing thing. They are
taught by young professionals who gather them into the orchestra, and
almost immediately by some kind of miracle they start making music.
"It happens because of the enthusiasm of the kids, driven by inspiration
of the teachers and their young director and conductor Bruno Campo. I
have to say that in 2006, I was skeptical, yet I had a feeling it might
work because I met the people behind the program, who are very
passionate about what they're doing."
"When you have such passion, drive and love for music and children, then
miracles happen," Wieck says.
The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra and school, founded in 2006 by
Bruno Campo with the help of Isabel Ciudad-Real, president of the Music
and Youth Foundation, is modeled after Venezuela's National System of
Youth and Children's Orchestras that started more than two decades
earlier. Guatemala's symphony began two years after an historic peace
accord was signed between the government and leftist rebels in that
country, ending 36 years of civil war.
During his residency, UMaine Professor of
Music Anatole Wieck led rehearsals and tutored members of the violin
section of the children's orchestra.
Photo by Claudio Vásquez
It was Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, the President of Guatemala, who managed to
put an end to the civil war that nearly destroyed the country.
After he stepped down as president, he was elected to be the mayor of
Guatemala City and turned his attention to alleviating poverty, finding
creative ways to revive the arts and education, and improving the
natural spaces of the city. One of the ways he accomplished this was to
get the starving children off the streets by paying them to help create
parks and green spaces. Such programs have been very successful in
combating crime and poverty, and helping revive community spirit.
The arts program was one of his latest visions. With the energy and
talent of some of the city's young musicians, he launched the music
program that has, in turn, sparked a cultural renaissance in the city.
Music is "an important part of humanity," according to the foundation's
statement of purpose on its Web site. "Respect, tolerance, discipline,
solidarity, teamwork and leadership are some of the values to be
developed and strengthened as the foundations for living in a
democratic, sensible society in a culture of peace. The practice of
music in an ensemble provides ideal tools in this process."
Similar national systems of orchestras for children and youths have been
established in other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Mexico
and Bolivia, as tools of education, social development and cultural
advancement. Music is considered an avenue of social action — a means of
improving society and the lives of the youngest citizens.
In Guatemala more than 15 choirs and five orchestral ensembles now use
music "to change people's lives and (the) social fabric of the most
(needy) communities." The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra is becoming the
model for other orchestral programs in the country, supported by the
Guatemala Ministry of Culture.
Wieck's residency, originally funded by a Fulbright grant in 2006,
involved tutoring and leading master classes for the members of the
Jesús Castillo Orchestra and students of the National Conservatory, ages
That year, the symphony performed in the inaugural concert for the
opening of the foundation's new arts center, where many of the members
are now instructors for younger, incoming musicians.
It was those youngest musicians, ages 6–16, who brought Wieck back to
Guatemala early last fall.
"I was touched that I was invited back, that they considered me one of
their own," says Wieck. "It's such a fantastic project. I feel it's a
real privilege to be part of it."
The new youth orchestra pairs some of the most talented children with
the young professionals, not only for instruction, but also for
performance. In concerts, the more seasoned musicians perform next to
the children in an atypical mentoring relationship Wieck says "is
"Theoretically, the children should be more nervous (before a concert)
because they have less experience, but they feel secure because their
teachers are with them," Wieck says.
Wieck says signs of success are evident in the artistic quality
of the performances. When the students play with their teachers in the
advanced orchestras, they reach almost professional level. The music
making in this group has passion and "a distinct feeling." Students
performing in the younger group sound like a middle school orchestra.
"Yet, there's something else you don't expect in a performance by
musicians at these ages with little experience. It's very appealing,
with a definite excitement, and the audience feels that," Wieck says.
"When people play with passion, they begin to shape the music. These are
not kids playing separate notes. Their performances are compelling.
That's what impressed me."
It was in his one-on-one sessions with the children that Wieck realized
their individual drive — and their intensity. Most were performing on
instruments provided by the foundation. In the week leading up to the
public concert, the youngsters arrived daily by 9 a.m. and practiced
throughout the day. It was in the rehearsals, without mentors performing
at their side, that the young musicians had to "step up," says Wieck.
"For example, there was a boy about 14 from an underprivileged family
who a year ago didn't know anything about classical music. He not only
was introduced to it, but also learned to love and perform classical
music as a percussionist. While his teacher spent time in rehearsals
helping him find his place (in the music), in concert, the boy played
Beethoven's Fifth correctly."
For some of the students, their participation in the national youth
orchestra will lead to musical careers. For all, it opens doors to high
"The way they're being taught opens a whole new world of beauty through
music," Wieck says.
Despite his 34-year musical career, Wieck says he learned some powerful
lessons from the young musicians. One of the most important: how
strongly they feel about the privilege to be a musician.
"In a time when many rich countries, including ours and some in Europe,
begin to think the arts expensive and, as a result, fund less and less,
Guatemala, a country with limited resources, decided this kind of arts
program is important and had no problem finding money. This is an
example for everyone. It also really shows that supporting the arts is a
question of priorities. I'm impressed that people in that country have
the right priorities," he says.
"My mentor Iosif Andriasov always talked about the importance of the
arts in society," he says. "Music is not just entertainment. This
experience goes to the core of that philosophy, showing that music can
bring people together in a profound way that may improve their quality
of life. And music is not just for one person, but for a whole society.
That's what the Guatemalans behind this project believe."
by Margaret Nagle
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