For years I explained to my cello students the art of overcoming uncertainty on an instrument whose bowing and fingering parameters don’t seem to have precise boundaries. The bowed instrument beginner should anticipate the geometry of hand-position shifts within a continuum of infinite possibilities. For many students, an upward octave shift on the A string becomes a leap into the void: cold sweats, trembling bows, frowning faces and, in most cases, a slippery note ending in painful approximation. “Uncertainty in the upward left-hand shifts” was one of my invariable conclusions in the classes I gave in an old painter’s studio – a glass box with a tin roof sitting atop an old building in Caracas’s Bosque Sans Soucí.

One afternoon, while spotting the inevitable hole for the cello spike in the vinyl floor, a student showed me a patch of light. “Professor, your roof has a puncture.” Indeed, precisely between my legs was the dot of a sunray I had never noticed. We looked for the bullet. Among a pile of old paintings, there it was, a 9mm, flattened by its impact on the tin roof. The vinyl tile had a trace of the projectile in front of my chair. As I always sat in the same place during classes, the bullet would have pierced my skull had I been giving a cello lesson at the time of the shot. From then on, we didn’t just talk about uncertainty in upward hand-position shifts. A few weeks later there appeared another hole in a corner of the room. What really annoyed me about these holes was not the leaks that would flood the place but the pellets raining from the sky. By 2002 I had left teaching to devote myself to making music in a forest exile, trading the certainty of a regular income in lead for no certainty of an income at all.

I remember the black film classic The Ladykillers, in which gangsters disguised as a string quintet leased an apartment. To avoid suspicion, they played classical records as they planned their crimes. The ladies of the neighborhood, delighted by such artistic tenants, saw them going in and out with their instrument cases, where, of course, they carried their submachine guns. Now, some of our musicians have to do exactly the opposite to avoid suspicion: appear to be armed thugs in order to walk our unsafe streets, wearing sunglasses and leather gloves and handling their instrument cases with gangster style to make it to rehearsals alive.

We could be reaching a showdown in Venezuela, an opposition between juvenile delinquency and youth’s musical practice on a massive scale. Imagine an exchange: weapons for musical instruments within an educational structure. One of the most important branches of our System of Youth Orchestras [El Sistema] is working on crucial projects in prisons. I remember the pioneering work of a good friend, Manuel Mijares, who founded a pilot orchestra over a decade ago in the now-extinct Los Chorros correctional institution in Caracas. His greatest challenge: overcoming the fear to teach violent adolescent delinquents to overcome their personal uncertainties. They were all transformed by daily orchestral practice. Orchestras can be a radical treatment for juvenile delinquency.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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