There’s nothing quite like teaching to be reminded of how much more you yourself have to learn: docemur docendo, as the poet wrote. I’ve participated in plenty of conducting workshops, so I can say from long and painful experience that the craft of conducting, or rather, the craft of teaching conducting, is particularly prone to engendering forms of symbolic violence or at best, hypocrisy. If the teachers in those classes weren’t humiliating or brow-beating students, they were defaulting to the time-honoured “Do as I say, not as I do” mode of instruction.
I very much enjoy teaching. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m good at it: I do try to create different experiences from those I had, and generally manage to avoid the violence, in forms physical or symbolic, but I’m not so sure about the hypocrisy. I need to be kept honest, and for that reason among many others I was delighted and honoured to spend a week in Salvador, Brazil at the state Sistema program Neojibá teaching a conducting course and working with the students and orchestras there.
Neojibá is a remarkable initiative. It is the first, in my fairly broad experience, to be directed at the daily level by musicians of international stature and education, and the differences are immediately obvious. There is a tremendous internal emphasis on building artists, not just technicians; on creating intelligent, thoughtful performers, not just musical mimics.The program is headed by Ricardo Castro, internationally-known pianist and conductor, and he is supported by an artistic team that includes Richard Young, distinguished violist of the now-defunct Vermeer Quartet, and (last but definitely not least) Eduardo Torres, program pedagogical co-ordinator and a scholar and conductor of simply encyclopedic musical knowledge. It’s not just the artistry embodied in these three, but the experience and the scholarship that makes such a difference. For example, during my brief visit Richard Young began preparing the string orchestra for a performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ. Richard literally wrote the book on this work, and took the first rehearsal to share his incredibly thoughtful take on the meaning behind the notes with the musicians. This performance was not going to be just a technical exercise in period style, but an object lesson in finding and conveying the heart of the work.
Granted, Neojibá has the advantage of starting from a position of technical strength. Ricardo and Eduardo made the deliberate strategic decision to start by building the best possible youth orchestra, an objective they’ve accomplished in less than five years. The rationale was simple: to inspire hearts and minds first with art, and leverage that goodwill, recognizance and public support into a program of wider accessibility. They’ve done exactly that. With the counsel of the remarkable Deborah Wanderley dos Santos of the Chicago YOURS Project they have just launched their first outreach satellite initiatives, with more planned and on the way. There’s already a strategy in place to connect the two arms: the participants of the conducting course I was leading were not chosen just because of their personal interest in regencia, but because program leadership felt they had the potential to take on roles of greater responsibility in the future and warranted higher-level training.
These students are going to become teachers in their own right, and if Neojibá has any say in the matter, they will demonstrate the values of artistic integrity, scholarship and the principles of Sistema that have been modeled for them by their faculty. On my last day in Salvador, Eduardo asked me to do a presentation on the Five Fundamentals concept for them and for any other interested parties. I managed for the most part in my 5-day old Portuguese, but was genuinely surprised and gratified by the number of additional students who came. There’s a culture of curiosity and inquiry building at Neojibá, and I expect great things of the program – greater than their return engagement at Royal Festival Hall this summer with Lang Lang.