I was recently awarded an Innovation Grant from the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) to observe and document the programs of Arpegio Perú (Arpegio) through a 3-week residency. Tatjana Merzyn, Sistema Fellow ’14, is the Director of Programs at Arpegio and leads an impressive Sistema-inspired music education initiative serving over 400 Peruvian youth in the Trujillo area. My goal for this residency was to build upon my growing knowledge and personal area of focus on South American Sistema-inspired programs. I had no idea that my experience in Peru would involve such a remarkable level of intercultural exchange on many different levels, making for a surprisingly broad and rich exploration.
Arpegio Perú is a warm and beautiful community. Housed in a building that was at one time the residence of the founders’ parents, the program is made up of a close-knit group of staff, teachers, parents, and students. I was so graciously welcomed by all -from the school’s charismatic founder to the loving parents to the earnest children- there is a special sense of friendship and generosity that has been well cultivated in this school, which reminded me of my former music home, The People’s Music School in Chicago.
As far as program structure, pedagogy, and mission are concerned, Arpegio looks very similar to other South American Sistema-inspired programs. However, what makes Arpegio an innovative organizational model is its unique international volunteer teaching program. Though I had heard quite a bit about Arpegio from my fellow Fellow, Tatjana, I hadn’t realized the implications and immense benefits of the volunteer system she created until seeing it in action in Peru.
In Germany, it is common practice for students to spend the year or two after graduating high school in a volunteer program before attending university. This educational tradition is a result of the German government lessening the amount of grade levels required to graduate several years ago. Because of this change, the German government actively sponsors students (in varying degrees) in their volunteer gap year(s), and quality international opportunities for volunteer programs are in demand.
Tatjana, a native of Hamburg and resident of Berlin, reached out to Arpegio Perú after graduating from high school -trailblazing a path of volunteer access that would change the culture of the organization. Co-founder of Arpegio and professional musician, Joe Rodriguez, spoke to me about hosting Tatjana as the institution’s first volunteer. At that time, Arpegio was growing rapidly and there was a lack of instructors in Trujillo. The idea of inviting a young, focused, energized and FREE teacher to join the team was welcomed. Not only did Tatjana’s volunteer role provide free and much needed labor, but also her European background added diversity and complimented Arpegio’s existing faculty makeup by providing an alternative perspective.
Eight years later, Arpegio’s international volunteer teaching program has become a significant part of its organizational culture. Tatjana and Luisa, her counterpart in Germany, have built a comprehensive system for application, audition, interview and training for this now competitive opportunity.
Each year, approximately 10-15 volunteers are chosen from a pool of applicants to spend one calendar year at Arpegio as music teachers, mentors and performers. Volunteers come from all over Germany and meet together in Berlin for a short training session on Sistema philosophy, ideas in music for social change and basic pedagogy before leaving for Trujillo.
At Arpegio, the volunteers live on site at the school (on the top floor of the building) and work 6-7 days a week, sometimes for 10+ hours a day. Many of them shared the sentiment that, while the experience is intense, it is also fulfilling and provides hands on training that they couldn’t receive in any other way.
Because of their age, the majority of volunteers come into this program with little or no background in teaching. Though there are many opportunities made available to them throughout the year for professional development by visiting professors, master teachers and seasoned faculty members, for most of the year, the volunteers are essentially peer educators. They aren’t very much older than the students they are instructing, and they are more or less just sharing knowledge that they themselves have recently learned. The challenge is adapting the way they have learned in Europe (standard instrument pedagogy) to the ensemble, Sistema-inspired environment of Arpegio. This is a challenge that the volunteers seem to face with enthusiasm. Many of them spoke of initial struggle but triumph by tenacity. Their flexibility, eagerness and spirit of classic Sistema “¡Si, Se Puede! ” is strong.
In addition to teaching together, Peruvian instructors and German volunteers rehearse nearly every evening and perform in Arpegio’s top-level orchestra, chamber groups and choir. The social exchanges that occur due to this structure are bonding and the Peruvian-German partnerships endearing. From the youngest student to the oldest teacher, the exchange is mutually beneficial, and though this volunteer program was initially prompted by a need for teachers, it continues because of the benefits of cultural and musical exchange. The quality of teaching, learning, performing and sharing happening in this program is especially unique and has attracted many visiting musicians and professionals.
In my three weeks at Arpegio, I enjoyed the company of visiting musicians from Colombia, Spain, France, Korea and Germany. We sat together and spoke of this movement that has absorbed us collectively and the beauty of how it brought us together in Peru. I met Spanish string players on a mission to unite Sistema-inspired programs all over Latin America. (http://www.redomi.org/) I met a conductor from Berlin who regaled us with tales of his 6-month South American musical journey. I met a 25-year veteran instructor from El Sistema in Caracas who was visiting from Bolivia. Because of its intercultural attributes, Arpegio is fast becoming an international attraction for Sistema-inspired musicians.
Thankfully, my world became just that much smaller from this residency and my knowledge and understanding that much greater. While the quality of the work witnessed was excellent, the most stimulating part of this visit was experiencing first hand how our movement is a truly global one and one continuously improved and made stronger by the celebration of diversity and cultural exchange.
For more information on Arpegio Perú, please visit http://www.arpegioperu.org