The small Central American country of Costa Rica is famous for its rich natural resources and for its exceptional political stability in a part of the world that has seen much upheaval. In spite of these advantages, Costa Rica is troubled by poverty and its attendant problems. The country’s democratic government is committed to offering the Costa Rican people opportunities to improve their lives, and one of its initiatives is a remarkable music education program, Sistema Nacional de Educacion Musical, generally known as SiNEM. Modeled on Venezuela’s renowned El Sistema youth orchestra program, SiNEM is dedicated to providing high-quality music training to children from all walks of life in all areas of the country.
When Thomas Verrier, associate professor and director of wind studies, traveled to Costa Rica two years ago at the invitation of SiNEM’s director, Ricardo Vargas, he was impressed with the vast potential of the program, which was then in its first year. He also saw a possible role for the Blair School. “I was excited to come down and see what was happening,” he recalls. “I immediately saw an opportunity to help them in several ways.”
Verrier returned to Nashville with a proposal to create a partnership between SiNEM and Blair—an idea that was warmly received by Dean Mark Wait.
“I spoke with Dean Wait about what was happening there, the energy and commitment of the instructors, the joy in the kids’ faces,” Verrier says, “and he shared my excitement at the potential for the Blair School to assist on a larger scale.”
For his part, Dean Wait saw involvement with SiNEM as very much in keeping with Blair’s primary mission. Noting that Blair began as a pre-collegiate academy, he observes that music education for younger students is “part of our DNA.” He saw support of SiNEM as an exceptional chance for Blair to extend its work.
“To be able to participate in that kind of effort at the ground level is a great honor,” Wait says, “and an opportunity that we simply could not let pass.”
Last April, Wait and Verrier traveled to Costa Rica together to meet with Vargas and the Costa Rican Minister of Culture to discuss specific ways that Blair might assist SiNEM, and, as Verrier puts it, “come to a mutually beneficial understanding between the institutions.” Wait, who had not previously visited Costa Rica, became even more enthusiastic about the partnership after witnessing SiNEM in action. He was particularly impressed by a visit to an orphanage, where he saw a dozen or more children under 12 playing violins.
“Seeing these children, so accomplished in spite of their circumstances,” Wait says, “was one of the most deeply moving experiences of my life. For us to have any kind of role in that is a great privilege.”
A blueprint for training teachers
The blueprint for Blair’s partnership with SiNEM is designed to assist the Costa Rican program in its unique challenges. Unlike Venezuela’s El Sistema, which serves a largely urban population, SiNEM is focused on reaching children in rural, often remote communities. The program currently has more than two dozen established programs across the country. About half that number are music schools where the students have the opportunity to take theory and musicianship classes, while the rest are orchestral or ensemble programs, which often have just three instructors for 200 or more children. These students get little individual instruction, though—unlike in the Venezuelan El Sistema program—they all get real instruments to play within a few months of beginning the program. The universal allocation of instruments represents a substantial financial investment and is a measure of the Costa Rican government’s commitment to the program.
The focus of Blair’s contribution has been on the training of SiNEM instructors. As Verrier points out, university music degrees in Costa Rica are essentially performance degrees.
“Their instruction in pedagogy and teaching is not sufficient for the demands on an instructor in SiNEM,” Verrier says, “especially in the programs with only three instructors.”
To supplement the instructors’ training, Verrier began teaching workshops in Costa Rica, and in January 2010, four SiNEM instructors arrived in Nashville for three weeks of study on conducting, pedagogy and musicianship.
In 2011, Blair and SiNEM will commence a formal program, the SiNEM Institute for Professional Development (SiNEM Instituto de Desarrollo Profesional), which will provide a two-track course of study, each track consisting of eight classes covering the different instruments. All of the classes will be taught in Costa Rica by Blair faculty, during two-week sessions in February and August. The 2011 courses will focus on pedagogy, and in 2012, the institute will add another track devoted to conducting. Participants will receive certification for each track as well as a professional credential on completion of the entire two-year program. That accreditation will come with the stamp of Blair as well as the Ministry of Education of Costa Rica. In addition, Blair will continue to bring a few SiNEM instructors to Nashville every year, eventually instituting a third level of professional study.
In addition to development classes for SiNEM personnel, the partnership will provide opportunities for Blair’s fifth-year master’s students in teacher education to do internships in Costa Rica. The first group of three students went last year, each one spending 10 days with a different SiNEM program out in the countryside. They stayed with SiNEM instructors and, says Verrier, “lived locally, ate locally and really were immersed.” He describes the experience as “enormously valuable” for the students, and looks forward to sending a group every November. Beyond the formal course program, Blair faculty will also be taking part in SiNEM-sponsored master classes and performances. Robin Fountain, professor of conducting and director of the Vanderbilt Orchestra, will be conducting the Costa Rican National Youth Symphony Orchestra this spring, and the Blair String Quartet has been invited to appear.
SiNEM’s administration sees the Blair partnership as an invaluable aid to the program. Sandra Herrera, SiNEM’s national academic coordinator, says the training has already been “extremely helpful” to the instructors, and describes the partnership as a “great opportunity to encourage and support our instructors with pedagogical tools that will greatly benefit the students.” Melissa Pacheco, who heads the production department at SiNEM, notes that, with the high student-to-teacher ratio, the Blair training helps instructors teach each instrument and conduct rehearsals more effectively. Beyond that, she says, “It has been encouraging to have such a prestigious school help us so generously.”
Nashville Symphony Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero, who grew up in Costa Rica and has worked extensively with Venezuela’s El Sistema, observes that SiNEM has radically improved the opportunities for music education across the country.
“It makes me very happy,” Guerrero says, “to see that in my own country now, kids in little towns and little communities are starting to have access to music education.” He regards this kind of grassroots training as “the future of classical music,” and he lauds the role Blair is playing in this change. “It’s very important that they are providing them with expertise and advice.”
As everyone involved in the Blair-SiNEM partnership is quick to stress, the benefits of the program go far beyond music education. Pacheco says that the primary goal is “to help children and teenagers transform their lives through music. It gives them a chance to change their future and open their minds to new opportunities.” Herrera notes that the positive change in the children ultimately benefits “family, neighbors and the whole community.” As Guerrero puts it, “First and foremost this is a social program.” Along with bringing the kids to classical music, he says, programs like SiNEM and El Sistema are about “keeping young people off the streets and giv[ing] them something meaningful to do.”
As Dean Wait sees it, the long-range benefits of SiNEM provide an enormous return on Blair’s investment.
“This is a project that will have significant ramifications in the lives of these students 50, 60 or 70 years from now,” Wait says. “That’s about as good as it gets in terms of having influence and bringing good into the world.”
© 2016 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Courtesy of Tom Verrier, Joe Howell