It is a humid, overcast morning at Primary School No. 26 Bandera Argentina, in Retiro. The modest, one-storey schoolhouse, wedged between a large drab post office and the looming grey shell of a building that was never completed, pulses with activity despite the fact that it is early on a Saturday. Children run through the big central courtyard lugging instrument cases, music stands, and folders full of sheet music. The calls of a French horn echo off the mural-painted walls, and from the cafeteria come running two young boys, drumsticks in hand, locked in a swordfight.
The children all live in Villa 31, the shantytown located near Retiro’s bustling transport
hub. Ranging in age from 6 to 18, they gather at the school every Saturday (and weekdays after class, as well) to participate in the Orquestas Infantiles y Juveniles programme, offered free of charge by some of the city’s finest professional musicians.
“What we are doing is utilising music as an educational tool, as a tool of inclusion,” says Néstor Tedesco, coordinator of the Retiro Youth Orchestra and cellist in the Teatro Colón’s Orquesta Estable. He is energetic and full of enthusiasm as we weave our way through the sea of mini-musicians, some of them dwarfed by the large string instruments and trombones they carry.
“And what’s more, we are offering a different way of looking at life,” he continues. “Kids who come here every Saturday over many years are going to have an entirely different vision of things than if they were out kicking around a ball, or breaking glass, no?”
The Orquestas Infantiles y Juveniles programme began independently in 1998 as a way
of offering free musical training to children growing up in some of Buenos Aires’ poorer neighbourhoods. It was absorbed into the Ministry of Education’s Zones of Priority Action (Z.A.P.) programme, and has since grown to 16 orchestras throughout the city, with about 1,700 students and 240 teachers.
When a child joins the programme they are introduced to the different instruments available and allowed to choose which they want to learn. Violin, cello, xylophone, trombone, trumpet, flute, percussion, clarinet, French horn, upright bass, and viola are all options, and in the Retiro Youth Orchestra, at least, the violin is the most popular choice. In the morning, students receive individual and group tutorship before coming together in the afternoon as a complete orchestra for combined rehearsal.
We walk past the various classrooms lining the courtyard where professors work with small groups of the more experienced students, reviewing and tackling the harder measures of songs over and over again. In one room, a clarinettist expertly practises the opening bars of The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’. In another, three teenage cellists play a brooding melody, all concentrating fixedly at the sheet music in front of them. The professor, like all others in the programme, is an experienced professional musician.
“For me, he is one of the best cellists in Argentina today,” says Néstor. “The clarinet professor, the flute professor, they’re all from the Teatro Colón! That is one of the premises of this project, that the children don’t just have any old teacher…The people who teach here, they are real professors. These kids are really learning how to play their instruments.”
Many alumni of the programme have gone on to professional music careers, a testament to the quality of education Orquestas Infantiles y Juveniles provides its participants. Today, it can boast of former students playing in the Teatro Colón Orchestra, the Lanús Orchestra, the National Symphony, and the City Municipal Band, among others. In May, ten students from throughout the city were chosen by audition to attend classes at the Leo Kestenberg Conservatory in Berlin as part of a cultural exchange between the two cities.
“After Berlin, the children changed,” says a volunteer involved with fundraising for the orchestra. “Before, some of the students didn’t want to go up on stage because they were so shy. After two weeks in Berlin, they looked so relaxed on stage, their posture was different…It was amazing, just that one little trip.”
Despite all these tangible benefits to the children and the community, the programme faces challenges financially. As a part of the city’s Ministry of Education, the orchestras all receive public funding; according to Néstor and others involved with the programme, however, these subsidies may soon dry up as the city government decreases spending in an effort to cut costs. Money needed to repair instruments, make photocopies, and provide lunch to the students – even the instruments themselves – may no longer be readily available.
“These are basic things,” Néstor says, incredulously. “We are not talking about huge sums of money; we are talking about the absolute minimum.” His disappointment is soon dispelled and a look of calm returns to his face, as we sit surrounded by the muffled sounds of screechy strings, a lonely flute melody, and children laughing. He fixes me with a look full of defiance and optimism. “I believe we’ll get out of this problem, because we’ve already outlived four governments. The governments change – the project continues.”
It’s about 12 o clock and the children have broken for lunch, which consists of a banana, a granola bar, and some milk – perhaps the first meal they have had all day. One of the older students, a big kid with close-cropped hair and a serious demeanour, makes his way to the orchestra room clutching a violin case. Néstor goes to greet the boy, who cracks a smile.
“I always greet that boy because for me he is a senior case,” Néstor tells me. “He was a violent boy, very violent. Now, he has been here for seven years. Already, two of his friends were killed by the police, but he’s here, playing the violin. Instead of vi-o-lence, vi-o-lins!”
The boy enters the orchestra room, takes out his violin, and begins tuning.
Photos: Athena Feldshon.
All content originally appeared at The Argentina Independent.