Sistema Choirs: Collaboration, Excellence & Passion
From Sistema Fellow Alysia Lee…
Last year, I kicked off my interview for the New England Conservatory Fellows program with this short introduction. “Hello, my name is Alysia Lee. I am a singer, and I am also a musician.” I wanted to establish myself as person with a vocal perspective for two reasons.
First, in the music world, singers and instrumentalists are not always valued as having equal skill, knowledge, or technicality as our instrumentalist brethren. Some think that singers are born, not made through years of concentrated focus and work. One need only listen to any rising Metropolitan Opera House star sing to understand the fallacy behind such thought. Yet, this bias does exist.
Secondly, in Venezuela El Sistema was cultivated various student ensembles including orchestras, jazz bands and choirs. However in the U.S., orchestral models dominate the Sistema movement. The first two classes of esteemed Fellows were all exemplary leaders and talented musicians, but they were also all instrumental musicians.
When I was accepted into the Fellowship, I was thrilled that New England Conservatory was including a vocal perspective in the Sistema exploration. A choir director from Atlanta, GA, Aisha Bowden was also accepted into the third class.
During our five weeks in Venezuela, I concentrated on the choirs and was thrilled to see the Sistema core principles (collaboration, excellence, and passion) realized brilliantly!
A choir is a phenomenal model of collaboration. Singers are encouraged to produce their best work, individually and collectively. The dissonant moments are embraced and sweeten the resolutions and harmonies. The chords resonate best when each singer in the choir carries an understanding of the overall vision and an appreciation of the unique and valuable material of a neighbor. The creative and joyous energy of the music encourages diverse timbres and articulations that enhance the overall celebratory effect.
The intergenerational symphonic choir in Barquisimeto was preparing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It was inspiring to see advanced 12 year old singers helping adult community members write in solfege syllables and diction notes and vice versa. People of all ages working together in harmony—quite literally.
In Venezuela, they are nurturing a common aesthetic of sound. The children sing and strive toward a high bar of excellence, and never disappoint. As we traveled the country, we met choirs of every level—from two years old to seniors—singing at a technical level two to three years ahead of expectation. I heard kindergarten students singing in two-part harmony with huge smiles. I saw ten-year olds sight-singing Bach chorales with mastery and reverence. I listened to a concert of young adults singing a Mozart Requiem filled with nuance and technicality beyond their years.
I realized that some of the things I saw in Venezuela, I have seen before. Long rehearsals followed by even longer jam sessions, children leading large ensembles in rehearsal with expert precision, and youth rushing to rehearsal early to share a new folk song arrangement they have written for their friends. I have seen these images in my amateur musical life. In my teen gospel choir, I remember the excitement in the air at every rehearsal. We were all so thrilled and honored to be making music. The etymological root for the word amateur, is “ama” or to love. Amateur musicians love what they do and bring a heightened exuberance to their work. The word does have a negative connotation. Amateurs are expected to have less skill than professionals. The final amateur product may lack accuracy, but the process and the preparation are filled with joy and love. Sistema has managed to create a new paradigm! The music making process and the final product fully engage the passion of the singers. Singers bring joy into the rehearsal studio and sing with an impressively high level of technicality and passion.
The influential power of a choir on a community or the nation is what drives my work. At the conclusion of the fellowship year, the ten Fellows are launching Sistema-inspired initiatives in our communities. I am thrilled to launch Sister Cities Girlchoir in Camden, NJ and Philadelphia, PA built on a foundation of Sistema ideals.