San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Music Program Aims to Develop, Enrich

Costa Rica has a history of music benefiting from government financing.

What started as the government establishing a military band in 1864 has, over the years, expanded into seven separate provincial bands, all supported by government money, said Ricardo Vargas, general director of the National Music Education System (SINEM).

A government reinvestment in the National Symphony Orchestra brought in a score of Europeans and North Americans in 1972 to try to bring the small country some international prowess, he said. A year later, the Youth Symphony Orchestra was formed to help the country produce its own international talent.

And most recently, over the past two years, a new youth music program has come about that aims not only to develop talent, but also to help develop the lives of children in some of the country’s poorest regions.

The program, SINEM, focuses its initiatives on areas of Costa Rica characterized by low development, dangerous neighborhoods and high populations. Through music and mentoring, the program aims to help students become “better people, better citizens and better professionals” in the future, said Vargas, who played trumpet in the National Symphony Orchestra for 20 years.

“The radical thing we did,” he said, “is that SINEM is actually a social and human development program that uses the process of learning to play a symphonic instrument to help the development of the student’s personality.”

Inaugurated May 31, 2007, the system – which is a part of the Culture Ministry – already has 23 schools operating around the country, with close to 500 students in each school. The after-school programs are continuing to grow, with another school to be opened in the Central Pacific town of Quepos in the coming weeks, and three to four more in the coming years.

But the most important aspect is the community involvement the program inspires in schools and neighborhoods, Vargas said. Meeting four to five days a week for two or three hours each day, the system focuses on early development, enlisting kids of gradeschool ages into the nine-year program.

“It’s not just to play music,” Vargas said.

“It’s something else – something cool to do, and your friends are all there.”

Beginner, intermediate and advanced students are separated into different classes, but they are large classes that encourage playing in groups from the outset, rather than the traditional method of teaching individual students and then placing them in groups. While hearing the beginners’ first day together may raise a few hairs on the back of listeners’ necks, the idea is to have everyone feel like they’re a part of the orchestra – part of the whole.

Some schools have enough students to put together two orchestras, each of which plays a new program every seven weeks.

“We’re seeing this as a huge tool to really influence society … a tool that kids love – playing music,” Vargas said. “The response has been really great. The parents are excited about it. The kids are going crazy about it.”

The response has been so great that not only is SINEM in talks with the University of Costa Rica about performing a study on the span of its influence, but it has also gained international recognition.

Late last month, world-famous violinist Midori Goto came to Costa Rica in support of the program (TT, June 19). Midori, as she is known in the music world, has long been a supporter of music education as a means of helping youth from troubled neighborhoods, and has set up her own foundations in New York City, where she studied music at Juilliard, and in Japan, her country of origin.

“I strongly feel music should be a constant part of community life and a part of basic education,” she told the media during her visit. “The benefits of music and the arts are invaluable to development, as I know firsthand.”

As part of her trip, Midori visited a number of schools around the San José area and taught master classes to four of Costa Rica’s more advanced young violinists.

While some of the students were visibly nervous – and rightfully so, as they played in front of one of their idols and a crowd of more than 100 onlookers – they played beautifully and did their best to keep up with the advice of the maestra.

The aim is not just to encourage talent, but also to enrich the lives of the children involved and to help give them a focus and a path out of the poverty and violence that surrounds them, say those involved.

“We hope that by bringing music and culture into their lives they become more aware of their world and more a part of it – which will brighten their lives and the world,” Midori said.

But both Vargas and Culture Minister María Elena Carballo said they believe the program has yet to come full circle. Vargas said the system has been developed to only a quarter of its potential, and, with the help of municipalities, private corporations and local communities, his plans seem to know no limits. From classes for the mentally and physically disabled to criminal rehabilitation programs in the country’s prisons, Vargas has high hopes for the musical and social future of Costa Rica.


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