South American Symphony

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First, some music: (Caution: sound bite is 47 minutes long)

Click here for music.

Even if you didn’t listen to the recording above (but I hope you did!), you can hear right away that that is a very large orchestra playing a very long and difficult piece of music. And this post is all about how I found myself to be sitting in the middle of that very large orchestra playing that very long and difficult piece of music you just heard.

In July of 2012, before heading off to Santiago, Chile for a year of study abroad, the idea that I might perform Beethoven’s third symphony, the Eroica, while there never crossed my mind. The idea that I would perform it four times in four different places around the city, even less so. But in the end, I did. And in a way, the Eroica defines what studying abroad meant while I was in Santiago and what it continues to mean now that I’ve returned.

Many refer to coming back to the USA as a return to the “real world”. But for me, the Eroica was and is the real world. The story behind the recording of our final performance, how I ended up in the orchestra you heard, the people who surrounded me, the work that was put into the final product, all of that is just a piece of the life I created for myself thousands of miles from what I call home. I was lucky to have a full year to grow roots, many students only have six months or even just six weeks, and I am grateful that my circumstances let me stay so long. Every experience outside of your home base bubble, whether it’s one week or one year, is an incredible opportunity to learn something valuable. But for me, I needed that full year to put roots down in foreign soil, to let myself grow and learn to love a community that is so different from, yet so similar to, my own. And by the end, those roots led me to the Eroica.

But let me backtrack. My name is Anna, and I am not a music major. I study anthropology and Spanish, and while I do play the viola, in no way would I say it’s my main activity. Nevertheless, when I decided to leave my university for Santiago I knew I didn’t want to stop playing for a year; I felt too much guilt towards my conductor and viola professor, both of whom would be more pained by my out-of-shape fingers than even I would be. So I traipsed off down to Chile with a suitcase, a hiking backpack and a viola, with no concrete plans other than to somehow keep playing. I had other major plans at the time too: I was going to find a volleyball team, volunteer with IFSA, take salsa classes, hike all of Patagonia, become my host family’s favorite gringa daughter, and be a generally over-involved exchange student.

Of course I did not achieve close to any of that list. But like so many others, I found that my experience led me to a year of unexpected adventures, like nothing I could have anticipated. I didn’t play volleyball; it conflicted with rehearsals. I didn’t volunteer; I never even looked for a job. I didn’t take salsa classes; I’m taking classes now because I’m embarrassed I didn’t learn while there. I didn’t hike all of Patagonia; I stayed with my parents in a hotel with a spa. And who knows if I was the best gringa daughter I could have been. I went abroad with a nice little vision of how I wanted to pass the time until I went home again. But instead, Santiago offered me a space in which to make a new home through the music I found there.

My introduction to music in Santiago was a little haphazard. I organized for an audition with a viola professor from the University of Chile and showed up a little early, hoping to warm up my (very, very) cold fingers beforehand. In stereotypical Chilean style, he showed up 20 minutes late, making both me and another student of his wait awkwardly outside. He arrived: I had no time to warm up, my hands were shaking with cold and nervousness, especially because his viola student was sitting in on the audition, and if anyone had an unintelligible Chilean accent, this man had one. I made it through a half-page of my piece and he stopped me, saying he was surprised with my performance; I had apologized so many times before for not having played for several months, for interrupting the student’s lesson, for not speaking real Spanish and for not being a child music prodigy when I was younger.

But much to my surprise, rather than telling me yes or no to my participation in the orchestra, he asked me to play the excerpt again, this time more relaxed, with more expression here and less there, and to forget all the harmonics while I was at it. Through a combination of unexpectedly universal musical hand gestures and expressive voice inflection, I could guess the changes he wanted me to make and we tried it again. While my priority was acceptance into the orchestra, his was the music itself: He could have cared less why I was there, but he saw an opportunity to create more beautiful music and he seized that chance without a second thought. Long story short, he let me in to the orchestra. But that was my first introduction to the fire that fuels the music world in Santiago, a world where their passion is reflected in everything they do. Music, something they often call the universal language, suddenly became very foreign to me, but at the same time all too familiar, which is what study abroad is all about. It shows us how unique we are as individuals in different cultures and contexts, but despite all that how fundamentally the same we are as human beings.

I apologize in advance for the tangle of thoughts in this post; there are so many things I learned through the music I played that it’s hard to tell a story that did not serve as some sort of personal life lesson. It wasn’t always easy: I was learning the language of music in Spanish while not having a full grasp of Spanish itself. But nevertheless, the orchestras I joined led to some of the most defining moments of the year I spent away, making it not a year away from home but simply a year in a different home.

So here are some basic facts: I played the viola with the Orquesta de la Facultad de Artes (OFA) with the University of Chile and also with the Orquesta de Cámara of the Universidad Metropolitana de Ciencias de la Educación (UMCE). By pure coincidence, the student who sat in on my audition also played for the UMCE and she asked if I would be interested in playing with them as well. I was so desperately grateful that she had essentially translated everything the professor said that I enthusiastically agreed without even considering what I was getting myself into. So, all of a sudden, I found myself in two orchestras with rehearsals four times a week and concerts on the weekends. It was quite the whirlwind: I feigned understanding at least three times a rehearsal, hiding behind wide smiles and lots of nodding of heads, and I consistently skipped trips outside the city to practice and play a packed concert schedule. But most of all, I became immersed in a part of Santiago I had no idea existed.

All exchange students go through culture shock, suddenly realizing that there are different ways to view the world other than what we have been taught our whole lives. And for me, this became clear through the way Chileans approach music. There were some technical differences, such as how they use Do Re Mi instead of A B C, and tune to 442 instead of 440 as I’ve always been taught to do. Such technicalities were revealing in themselves: Their A is not the same as our A, by a measure as small as two notches, but which made me question how to define a pure “A”, something I had always assumed was the natural condition of notes. But there were also some distinctions in how students fundamentally approach music that made me question how I view my own interactions with the world.

The best way to explain what I mean is through one specific memory that has continued to stand out among all others. Amidst all the student protests, the music students were trying to figure out how to participate, whether to stop rehearsals to support the general “paro” (class boycotts) or to continue preparing for the concerts. In one rehearsal, as I sat passively listening to the debate going on around me, one student raised his voice and asked the orchestra: What does it mean to be a musician?

I certainly wasn’t expecting that question. And it took some time to sift through all the layers of meaning. Why are we here? To play our instruments? To finish a music career? To get jobs in the future? Because it’s better than studying chemistry? Granted, it was an obligatory orchestra class, so they were all required to be there. But as musicians, were they there to play and produce music, to bring that music to the public? Or as students, were they there to show their solidarity with the wider political movement?

That question, what it means to be a musician, had never occurred to me. And it resonated so much, because only a few months before, an anthropology professor at the University of Chile had asked us on the first day of class why we had chosen to become anthropologists, as if it were the most natural self-reflective inquiry one could make. Simple questions, both of them, but ones I had never thought to ask.

For these Chilean music students, and for all students it seemed, their choice of discipline is more than just an arbitrary path to graduate from university. Whether it is music, or anthropology, or political science, their studies are their persona, the way they mean to define themselves in the future. But more importantly, behind that question of “what does it mean to be X”, is the question fueling it all: What am I going to do for others as this person I’ve chosen to be? It is less a matter of self-fulfillment and more a matter of how one is going to give back to the world through the path one has chosen to follow.

In the end, the OFA students voted to continue rehearsals, and I’m so glad they did. What would I have done all year if not sit directly under the nose of the slightly terrifying yet endearing conductor, Profesor del Pino, and suffer through agonizingly embarrassing moments with the always underprepared viola section? I learned that violas are universally ridiculed by the music community: Who knew that viola jokes translated so easily? The OFA viola section welcomed me in with no questions asked and I still smile when I think about how we would all take a deep breath, give each other knowing smiles, try not to laugh and launch into those sections of the Eroica (that I hope you didn’t notice…) even at the last performance we knew weren’t completely ready.

I was out of my comfort zone in the OFA most of the time, but playing in the UMCE was even more of a shock. While the OFA was a full-sized symphonic orchestra, the UMCE had ten people on a good day, six if it was raining. Being an introvert, suddenly having the sound of my viola be heard very clearly was not my idea of a good time. But the support of the members of the UMCE was incredible; they always stopped to ask if I understood and I was forced into a new confidence I never had before. I could have dropped out, I never would have the seen the majority of them again. But study abroad is about stepping, or rather leaping after a running start, out of your comfort zone and trusting that the world is not going to let you fall (too hard). The UMCE was my safety net, and I could not have asked for a better family.

Even though the OFA did not stop rehearsals as the paro dictated they should, they taught me that there is always a way to support friends in their struggles. At one of the final concerts, the students hung a gigantic banner behind the stage declaring their general support of the student movement (that included a fairly passionate use of the word “bastard” to express their general opinion on the matter) and stopped the concert halfway through to read a speech extolling yet again why the students are demanding a change in their education system. These were students I knew, goofy ones who were quick to crack a joke during rehearsal and thought rat-tails were still in style, but they knew where their hearts and responsibilities lay and always found a way to fight for what they believed in.

But even more provoking was the speech given by our substitute conductor at the concert we played at the Teatro de los Carabineros, a theater space dedicated to the police force of Chile. The first three rows were reserved for and filled by the carabineros (police) themselves, and so what our conductor had to say was even more powerful. Through an allusion to Clockwork Orange, he called for an end to the senseless violence that dominates modern society, making a not-so-subtle and direct plea to the carabineros to end the violence they show on a daily basis towards Chilean students. It was a bold, maybe even reckless, move but I have no doubt our conductor felt protected in the assurance that behind him sat almost a hundred students who supported him in every step and word. Nevertheless, I was taken aback; our conductor had effortlessly turned our concert into a political statement, just as the student musicians had done a few weeks before.

What never ceased to amaze me was these young peoples’ passion. Passion for music: When I asked them why they were studying music, the majority of them replied they had simply been drawn to their instrument, and were driven by pure love for the sound, nothing more. Passion for friendships: Everyone had an interest in getting to know me and the other gringa, they always made an effort to include us, and the camaraderie I witnessed was deeper than that of mere colleagues. And passion for changing the world: Everyone wanted to give back in some way, whether it was through the student protests, music education, or simply bringing music to those who may not have had access. In fact, we played several concerts in community centers, with small explanations by the conductor about how a symphonic orchestra functions and the history of the pieces. These were people devoted to the same cause, suffering through the long twelve-year music sequence together because they shared the belief that music can change the world.

I found such inspiration in these students, reminding me of the stark contrast between my own relative apathy towards political and social engagement and the struggle they fight every waking moment. Every day I learned something new and I think we learn the most from those who are most different from ourselves. I cannot begin to describe how much gratitude I feel towards the young men and women with whom I created music during my year in Santiago, and I’ve come back with more confidence, more willingness to accept ideas totally foreign to my upbringing, and a determination to put my own passion into something worthwhile.

Looking back, I didn’t do a lot of what is expected of us when we say we are studying abroad. But that’s one of the most fantastic parts about the experience: You simply cannot generalize it. No two people will have the same stories to tell, neither the same hardships nor the same triumphs. If I hadn’t decided to show up to that audition, who knows where my path would have led me. But I embraced the path that led me to the Eroica and I’ve learned so much about myself and who I want to be in this world because of that chance I took a year ago. My year in Chile is very much so still alive within me, even though I’m back on gringo soil; it informs the decisions I make here every day and it has changed who I want to be in this world. If I can show even half the passion those students embody, it will only confirm how real that year was and how very real it will always be.

Anna Elder is an Anthropology student at Northwestern University and studied abroad on IFSA-Butler Chilean Universities Program in Santiago, Chile.

Article by Anna Elder