STREET TO STRINGS: A MUSICAL JOURNEY 'THERE WERE NO VIOLINS IN BICOL'
 

MANILA, DECEMBER 18, 2011 (STARweek) By Ida Anita Q. del Mundo - When US Peace Corps volunteer Emily Palese found herself assigned to a community in Bicol, she brought with her a love for music.

Starting a violin program from scratch in July with a group of determined young beginners, her goal is to mount their very first recital this coming Christmas.

“I ended up in Bicol purely by good luck,” Emily says. “I could have been placed in any one of the 76 countries that Peace Corps is currently serving, so I’m quite fortunate that I ended up here.”

Her experience so far has been wonderful, says Emily. “Most of the town is rice fields, coconut farms, and pineapple farms. Needless to say, most people here live very simple lives. I love how peaceful life here is and I love the closeness of my community.”

Emily grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. A recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in Anthropology and Spanish, she is also a certified English as a Second Language teacher.

“As a child, I grew up listening to a lot of Scottish and Irish music because my father plays the bagpipes,” Emily shares. When she was young, Emily recalls wanting to learn the violin. Luckily, her elementary school offered a free violin program. “My orchestra teacher, Elisabeth Ellenwood, was very fun and enthusiastic and her passion for music was contagious,” she says. Another teacher who became what she considers one of her greatest life mentors is Kay Black, who encouraged her to reach her full potential as a musician and join the school’s orchestras as well as the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra.

[PHOTO - Emily Palese with two enthusiastic violin students, Rochelle Efondo and Alysa Zamudio.]

“Her passion and dedication to her students extended far past teaching music,” Emily shares. “She continues to be my inspiration and role model for teaching violin here.”

On the other hand, Emily credits her grandmother as her biggest inspiration for volunteer service. She says her grandparent’s stories about their yearly trips volunteering at the Ganta Leprosy and TB Rehab Clinic in Liberia, Africa sparked in her a passion for service. “Joining the Peace Corps wasn’t a single decision,” she says. “It was a lifelong process that led me to the conclusion that this was something I needed to do.” Emily adds, “After college, I wanted to combine my love for teaching English with my passion for traveling and learning about other cultures and languages.”

Assigned to her community in Bicol mainly to teach English, Emily’s passion for music persistently came to the fore – matching perfectly with the Filipino’s innate love for music.

“The very first day that I arrived at my school here, their band performed a song to welcome me,” Emily recalls. “Because I have a musical background myself, I was really touched by their performance. They were so enthusiastic and focused! I could tell that they were very passionate about music.”

She adds, “Later that day I asked one of my classes, ‘Do any of you play in an orchestra too? Violin, viola, cello, or bass?’ Some students looked away, and the rest of them just laughed,” Emily shares.

The confused new teacher was finally enlightened on what was so funny: “Ma’am Emily,” the students said, “Violins are only for rich people!”

Emily was struck by this kind of mentality. “My students come mostly from ‘less fortunate’ families,” she says. “‘Less fortunate’ to me means more than just being poor… It means that they have fewer opportunities to grow up as well-rounded individuals and develop their own talents; it means that they have less support and encouragement to achieve their dreams.”

[PHOTO - A MUSICAL JOURNEY: Emily and her students and co-teacher meet some of the Manila Symphony Orchestra’s double bass players.]

Considering her students’ reactions, she adds, “Even at their young age, they truly believe that being less fortunate means that they’re also less deserving of some of life’s greatest pleasures… But music is free. It’s embedded in the rhythm of their lives and everywhere I go I feel it. They sing walking down the street, they blast the radio in their houses… they drum on their desks while I’m teaching, and they hum while they work on their families’ fields.”

Experiencing how music is truly integrated into the community’s life, Emily decided to start a violin program. “Music is free and it’s for everyone,” she insists. “They aren’t any less deserving to have the opportunity to develop musical talent than someone born to a rich family.”

The violin program came into fruition almost by accident – or by design. Though she had wanted to start the program from the day she came to Bicol, there weren’t any violins for the students to use. “Seven months later, I had an extremely severe ear infection that brought me to Manila for treatment,” Emily says. It just so happened that her physician was Dr. Joey Lapeña, whose daughter plays the violin with the Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

While her ear was being treated, Emily brought up her wish to start a violin program, as well as the difficulty of finding instruments.

Lapeña – who was, at that time, preparing an all-Beethoven concert with the MSO in line with the UP-PGH Department of Otorhinolaryngology golden jubilee – gave Emily the contact information of the MSO’s executive director Jeffrey Solares.

[PHOTO - The MSO’s orchestra manager Jedi Villar and marketing director Mia Sebastian after the MSO’s gala concert at the Philamlife Auditorium.]

The MSO just happened to have two spare violins that were for sale. But, with Emily’s request, the orchestra decided to donate them to her endeavor. Just two days later, Solares – a Bicolano himself – personally brought the two violins to the school. With that, the violin program came one step closer to becoming a reality.

As Emily puts it, “It was the absolute best, worst ear infection I’ve ever had!”

When Emily first put up a sign-up sheet for high school students to have lessons, more than 50 students signed up – almost one-fourth of the whole school. With just two violins, it would be impossible, so Emily asked the advisors from each section to select students to be part of the initial batch for the violin program. The program is now made up of a devoted group of 13 students. “Now that those students are playing fun songs, though, more and more students hear them and want to learn how to play,” says Emily.

As more and more come up to her asking to join the group, Emily hopes that she will be able to source more instruments to make their requests possible. “Getting violins was the hardest part. It still is the hardest part because so many students want to learn and practice, but they all have to share the violins.”

Thankfully, the group recently received two more used violins donated by a Filipino Peace Corps staff member, John Borja, whose daughter had outgrown the instrument. Now with four violins, the program seems promising, though even more improvements can be made with more resources like instruments and sheet music.

Since the beginning of the violin program, the students have made so much progress, especially because of their determination to learn the instrument. Emily shares, “I wanted Lupang Hinirang to be the first piece for the kids to perform, but I didn’t plan on teaching it to any of them for a long time – at least until they had learned all of the basic notes.” But, one fourth year student, Rochelle Efondo, passed by Emily’s office during a break period and heard her playing the national anthem.

[PHOTO - Back home in Bicol, they continue to practice for their Christmas recital.]

When Rochelle asked her to teach the piece, “At first I said no because she only knew how to play the notes on one string,” says Emily. “But she was very persistent, so I decided to just teach her the first little part… She memorized it easily and wanted to learn more.”

When another teacher heard them practicing, she invited them to play the national anthem at the region’s intramural sports meet. “She only knew how to use the bow for one week before this and had never played a single song on the violin,” Emily marvels, but only weeks after learning the anthem, Rochelle was able to perform.

As the students prepared for their ultimate goal, a Christmas recital, the MSO decided to inspire them even more by inviting the group to the orchestra’s season ender, Beethoven Lives! which was held in November. With the support of the Peace Corps and with transportation costs shouldered by Frank Holz, a long-time supporter of the MSO, Emily, a co-teacher and five of her students came to the Philamlife Auditorium to witness the gala concert.

“They have never seen a concert before and some of them have never been to Manila, so they can hardly believe that they’re going to see professionals play in the capital city,” Emily said before watching the concert. “It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kids, and all of us are incredibly grateful to the Manila Symphony Orchestra and its supporters for making this trip possible.”

The importance of music education has always been an advocacy of the MSO. This concert season, aside from giving school concerts and contributing to the music scene of the country with their gala performances, the MSO also pilot-tested a series of matinee shows geared especially towards students and music enthusiasts to further enhance their appreciation of symphonic music. Many of the MSO’s members are teachers and band leaders who are highly involved in their communities, making it only natural for the MSO to reach out in various ways as a group. Inspired by Emily’s efforts, the MSO is currently cementing plans for a “Street to Strings” project, which will allow young streetchildren from different communities to be touched by the gift of music – much like Emily’s students have been by learning to play the violin.

“More than anything, my hope for this small community is that they never limit their dreams,” Emily says. “Everyone here has so much potential and can really do anything if they are persistent… There’s no reason that their small-town background should ever prevent them from reaching their full potential. I should know – I grew up in a small town too!”

Find out how you can support Emily’s and other Street to Strings programs by contacting the MSO at info@manilasymphony.com.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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