Monday, May 30, 2011

Local Legend from Merida

The mountains I can see from my bedroom window here in Merida were once topped with glaciers and snow. That snow is mostly gone now--perhaps because of the pollution from the exhaust from all of the cars or perhaps because of climate change. In any event, the five snow-covered peaks are part of the identity of Merida, and this beautiful story accounts for why they are known as the Five Eagles. In the park just outside the development where we are staying, there is an arch with five sculpted eagles perched on top of it--an homage to this story, which I've borrowed from a blog called "Venezuelan Indian" that deals with Venezuelan legends.

Caribay and the Five White Eagles

This myth from Merida is taken from Maria Manuela de Cora's book "Kuai-Mare: Mitos Aborigenes de Venezuela" but was originally collected by the noted Merida historian and writer Don Tulio Febres Cordero (1860-1938). The Timote-Cuica were a pre-Colombian collection of loosely-linked Chibcha-speaking chiefdoms living in an area that encompasses the current Andean states of Merida, Trujillo and Tachira. Their chief God was Ches, the Supreme Being, but they also worshipped Zuhe, the Sun, and Chia, the Moon, and venerated the mountain peaks and lakes. This myth tells the tale of Caribay, wind spirit of the high paramos, and the origin of Merida's five highest peaks - Bolivar (5007m), Humboldt/Bonpland (4942m), La Concha (4922m), El Toro (4775m) and El Leon (4743m).

High among the rocky crags of the Andes mountains, with their jagged peaks and hills, the Mirripuyes Indians lived a hard life, fighting frequent wars with their neighbours. In their vegetable plots, they grew corn, yucca, ocumo and different fruits. They hunted the abundant rabbits and deer in the forest and the birds that soared in the clear mountain sky.

One of the fierce Indian chiefs had a daughter, Caribay. She was so beautiful that people from the tribe thought she must be the daughter of Zuhe, the Sun, and Chia, the moon, because her eyes and her skin were so bright that they seemed to be made of pure light.

Caribay liked to wear necklaces of bone or painted clay and adorn her hair with coloured feathers.

One day, she was on the bank of a river looking for shiny flat stones to decorate her cotton shawl when she saw five gigantic condors fly past, their white plumage shining like silver in the sun.

Caribay had never seen birds like these before. Straight away, she felt a desire to adorn herself with their feathers and she began to run after the shadows they cast on the ground, hoping they would tire of flying before she tired of chasing them.

So she ran from hill to hill, jumping over ravines and the streams formed by the meltwater that blocked her path, until, overcome with fatigue she reached one of the highest summits of the mountain, a place bare of any vegetation, where the silence made her feel she was in the presence of Ches (the Supreme Being of the Timote-Cuica tribes).

When the birds got there they stopped for moment and then began to fly higher until they disappeared from view.

Caribay stopped. She was surprised at how far she had run. From the peak where she was standing she could see on one side, far away, the wide savannah at the foot of the mountain, and on the other side the great Laguna de Coquivacoa, in which the mountains of the sierra were reflected as if they rose up from the lake itself.

Above her head the mist which guards the realm of Ches was closing in as night began to fall.

Caribay felt cold and was afraid. She began to cry, calling on Zuhe, the Sun, to help her. But her cries bounced off the rocky crags until they turned into a terrifying whistle that echoed through the mountains. The Sun, however, unheeding of her pleas, began to set behind the Andes.

"Will you help me Chia!" said the girl, turning to the Moon.

As the wind dropped, Caribay´s words could be clearly heard. Chia, the Moon, appeared. Her radiance blocked out the light from the stars and lit up the sky, suddenly highlighting the five white eagles, which began to fly towards the Earth.

Filled with joy, Caribay began to sing a slow, rhythmic chant - like flute music - as the eagles descended lower and lower, until they touched down on the high Andean mountains close to the girl, cleaving to the rocks with their claws, each one on a different peak.

There they remained, motionless, their faces pointing north and their wings extended to form the white mountain peaks that stand out even in the dead of night.

"Now I can pluck some of their feathers," Caribay said to herself, and ran with new energy towards the birds, holding out her arms to reach them.

But when she touched their hard feathers, she stopped, afraid, and fled - giving out a long cry, because the condors had turned to ice and stone in their positions.

On hearing the young girl's cry, which resounded around the peaks like the echo of a great wind, Chia hid herself in the clouds and the five eagles awoke and furiously beat their wings, their white feathers falling down in a flurry of snowflakes that covered the mountains completely.

Caribay was lost that night among the peaks and became the spirit of the Andes. The eagles - still and silent in their high perches - became the five enormous mountain peaks that make up Merida's high sierra, perpetually covered in snow.

Nowadays, when Caribay, the spirit of the mountains, gives out her shrill lament - which is the howl of the storm - the eagles once again awake and shake off their feathers as falling snow and all the mountain peaks once again become white, in the heavy snow storms.

(Translated by Russell Maddicks)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Quick Post: Me on a Wanted Poster

On my way to teach yesterday, I was greeted by this banner hanging over the street.  I might end up being the mayor of Merida or something...  (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Venezuela, Week One

View of the Andes from my bedroom window on Monday.
It has been a busy week, and uncharacteristically, I haven't kept a journal!  So I'll list some highlights of my trip so far here.

The cathedral on the Plaza Bolivar, Merida
Monday (May 16) was my first full day in Merida.  The schedule was light, which was good because I was still pretty jet-lagged.  In the morning, we stopped by the cathedral, which is quite elegant.  It dates from the 1820s and is one of the older buildings in Merida.  (Not too many old buildings survive, because they are not keen on historic preservation here.)  Noa, Edzar (her husband) and I had lunch at a panaderia that also has a cafeteria-style lunch line.  But what a cafeteria!  All manner of hot foods (in the local style, of course), salads, and so on, all for a very reasonable price.  We had a little spot we liked for lunch last year--it was just around the corner from the music school--but, alas, it has closed.  So now all the music professors go to this same panaderia.  That evening, I met with the top choir in town and got to rehearse movements 1, 2, and 6 of the Brahms Requiem with them.  They know them remarkably well (the pianist couldn't get there because of the weather, so we sang the music mostly a cappella) and were very responsive.  We hope to have a public reading of as many movements of the piece as we feel comfortable with on June 4.

Shrine to Pope John-Paul II
Cathedral interior
Tuesday.  In the morning, I attended a class on traditional Latin-American music.  These students attend lectures on certain days, then practice playing the music on others.  I had gotten to hear them practice last year, and it was one of the highlights of the trip.  This time, I heard a lecture--entirely in Spanish, of course.  Fortunately, there were also PowerPoint slides (also in Spanish), and I'm a little better at reading Spanish than hearing it.  I would say I got 30 - 40% of what was going on--enough to understand that the talk was about tango and its roots in traditional Argentine forms.  Two interesting things I learned:  tango was originally danced only by men (I'm sure of this and know it wasn't just a language confusion, because there were photos), later by men and prostitutes.  It was after the French somehow got hold of it (on this I was less clear) that tango moved from the brothels and barrios to the more respectable parts of Buenos Aires, though it kept traces of its origins:  the slightly competitive character from when it was danced by men and the overt sexuality that it gained in the brothels.

That evening was my first rehearsal with the orchestra.  We read the Brahms Variations and the Mendelssohn Symphony.  Lots to do!  But for the most part, the orchestra is willing and cooperative.  They even responded to my more outrageous suggestions--like that the string players consistently use no vibrato.  (There is some research that supports doing away with universal vibrato in music before about 1930.  Beyond that, though, it's a good rehearsal discipline:  it encourages people to play more accurately in tune, and they have to be more expressive with the bow.)

Wednesday.  In full swing.  I gave a 2-hour lecture in the morning, basing it on my PowerPoint concerning 5 essential aspects of singing and their application to rehearsing choirs.  Noa translated capably, as she had done the night before in orchestra rehearsal.  She knows my speech patterns very well and can quickly convert them into Spanish.  Lunch was again in the panaderia, then after a short rest, it was time to rehearse with the trumpeter, soprano, and keyboard player for the Bach.  They are all very fine, and it seems promising.  That evening, orchestra rehearsal, getting down to the nitty-gritty in the Brahms and Mendelssohn, and reading the Bach with the strings.  Noa's mom drove me to rehearsal.  I was apprehensive:  she speaks no English, and we already know something about my Spanish (although people who met me last year do notice an improvement and are quick to remark on it--mission [to be better than last year] accomplished).  It was fine!  She speaks very clearly, and I understood most of what she said and was even able to respond appropriately.

Thursday.  In the morning, I worked with the fourth-year conducting students, who had prepared the fourth movement of the Brahms Requiem.  As they conducted, I talked about how to choose a tempo, where one's attention must be at each moment, and the detail with which one has to memorize in order to conduct without a score.  Then there was a rehearsal with two conductors who are giving their graduation recitals soon.  One student was preparing his arrangement of an American pop song, "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand."  He hoped I could help the choir get a better sense of swing.  (Me?  Really?  I tried.  It did seem to get better.)  I was also able to make some slight suggestions about the arrangement (mostly putting a consonant in front of nonsense syllables to make the rhythm clearer) that helped.  The second student was conducting a Mendelssohn motet based on the Song of Simeon.  The choir sounded fabulous on this, so we worked on interpretation--my stuff on singing with imagination.  The transformation was quite astonishing and very exciting--so much so that no one wanted to leave!  They stayed until 12:30, half an hour beyond the normal stopping time of the class.  Noa was especially impressed by this.  She says they're normally getting anxious at about 11:55 and are walking out the door, no matter what is going on, at 12:00.  In the evening, another 2-1/2 hour rehearsal with the orchestra.  (These rehearsals all take place in a low-ceilinged room that has little ventilation and no air conditioning.  I come out drenched!)

Friday.  Another 2-hour lecture in the morning on vocal and choral rehearsal techniques.  I'm trying to tell them most of what I know!  In the afternoon, I got to hear Noa's really wonderful choir--teenage girls singing with a lovely tone and great intonation.  Noa has made great progress with the group in the few weeks she's had them.  In the evening, orchestra rehearsal.  Elizabeth arrived today, after a great deal of discussion and planning about the best route and best mode of transportation from Maracaibo to Merida, given the condition of the roads.  (The choices are to fly from Maracaibo to Caracas, stay overnight, then fly the next day to El Vigia and drive to Merida, or drive from Maracaibo to Merida--an 8- to 12-hour trip, depending on how you go.)  We ended up sending a car for her, and she made the trip in about 9 hours without notable incident.

Me with one of the choirs, Noa (center) translating.
 Saturday.  Big day!  Orchestra rehearsal in the morning.  These are very detailed and therefore slow going, but we're making good progress.  I think the concert is very promising.  The music is splendid, and the players are getting a real sense of how to do it well.  We had lunch at Noa's mom's house--a really wonderful lunch of soup and stew, both made in a traditional style.  Then in the afternoon, I held a 3-hour choir clinic.  Six choirs sang, and I offered suggestions and tried to help them sound better.  I think I succeeded in most cases--despite the wide range of music (from traditional Venezuelan, to American pop, to Gospel, to Renaissance motets) and differing levels of the choirs.  It was tremendous fun, and everyone was very kind.

I love the happy faces as one of the choirs sings!
In the evening, there was a sort of choral festival, and one of the groups from the afternoon asked me to lead them in a performance of Alice Parker's arrangement of "He's the Lily of the Valley."  The choir is made up of older teenagers, most of whom are my Facebook friends.  We had a grand time, and this is without doubt the highlight of my trip so far.  I was especially proud of the soloist, Roman Lopez, a young baritone with an appealing voice and a very engaging air on stage.

The evening concert.  Roman is to the left of me.
 Sunday.  We're having a leisurely morning with time to update the blog!  It's sunny today for the first time since I arrived; we're taking the opportunity to do laundry and hang the clothes out to dry (we hope they'll be mostly dry before the onset of the afternoon rains).  Later, I'm having lunch with another family, then listening to the choir for the graduation recital, then working again with the Bach soloists.  Sue and Miriam arrive here tomorrow!

The view of the mountains this morning!  Very clear!
ADDENDUM:  As I was getting ready to post this this morning, the family that was taking me to lunch arrived.  We went to one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, the Hostal Madrid where they have an asopado to die for and (as a restauranteur in Tempe likes to say) a paella to kill for.  I had the asopado and Elizabeth had the paella.  Amazing.  Afterwards, I was supposed to have two rehearsals, but both were canceled at the last minute.  So this amazing family (Cristina Amaro--a fine and delightful soprano--her charming mother, her aunt--who is the general manager of the orchestra--and Cristina's boyfriend Juan-Pablo) took Elizabeth and me on an adventure!  For the first time ever, I rode to the north of the city into gorgeous mountain scenery and on to La Culatta, which is in the Paramo (moor).  Much of the vegetation is reminiscent of the English moors, and when the fog rolled in, well, it was pretty much like you imagine in the north of England or Scotland--fitting, since I'm immersed in Mendelssohn's so-called "Scottish" Symphony.  Pictures soon!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Quick Update

I am in Merida, Venezuela, after two long days of traveling.  Getting here is always an adventure!  Day one is the flight from Phoenix to Atlanta, then a three-hour layover until the flight to Caracas.  We left our house at 5 a.m. and got to Atlanta at about 2 p.m. local time.  We embarked again at about 5 p.m. and arrived in Caracas at about 9 p.m.  By the time you get your bags (a very slow process), go through customs, find the guy who is to drive you to your hotel and actually drive to the hotel, you've spent about another hour and a half.  I think we finally got to our rooms at about 11 p.m.--some 15 hours after we left home once you account for all the time changes.

Then the next day, you get up and do it all again.  Though the flight from Caracas to El Vigia, the nearest town to Merida with a functioning airport, is only about an hour, you have to go the airport well ahead.  It took nearly an hour to check my bags and go through security--although I really shouldn't complain, because it took that long in Phoenix, too.  I got to the airport at about 2:30 for a 5:30 flight.

The flight itself was uneventful, except for a long wait on the tarmac in a very warm plane.  The real adventure began on the drive from El Vigia to Merida, which should take maybe 90 minutes.  It has been raining in Venezuela since November.  You read that correctly:  it's been raining for six months, due to La NiƱa.  Sections of the mountainous road between the two towns are closed because of mudslides, rock slides, and sink holes.  For one stretch of about 10 miles, traffic can only go in one direction.  Because there are so many obstacles, it's like driving on a slalom course--in the direction we were headed, you keep having to weave into the oncoming lane to avoid the stuff that's fallen from the mountain and then back the other way avoid the sink holes on the other side.  

We waited at a checkpoint for about an hour while the traffic passed in the opposite direction, and then we were allowed through.  This would have been trying under any circumstances, but it was made the more challenging by the fact that my Spanish is still very elementary, and I couldn't understand the explanations of what was going on.  It wasn't until I saw the condition of the road that I realized what had happened.

So to make a one-hour flight and a 90-minute drive took about 8 hours in all.

But now I am in lovely (though wet) Merida.  The cloud-covered Andes are in view from the back windows of the house where I'm staying, and I'm going in a little while to have lunch with my good friend Noa.  Being here in this beautiful place with the kindest people I know is worth the trouble it takes to get here.

I like keeping travel journals, so I'll probably post some notes here from time to time. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The REAL News

It never fails, does it?  While I was busily writing the post below, something really important was happening--something I might have failed to notice.  Fortunately, I had to go outside to put the recycling bin on the curb.  And while I was out there, I discovered that the cereus--an amazing cactus that more or less hides in a corner of the yard--was blooming.  This is especially remarkable as neither Sue nor I had noticed the bud.

Here it is:  the first cactus flower of the season.  If we're lucky, the plant will yield fruit--a mildly sweet, firm-fleshed thing that is sometimes called a cactus apple.  Quite delicious.


The Andes from the window of my room in Merida, June 2010.
Well, the furor of last week seems to have died down, and on the whole I'm grateful. I wasn't prepared for the reaction to my posts about the Superintendent of the Higley Schools--most of all, I wasn't prepared for the level of criticism that came to me.  I guess I didn't reckon with how much some people dislike it when you call attention to something that you think is wrong.  Really, in our culture, we're supposed to look the other way when something untoward is going on.

The thing is, I'm a teacher.  I'm also a conductor.  Part of our job is to point out what's wrong, what could be improved, what's great--and then find a way to make it better.  Generally, that's what I try to do.  If I see litter in the park, I pick it up.  If I see something happening that shouldn't be happening, I try to correct it if it's in my power to do so.  I guess it's in my DNA.  That's all that I was doing here, but people assumed a whole host of ulterior motives--to say nothing of making some pretty remarkable assumptions about my character.

But I'm on to my next projects--my various summer assignments.  First, I go to Venezuela to do some teaching and conducting.  Then I go to Maine for a bunch of stuff:  two big lectures, a reading of Elijah, a recital, and then a huge production of Haydn's The Creation.  I'm looking forward to all of it!  (And burglars, please note:  we have a big dog and house sitters.  This is not your chance to come raid the place.)

I'm spending the next few days getting ready for the Venezuela trip.  I will probably post a few things from there as the spirit moves (and it generally does:  Venezuela is gorgeous and fascinating and full of contradictions).  I've been studying hard, because I'm conducting a whole program of big pieces I've never done before.

So here's what happened:  the concert was supposed to be the Brahms Haydn Variations and the Brahms Requiem.  The Requiem (one of my desert-island pieces) I can practically do in my sleep; only the Haydn Variations were new--so that was very manageable.  But then they had an outbreak of swine flu in Merida--the town where I'm going--and everything was shut down for three weeks.  The choir couldn't rehearse, and they didn't think they could be ready in time.

So we changed the program.  Still the Haydn Variations, but now instead of the Requiem, Bach's "Jauchzet Gott in allem Landen," a big virtuoso cantata for soprano, trumpet, and orchestra, and Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony.  I've never conducted any of this music before.  The Bach isn't hard to conduct--it's a much bigger challenge for the singer and trumpet player--but I still have to know how it goes.  The Mendelssohn, on the other hand, is a huge, complex work that I don't think I'd even heard until they asked me about a month ago to conduct it.  I've been studying it nearly day and night since.  This is the kind of music that really requires you to have a point of view--otherwise, it will be pedestrian.  (If you know where it's headed and can take it there, it's sublime.)  But it's not so easy to get a point of view fast--it has to be in your sinews, and that takes time.  In this case, what I lacked in time I have tried to make up for with intensity.

Fingers crossed.  My previous trips to Venezuela have been wonderful--I might almost say life-changing--so I suspect this will be no different.  I am continually amazed by the places that music takes me.  Stay tuned (if you're interested), because I'll gladly share the experience here.

Here I am conducting the state orchestra and youth chorus in Handel's "Zadok, the priest" in the Aula Magna, Merida, June 2010.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Higley School Board Meets

There was a meeting last night of the Higley School Board.  According to this account by Hayley Ringle (who also reported about the superintendent's emails), the subject of the emails wasn't raised.

I wouldn't have expected the board to raise it: they are focused on the business of running the schools and their agenda is designed to do that.  They will only depart from it if the people who elected them demand it.  The board must be responsive to citizens--it does not need to respond to a blog or to a newspaper article.  If you are concerned, whether you want to question Dr. Birdwell's actions or speak in support of her, I urge you to contact the members of the Higley School Board.  Their contact information is on the website for the Higley Unified School District.

It seems to me that sometimes we complain and believe that in doing so we have acted.  Complaining to one another or posting on a blog isn't taking action.  It's just talking.  Taking action is bringing the matter to someone who can do something about it--in this case, the elected members of the Higley Governing Board.

Outrage is fine, so long as it inspires us to act.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Access Denied

Apparently, the Higley Unified School District has blocked access to this blog.  Reportedly, if you attempt to access it from within the district's network, you are told that you are in violation of the district's internet usage policy.  The message says that if you continue to violate the policy, you will face disciplinary action.

AZ Republic Story

You can read the article by Arizona Republic reporter Hayley Ringle here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Channel 12 Story on Higley Letter

You can watch a video of the story that appeared this evening on Channel 12's 5:00 news here.
(be patient; it may take a few moments to load) provides supporting documents:

1.  The original letter that I posted last night.

2.  The op-ed piece by Jennifer Lauria.

3.  The letter that went out from the superintendent's office today to correct the original mailing.

I suspect that something may appear in the Arizona Republic in the morning.

(In case you missed it, please look at my post from earlier this evening.)

Two Poems

I am reminded of two poems by Carl Sandburg.


Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is
      not easy to call them back.
They wear long boots, hard boots; they
      walk off proud; they can't hear you
Look out how you use proud words.


Little girl, be careful what you say
when you make talk with words, words—
for words are made of syllables
and syllables, child, are made of air—
and air is so thin—air is the breath of God—
air is finer than fire or mist,
finer than water or moonlight,
finer than spider-webs in the moon,
finer than water-flowers in the morning:
and words are strong, too,
stronger than rocks and steel
stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle,
and soft, too, soft as little
pigeon eggs,
soft as the music of hummingbird
So, little girl, when you speak
when you tell jokes, make
wishes or prayers,
be careful, be careless, be
be what you wish to be.

And remember, friends, these admonitions apply equally to everyone, including me.  ~DS

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Superintendent of Higley Unified School District Sends a Letter of Appreciation...that she didn't write

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day.  In honor of that, Denise Birdwell, Superintendent of Higley Unified School District here in Arizona, had her administrative assistant send this email to the teachers:

From: Olivas, Jill
Sent: Tuesday, May 03, 2011 3:00 PM
To: District Wide Certified Staff; District Psychologists Group; District Gifted Teachers
Subject: Letter from Dr. Birdwell

Higley. Connect, Engage, INSPIRE

Dear Staff:

As the end of the year approaches, it is only fitting that we stop and thank our Higley teachers.  The late William Arthur Ward wrote,   "The mediocre teacher tells.  The good teacher explains.  The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires."  We celebrate teachers who INSPIRE.

While I am eternally grateful to those extraordinary teachers who have touched my soul throughout my life, at the same time I am truly honored to be an educator myself. I am privilege to spend each day surrounded by teachers who inspire students to achieve their potential.  I am fortunate to be in a position that allows me the honor to inspire others and help foster a lifelong love of learning has been a blessing in my life, which has brought me immense joy.

I have the opportunity to listen to teachers express their experiences of discovery along with their students.  They share their journeys as they witness the fascinating transformations as their students achieve success, begin to believe in themselves, and start to value their own worth as unique individuals has been rewarding beyond measure.  These are the moments we remember why we are teachers.

Great teachers bestow invaluable gifts upon their students: lessons upon which to build their lives. They provide stepping stones of knowledge and inquiry, spark the magic of discovery, encourage students to believe that success is within reach, foster courage to take risks, help students learn from mistakes and view perceived failures as opportunities for growth, guide learners to develop the determination to persevere and to stand by their principles even when terrified to do so, inspire conviction for learners to follow their dreams with passion in their hearts, model the need to strive for excellence and the worth of effort and determination, and teach students to value differences in others by taking the time to learn about them rather than fearing what they don't understand - just to name a few!

A great teacher can inspire the spark that ignites a lifelong passion for learning and an insatiable appetite for knowledge that makes learning a marvelous adventure. Perhaps most importantly, teachers lead by example and demonstrate respect, empathy, compassion and patience toward others.

In honor of National Teachers Day, we appreciate those who so proudly embody the noble title of teacher, and make such remarkable contributions to our community. An extraordinary teacher can change lives, and thus change the world. Teachers give students the greatest gift of all: the ability to believe in themselves and to value the special gifts they possess, for which they deserve incredible gratitude.

Denise Birdwell
Inspiring, right?  Makes you want to stand up and salute.

There's only one problem.  It's lifted almost word-for-word (with some mistakes added) from this opinion piece by Jennifer Lauria, an associate professor of education at Wagner College in Staten Island. 

Once or twice in my career, a student has tried to do this--pass off work from the internet as original.   Apart from failing my class, they faced serious consequences from the university for breach of academic honesty.

Aside from the fact that her action is just plain embarrassing--do teachers really want warmed-over praise?--it's also unethical and dishonest.  Someone who describes herself as an expert in educational law ought to know what plagiarism looks like and should set a better example for the students in her district.  What will the consequences be?  I look forward to finding out.