Safira Antzus-Ramos talks about El Sistema Greece Youth Orchestra

Safira Antzus-Ramos, born in Spain with music studies in Madrid, Manchester, Thessaloniki and Athens, is the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of El Sistema Greece Youth Orchestra since last September. She has appeared as a conductor and teaching artist with orchestras in Spain, Greece, England and in Chile, Mexico and Argentina so she is definitely the best person to talk about ESGYO, the importance of music and the correct orchestra mentality.

What is like to be the Principal Conductor in an orchestra such as El Sistema Greece Youth Orchestra consisting of children and youth from different backgrounds?

ESGYO has children representing cultures from all five continents: Greek, Kurdish and Arab from Syria, Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Tajik, Congolese, Ghanaian, British, Venezuelan, Albanian, Romanian and Australian. The most powerful thing is that it really does not matter where the children come from, because their identity as “kids” surpasses all borders that countries might politically have. They are all “children”, each of them with their own story, different past and their own everyday life, but their essence as children is way more powerful than any other identity they might have been born with. They all laugh in the same way, they get frustrated alike, they get bored with the same things, they make the same kind of jokes and feel the same kind of passion and excitement, no matter where they come from.

From a more practical perspective, there is no common language for all members of our orchestra, which has taught us that the most important things are not communicated by saying words, but by doing them. We have learnt to communicate more deeply through gestures, smiles, glances with different meanings, and by making the children feel that we really care for them, being demanding and comprehensive at the same time. Music is of course what gives us the chance to develop these values, which are intrinsically linked with the practice of the notes itself.

Members of ESGYO not only improve their skills but they also learn how to be part of an orchestra. What does a correct orchestra mentality include? In which ways can music help children to develop their self-confidence and contribute to their social inclusion?

Notes are an excuse, something one learns in order to achieve something deeper. Music is an exercise of humbleness, in which process is inherent, a constant struggle for self-confidence, a true confrontation of oneself through the constant practice of a musical instrument. The work of the orchestra happens on the premise of numerous existing distances, physical and temporal distances: the distance that exists between the composer (that might have lived hundreds of years ago), whose ideas reach the conductor through a score, the distance between the conductor and the musicians, the distance among the musicians themselves, between the musicians on stage and the audience, and the distance among the audience members themselves. All these distances are magically annulated by music, which has the ability to connect yesterday´s sounds, ideas and feelings with today´s. Everyone in an orchestra works together so that they can make that possible, they are the link between the past and the present, and between human souls. They have the duty of conveying all those ideas, feelings and sounds to all who listen. The marvelous thing that happens in an orchestra is that all the values that are developed through the music learning process, are easily translated to everyday life.

The musicians in ESGYO practice through every rehearsal how to listen to one another, how to be patient, with themselves and with their peers, they practice helping each other, teaching each other and learning from each other, they practice silence, being responsible, punctuality, discipline, they practice how to overcome frustration and they learn the importance of consistency, of constant and hard work, which in the end leads them to get to experience that amazing feeling after a great concert, that comes only if one has worked hard enough for it. And the magic of it all is that the practice of all those values in every rehearsal, is a premise to achieve the overall re-unification with everyone present in the concert hall, and that the same way that all children, no matter where they come from, have an essence as children that transcends any other identity they might have, the same way, any identity, hostility or any other issue that might separate human beings from each other, gets automatically annulated by the act of Music, because Music makes our essence as human beings to outshine any label that might be dividing us.

Sevi Mats