Deaf, disabled kids harmonize in Venezuela program

AP News
Posted: Mar 25, 2011 2:25 AM
Deaf, disabled kids harmonize in Venezuela program

When the choir begins, only some of its young members sing aloud. The rest make music silently through sign language, wearing white gloves as their hands perform an elaborate choreography in unison.

The deaf members of the White Hands Choir are part of an unusual program in Venezuela that brings together students with a wide range of disabilities and immerses them in music. They rehearse with blind and mentally disabled musicians who play the trumpet, piano and bongo drums and with singers who have Down syndrome or autism or use wheelchairs.

Venezuela's music program for the disabled began in 1995 in the north-central city of Barquisimeto and has spread throughout the country while also becoming a model internationally.

During one recent recital, the audience included Nicolae Sarpe, a cellist and music teacher in Italy who made a special visit to see the choir for himself.

"Things like this hit you right here," Sarpe said, gesturing to his heart. He said what makes Venezuela's program unique is that it involves hundreds of disabled music students across the country.

The program was begun as part of Venezuela's famed National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras, known as El Sistema, which has become famous for involving children from the slums in classical music and for producing talented musicians.

Disabled students rehearse in the same music conservatory where years ago prodigy conductor Gustavo Dudamel _ now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic _ honed his talents.

In the conservatory's hallways and classrooms, disabled children and teenagers practice on violins, guitars and other instruments, and rehearse a wide range of music from Brahms to Ruben Blades. Some play salsa music in a band.

Teachers say being involved in music boosts the students' self-esteem and helps them to set goals. When they perform, audiences are impressed.

"They're applauded for the quality work they've done, for the professional work they've developed, and not for their disabilities," said program founder and teacher Johnny Gomez.

For years, Gomez has worked closely with Jose Antonio Abreu, a former Venezuelan congressman and musician who in 1975 created El Sistema to provide quality music instruction to all children. Abreu's network of orchestras grew rapidly and now comprises about 150 youth orchestras and 70 children's orchestras nationwide, providing free classes and instruments to pupils who couldn't otherwise afford them.

"Today the special education program is a banner of El Sistema," Gomez said. "They know about it in various countries. We're always contacted by people who come from abroad to see what's happening with music here."

The White Hands Choir has won awards in Italy and Britain, and has performed for famous visitors to Venezuela including Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic.

More than 1,800 disabled students _ including about 500 who are deaf _ are participating in the music program at 21 centers across Venezuela.

"I give thanks to God because time has shown that a deaf person can make music," said Naybeth Garcia, main conductor of the White Hands Choir in Barquisimeto, which has spawned other deaf choirs throughout the country.

The choir's members include Jessica Montes de Oca, a 24-year-old deaf student who has been participating since she was 12. Speaking in sign language through an interpreter, Montes said she and other members of the choir have shown they can learn and progress.

"Sometimes it's very hard," Montes said, adding that they rehearse diligently until "everything comes out well."

About 30 deaf students make up most of the sign language choir, but there are also two non-deaf girls who have joined and learned to sign along with the rest. One of them has Down syndrome and the other a deformed jaw.

Their teachers say the group is very tightly knit and works well as a team. Alongside the deaf choir, other non-deaf students sing in the vocal choir, often accompanied by a guitar and keyboard.

One of the singers is Agustin Ramos, a 20-year-old who has autism and has been in the program since he was 6.

His mother, Alicia Garcia, watched him proudly at a recital. She said participating in music has helped him speak more and interact with others in school. He is now attending his final year of classes in a regular high school.

"It makes you immensely happy to see your son there ... when some specialists once said he would never talk," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "Agustin is a product of the conservatory."


Associated Press video journalist Yesica Fisch contributed to this report.