The Orchestra of the Filipino Youth is Ang Misyon’s commitment to nurturing the growth of underprivileged children through classical music.
Sixty-eight young musicians sit on a stage in the auditorium of the Department of Foreign Affairs building, in front of an audience much older than them. They are a group of important people—the country’s Diplomatic Corps and the DFA community—and some of the musicians have sweat running down their foreheads. After shakily going through their first piece, their conductor asks through the microphone, “What happened? Are you shy? Are you nervous?” Yes, they mumble.
The conductor faces the audience and says, “I will change the repertoire. With the next piece, I assure you they will play with more confidence.” And they do. At the first downbeat of their own rendition of the song “Pinoy Ako” by rock band Orange & Lemons, they all start to smile. One by one, all the sections, the strings, wind, percussion, come to life. They shake the first-song jitters away and remember that they are the Orchestra of the Filipino Youth (OFY). They are an army of great musicians. And they make up a chunk of the future generation.
“Music really just helps me stay sane,” says Amira Miel, 16, one of the orchestra’s violinists. She started playing the violin when she was 4. “If I stop playing music, it feels like there's something missing.”
Amira used to fly in from Cebu, where she is in junior high, to Manila every Saturday for rehearsals. Her airfare and meals were all accounted for, resulting from the generosity of a donor and as part of her special arrangement with Ang Misyon, the organization that manages OFY and provides support for their musical development.
Ang Misyon’s Orchestra of the Filipino Youth is an after-school program that “offers children from marginalized communities the opportunity to achieve their full musical potential through the Classical Music discipline, with the ultimate hope of creating a positive impact on their respective communities,” as their website says.
Including Amira, most of the orchestra members graduated from this program, on its helm over 900 children, their ages ranging from 9 to 25, hailing from several communities from Manila, the Talim Islands, Batangas, Isabela, Iloilo, Tacloban and others. With satellite operations in different provinces, Ang Misyon gives children from lower to middle class backgrounds free music education, rehearsal and transportation allowances, and an instrument if they lack one.
“Ang Misyon caters to underprivileged kids with talent in music,” explains Federico Frayna, Jr., the Orchestra Manager and Director of the Bulacan satellite. “We don't reject any scholars that are talented. But they should belong to Class C to E of our society.” Students who are well-to-do but want to join Ang Misyon will have to supply their own meals and transportation.
This model of youth nurturing was adopted from El Sistema, a voluntary sector music education program financed by the government of Venezuela. Founded in 1975 by Venezuelan conductor and educator José Antonio Abreu, “The System” has turned into a global movement, with various music programs taking inspiration from it in other countries.
The movement’s main thrust is social change through music. “Today we can say that art in Latin America is no longer a monopoly of elites and that it has become a social right, a right for all the people,” says Abreu in his TED Prize 2009 speech.
“The focus of the idea is to use the music, use the art to rescue the kids. Especially the poor or homeless families,” says Venezuelan born musician Joshua Dos Santos, Ang Misyon’s Chief Conductor of Orchestras and also the resident conductor of OFY. He came to the Philippines when he saw that the country was bursting with musical talent.
“Music really just helps me stay sane… If I stop playing music, it feels like there's something missing.”
- Amira Miel, violinist, Orchestra of the Filipino Youth
The whole system believes in the orchestra as a building block of society. “What is an orchestra? An orchestra is a small community. It's a small society. They need to work as a team.” Dos Santos continues, “We use their time to do something beautiful. That's the way that the music, in this case the orchestra, helps them to develop their behavior.”
“We're not an orchestra, we're a family,” says Monique Cuevas, 23, violist for OFY. When she’s not playing music, she works as an assistant cook for a restaurant. She says that playing with her fellow musicians helps reduce her stress.
Besides therapy, music is known to be a great avenue in promoting certain values like cooperation, leadership, and respect. “Music makes me a better person,” shares Jose Marie Eserjose, 18, violinist. He is also the orchestra’s concertmaster, the leader of the first violin section. “Kasi yung music, maraming tinuturong values like yung pagiging committed and disciplined, yung pagiging magalang sa ibang musikero.”
“You foster the camaraderie,” agrees Frayna, whom the kids affectionately call Sir Buboy. “You teach them the value of time and the value of being sensitive to others. It also helps them to express their own feelings. There are many different things that actually develop in the kid once they start learning music, like discipline. That's the most important part of it. Discipline. Focus.”
“Music makes me a better person. Kasi yung music, maraming tinuturong values like yung pagiging committed and disciplined, yung pagiging magalang sa ibang musikero.”
- Jose Marie Eserjose, violinist and concertmaster, Orchestra of the Filipino Youth
Additionally, music strengthens a community. Though the children come from different backgrounds, music serves as their strongest connection. One of their double bass players, Marloe Maruyama, 19, is currently studying music at St. Scholastica’s College and looks forward to each time they meet. “Once na darating yung Saturday kung saan sama-sama kami lahat, doon ako sumasaya. Doon lumalabas yung tunay na ako.”
Aside from music’s capacity to build self-expression as well as develop relationships with others, the orchestra members are given a chance to live sustainably. OFY’s timpani player, Rhonnel Ibañez, 22, is making an honest living with his music. “Tumutugtog ako sa ibang orchestra, sa ibang banda. Tapos yung bayad sa’kin, ginagamit ko sa pambaon,” he says. Minsan pambayad ng tuition ‘pag hindi kaya ng parents.”
Rhonnel is about to graduate as a scholar from the Centro Escolar University with a course in Music Education, thanks to the help of orchestra work. His fellow percussionist, Kent Capistrano, 20, is also a Music Education student in Philippine Women’s University. He recounts his on-the-job training, teaching music to elementary and high school students, where he applies the knowledge and experience he gains from the orchestra.
“Napunta rin ako sa orchestra na ‘to kasi yung mga piyesa na tinutugtog namin, nashe-share ko doon sa mga studyante ko,” says Kent. So on and so forth goes the chain of passing musical knowledge.
Funded by the Lopez Group of Companies’ First Philippine Holdings as well as ABS-CBN, Ang Misyon is currently arranging with the DFA for the orchestra to perform in Doha this year. It is the hope of Ang Misyon to make orchestral music accessible to all to walks of life. They will also be performing in BGC this Christmas.
For Carmela Arcasas, 12, the youngest musician in OFY, playing in an orchestra is a dream come true. “Yung music nakakatulong sa’kin ‘pag may gusto akong abuting pangarap,” the young flutist shares. And for Amira, it’s about helping other kids with their dreams as well. “I feel Ang Misyon helps us learn that what has been given to you, you should share also to others,” she says.
If music helps strengthen one’s identity, an orchestra as a sub-community and a country’s source of pride can in turn develop a nation’s cultural identity. That said, our youth orchestra are a glimmering light of hope. They are voices of a generation, blending in harmony.