Editor's note: Classical MPR assistant Brooke Knoll is in Havana as part of a U.S. contingent taking part in the Cuban American Youth Orchestra. Follow along as she shares her experience with this cross-cultural musical venture.
Not many people can say that they've seen the process of an orchestra getting ready to perform. Many orchestras have weeks to rehearse, and even professional orchestras receive parts weeks in advance as their season is announced. The members of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra (CAYO) don't have the luxury of time, but they have the luck of passion.
Today the orchestra split into sectionals for the first time, working on their respective parts while being led by a member of the Minnesota Orchestra. I went with the bassi and celli to the Teatro Nacional, or the National Theater, where rooms with air conditioning were found and the U.S. and Cuban musicians had a chance to connect with each other as a section.
One of the biggest challenges for the bass section wasn't carrying the basses to a room cooler than 80 degrees, but the language barrier. With the aid of a translator, Minnesota Orchestra bassist Dave Williamson quickly got out copies of music he had brought from home, and the bass students all lit up; trios and quartets for bass, Bach cello suites, and the Koussevitzky Bass Concerto were passed around.
The bass students realized that they played some of the same repertoire, and markings for finger placements and shifting were shared among all of the musicians. Dave decided to make the bass sectional more of a master class, having students play solos and then providing feedback and recommendations for improvement. He gave individualized attention to every musician, and they soon started asking questions and opening up about their experiences with his encouragement.
Even though they mainly communicated through gestures and basic phrases, the bass section became the most talkative and expressive section in the orchestra.
One of my favorite parts of this tour is the way the musicians collaborate with each other outside of formal rehearsals. Even on breaks during sectionals, the cello section will riff on classic jazz standards or pop tunes, improvising over well-known melodies with each other. Musicians will gather around the piano on stage during rehearsal breaks, with horn players and violinists alike inventing melodies on the spot.
Jam sessions have also sprung up, with Cuban and U.S. musicians showing one another different licks on their instruments, showcasing how far they are able to stretch their musical capabilities. Cuban horn player Elio Hernandez welcomed some students to a weekly jam session with some of his friends, and the group of musicians jammed on jazz standards as well as the theme music to Game of Thrones.
It's been great to see U.S. musicians, many coming from conservatories and traditional classical music backgrounds, let loose and experiment with other types of music. The Cuban musicians are so welcoming, and you can see how they feed off each other's energies when performing and creating an entirely new and cohesive group.
It's been interesting to see how the way we learn music is not just tied to where we're from, but also what language we speak. Owen McCreedy, one of the U.S. bassists, said it really well: Our native language impacts the way we feel beats and the way we write songs.
For example, when speaking English, there is a lot of stress placed on the syllables that follow the way we also sing and play music, typically in 4/4 time, emphasizing beats 1 and 3. Spanish, on the other hand, tends to stress the second syllable. Think of the word "papaya." When you say it out loud, the strongest part of the word is the "aye" in the middle. This is also how Cuban music emphasizes beats, creating a sense of time and melody that Americans might not necessarily be used to.
Even though it's taken a bit of adjustment for the U.S. musicians, they're starting to abandon their norms in favor of this new rhythm.