"The education system is missing a very big opportunity by not including more music"

Photo: UOC
Roser Reyner
Manel Valdivieso, conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia


Since 2001, Manel Valdivieso has been conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia (JONC), which is not a professional orchestra and is not a part of any formal higher music education. It occupies a different sphere but is related to all the others: it enables the most talented young musicians in Catalonia to train for a time with internationally renowned teachers. Fifteen years ago, a maximum of 200 people per year took the entrance exams. Today, it’s around 600. Valdivieso, who has conducted Spain’s major orchestras and has worked in the international field, talked about leadership at the seminar Professionals competents per a organitzacions intelligents (Competent professionals for smart organizations), organized by UOC Corporate.


When you took the reins of the JONC you said the orchestra wanted to revolutionize itself. How is it doing this?

This has a lot to do with the fact that musicians come from all over Catalonia. Many come from schools in small towns but have immense talent. Each of them, in their school, is the best, something that for a while works very well; but there is a point when they don’t need to put in any more effort. At the JONC they find fellow students who are in the same position, which leads them to discover many things. One: that they are not alone, that there are people who are similar or better. And two: they personally meet teachers from around the world, in some cases the best available for their instrument. They work and stretch themselves like never before. They grow and see new possibilities. And, most importantly of all, at the end of the concerts they return home and carry this newly acquired bag of knowledge back with them. And when they play with their fellow students at home, this will be passed on. It will also be passed on to the teachers. In fact, as it is not strictly speaking a tool of the education system, the JONC has managed to ensure that participating in its auditions be part of teaching plan of Catalonia’s music schools. This feeds back into the food chain of the system and isn't exclusively for the elite.

Has it helped more people to be able to make a living, at least in part, as a soloist?

Twenty or thirty years ago, the music market was very backward in this country: there were the big orchestras and then there were occasional performances of much lower quality. But there was no intermediate market for quality performances, which would be the freelance market. These did not exist because there was no demand here. The fact that there are far more people who study classical music and have access to it has created not only a market of trained professionals but, more importantly, an audience interested in hearing it. It has created a series of groups that perform from time to time: they get together intermittently but when they do they are really very good. And later they give classes and play in an orchestra abroad. The profession has changed thanks to schools, conservatoires and the work done by the JONC. I think this is an interesting revolution.

At today’s event we are talking about technological revolutions. How does this tie up with classical music, which we might consider as not very modern?

We have both an advantage and a disadvantage. The material we are dealing with has nothing to do with technology. It is beauty, and is only produced live. Therefore, technology applied to a classical concert is very limited, although things have been done: concerts with video screenings, with light shows... But I would say that the biggest influence of technology in the process of music education and training professionals comes from access to information. When I studied, I knew there was a person in Barcelona who had the Brahms scores, that someone else had the Schnberg scores and that, depending on what I was looking for, I would never find it. I might have had to go to Paris to find a score, or to Andorra for a record... Today, students have more tools, easier access to excellence. Whether this is better than the past is debatable, because in the end what they have to do is practise, like athletes. But it can help with learning.

And in the case of conductorship? They have tried robots as orchestra conductors...

The important work takes place at rehearsal, and by the time the concert rolls around, the work has been done: in that moment the musicians have the conductor to inspire or guide them, to help with synchrony. And we have changed a lot, enough for orchestras to perform without a conductor and be the best in the world. But better without a conductor than with a robot.

What do orchestra conductors have in common?

Passion for the music: the fact that, when reading a piece of music at home we know how to see not only the beauty in it but the connections, which drives us to explain it. It's like reading a text so beautiful that you want to read it to someone else. And we also have the passion to organize a very large group of people to achieve this objective.

How did you discover this passion?

At the age of 14 or 15 it was already there. And later it turned out I was quite accomplished and I went on studying while doing what I needed to do.

How were you influenced, at a very young age, by your time studying at the Escolania de Montserrat?

The most extraordinary thing was that you learned fundamentals that you were not aware of until much later.

A very organic way of learning.

I remember that after studying at the Escolania I went to a conservatoire and we did two-voice musical dictation. They played it 16 or 20 times. I completed the dictation the first time and it scared me. I had learnt without knowing how, by osmosis. I think it’s magical.

What have you learnt from being a leader?

Two very important things: first, how to listen and not from a position of superiority; and second, how to be patient with things that I consider urgent.

As an orchestra conductor, you are used to leading the best. What does this involve?

You shouldn’t pull so much but rather lead. You have to get them to want to do what you believe is best for them but not for them to obey you. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

We are at a meeting organized by the UOC and talking about work and training. How does the education system treat musicians today?

The education system is missing a very big opportunity by not including music more, by not exploiting the multiple talents. In the classroom, all students must learn the same thing at the same pace. This does not produce the best results possible because everyone learns at their own pace. Is it ok to have common ground? Perhaps so. But there are certain disciplines that are not so much concerned with the things we learn but how these things affect our environment. For example, strategy. As for music, imagine that everybody knew how to listen...

...without thinking about what to say after the other speaks.

To really listen. The difference this makes to people's training is so huge that not making the most of it means missing an opportunity. That said, the system has evolved and is evolving well. But I believe that it misses a great opportunity when it doesn't focus on the different talents: spatial, strategic, patience, listening to oneself... None of these things will make you worse at anything and, in contrast, they will all make you better at everything. No question in my mind.

And the role of the university?

The higher music schools have university status but when you enter university you should have learnt this. It is better to learn it as a child.

Why is it so hard for classical music to reach people?

Hmmm... [laughs] ...Perhaps because it is less immediate.

And the world moves very fast.

Pop music, or even a singer-songwriter, is more superficial. Classical music is a more sophisticated, more evolved language. It is bound to be a little harder. But it is not an impossible language. We receive similar sensorial impressions: if you and I sit down to listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, perhaps we will not think the same thing, but you certainly won't think about butterflies or roses because there's strength, determination and decision in what you hear. We will receive sensations and experience similar emotions. There is a kind of message that is univocal in classical music, but not in a superficial way.

Is the JONC working to reach more people?

We are doing many things with extraordinary responses from the public. For example, this year, for Projecte Home, we are developing a project with pieces of music that shift from darkness to light, from chaos to order. The audience participates and understands what we are talking about with a few introductory remarks or images that help them explore a little further than they would do otherwise.

To delve deeper?

If you can, the effect is much better.

Today, we need this more than ever...

Yes, it would always do us good.