Civil Society, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MUSIC-BRAZIL: A School Without Teachers

Mario Osava

BARBACENA, Brazil, Sep 4 2009 (IPS) - The participation of renowned professional musicians as instructors and special guests at workshops, instead of academic professors, is what sets Brazil’s Bituca University of Popular Music apart, and is earning it a reputation as a model of experimentation and excellence in music education.

Rehearsal room at Bituca, with giant poster of Milton Nascimento. Credit: Courtesy of Grupo Ponto de Partida

Rehearsal room at Bituca, with giant poster of Milton Nascimento. Credit: Courtesy of Grupo Ponto de Partida

"Just like in medieval times, apprentices learn by observing and working alongside their teachers, mirroring them," according to the school’s self-description. It was founded in 2004 in Barbacena, located 170 kilometres from Belo Horizonte, the capital of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, and 280 kilometres from Rio de Janeiro.

As a school that is both "free" and "free of charge," Bituca’s philosophy rejects all rigid formalities. It has no minimum requirements in terms of formal schooling, and no age limits: all that matters is talent. Applicants from seven to 77 years of age competed for this year’s openings at the school. There are course programmes for nine instruments, and singing. Each runs for two years but can be extended, based on the school’s evaluation or the decision of the apprentices themselves.

"Human beings learn to speak first, and much later on to write," noted Pablo Bertola, stressing the importance of practice in musical learning. Bertola is a guitarist, composer and actor in Grupo Ponto de Partida (GPP), the theatre group that founded Bituca ("ponto de partida" is Portuguese for "starting point").

Bituca follows the Kodály Method, developed by Hungarian composer and educator Zoltán Kodály. This method of music education begins with sensory experiences like listening, movement, singing and improvisation, before moving on to theory. Emphasis is placed on local folk music, which reflects the language of students’ daily lives.


"We went to Milton’s house to do an interview. Then he played a song on the piano, and his producer sang. It was a really nice song, I’d never heard it before. I really admired the instrument and the way he played it.

"It was the first time I had ever seen a piano. It looked huge to me, because I was still little, I was just 11. He finished playing, and when he left the room he said, ‘If you want to play, go ahead.’ The other kids and I felt shy, but then I went over to the piano and started to play it by ear. I had carefully watched his hands and I managed to produce a clear sound, a chord.

"Milton came back in and came over to me. I was scared, because I thought he was coming to scold me. But instead he asked, ‘Where did you learn to play that?’ I told him, ‘I’ve never seen one of these before, it’s the first time I ever touched one.’ He said I should study piano, and a while later he gave me a keyboard. And then I started to study when Bituca started up."

This is Pitágoras Rodrigues Silveira’s own account of the meeting that decided his fate. Three years later he began his piano studies as part of the first intake of students at the Bituca University of Popular Music, where today, at the age of 19, he is helping to train new musicians as a school monitor.

Bituca is the nickname of Milton Nascimento, one of a generation of singer-songwriters who revolutionised Brazilian music in the 1960s and continue to be guiding forces in Brazil’s cultural life today. The others include Chico Buarque, who has now earned acclaim as a novelist; Gilberto Gil, who was the Brazilian minister of culture between 2003 and 2008; and Caetano Veloso.

Bertola, already a prolific composer at the age of 24, insists that he could have never attended a conventional university. His passions are popular music and the guitar, and neither is taught at the closest public university. But that university has never produced any well-known musicians, either, he added.

On the other hand, Bituca, just five years after its founding, has already demonstrated its excellence in training talented young musicians. Of the six winners of this year’s Minas Gerais Development Bank (BDMG) Young Instrumentalist competition, three were trained at Bituca, which also accounted for three of last year’s winners.

Some 2,700 applicants from cities throughout Brazil have participated in the three biannual selection processes held so far by Bituca. Although a total of 100 spots are offered each time, the school usually ends up accepting a larger number of apprentices. This year, 137 were enrolled.

Planting seeds

One of this year’s prize-winning BDMG Young Instrumentalists is Yuri Hunas, 21, who studied percussion at Bituca. In fact, Yuri was one of the reasons this free university was created.

Yuri and Renato Marques arrived in Barbacena six years ago from Araçuaí, a 15-hour bus ride away over treacherous roads, to take part in a theatre training course offered by GPP.

The two became singer/actors in the Children of Araçuaí choir, which was trained by GPP and went on to give successful performances in a number of Brazilian cities and even in Paris in 2005. Ever since he was a small boy, Yuri had dreamed of being a "tamborzeiro", the lead drummer in traditional music played in his hometown.

Yuri and Renato’s musical talent inspired the theatre group to create Bituca. Denying these boys the opportunity to study music would mean they would have been lost to work as day labourers cutting sugarcane in the southern state of São Paulo, the primary source of employment for the people of Araçuaí.

The Bituca University of Popular Music is located in a former silk factory, originally built in 1919, on the outskirts of Barbacena. The name Bituca is actually the nickname of the school’s "godfather", renowned singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, a native son of Minas Gerais and a major force in Brazilian music since the 1960s.

Another youngster from Araçuaí, Pitágoras Silveira, had already captured Nascimento’s attention through his natural talent for the piano, an instrument he learned to play almost instantly after coming into contact with one for the first time at the age of 11.

The musical potential of the poor children of Araçuaí was already known to Nascimento, who had shared the stage with the children’s choir at a number of the performances organised by GPP, including the concert in Paris.

Five children from the Araçuaí choir studied at Bituca the first year it opened, and stayed in a house specially designated for them. Yuri’s mother, Irene Hunas, formerly a small farmer and domestic worker, was divorced and had no other children, and so when Yuri moved to Barbacena to attend the school, she moved there with him, and was responsible for taking care of the house and the children living there for five years.

"Yuri read a lot, so much that I started to worry because he never left the house," Hunas told IPS. Back in Araçuaí since January, she is sad to be living far away from her son for the first time, after he moved to Belo Horizonte, 680 kilometres away, to further his studies in pursuit of a professional career.

As one of the BDMG New Instrumentalists, Yuri won a six-month scholarship to hone his talents in a series of workshops with seasoned percussionists. He will then go on to form part of a band made up of the prize-winning young musicians, which will offer regular performances.

Renato, the other youngster who inspired the creation of Bituca, studied bass guitar at the school for four years, but he is a "well-rounded musician" who has also mastered a number of other instruments, as well as harmony and the Kodály Method, according to GPP director Regina Bertola.

Renato has chosen the southern Brazilian city of São Paulo to pursue his professional career, because four of his seven siblings already live there, having fled the endemic unemployment in Araçuai, but managing to avoid a life of cutting sugarcane.

Human training

The opportunity to train with highly talented musicians as instructors has the benefit of "motivating us to study harder, because we want to be just like them," commented Renato. More than teachers, they are role models.

For Yuri, even more important than the musical training he received in the Children of Araçuaí choir and later at Bituca was the "human training" instilled in him.

All of Bituca’s former students, even those who do not go on to pursue a career in music, are forever marked by its philosophy that you learn more through the collective effort demanded by the arts than in a conventional school, he said.

The crossing of paths between the children of Araçuaí and the GPP theatre group, which opened up unimaginable horizons in his own life and those of many of his schoolmates, "is inexplicable, and somehow sacred, because it wasn’t planned," Yuri declared.

A "divine plan" is the term used by GPP director Regina Bertola, the mother of Pablo Bertola and guiding force behind the entire process. Bituca, the "offspring", has outgrown its creator, the theatre group she founded in 1980 with her late husband Ivanée Bertola.

From the 20 actors who comprised GPP, Regina now has more than 200 people under her charge, which makes it difficult for her to get back to her original calling as a playwright – a dilemma she describes with a mixture of regret and proud satisfaction.

" This article forms part of the "Art Is the Best Education" series of reports. The project that gave rise to this effort was the winner of the AVINA Investigative Journalism scholarship. The logos must be published with the reports. The AVINA Foundation and Casa Daros, its local partner in the Art and Society category, are not responsible for the ideas, opinions or other aspects of the content. ".
Republish | | Print |