The Power of Believing in Our Communities
Axelle Miel, Ambassadors Program Leader; violinist and aspiring teaching artist
I am an uncommon editorialist. A 19-year-old violinist with no professional experience who’s just finished her first semester of college is not your typical guest writer, yet here I am penning the opening piece of this month’s newsletter.
It is a curious predicament, but nothing that I am not already used to. Because of the nature of my musical training, I have become accustomed to occupying spaces in which I never truly felt I belonged.
I grew up in the city of Cebu in the Philippines. When I first started to learn the violin, I never had a teacher who stayed with me for more than a year; my teachers always eventually moved abroad for better economic outcomes. When I joined the local orchestra at age eight, I played symphonies with 30-year-olds, never getting to relate to them on any other level. The youth ensemble I participated in slowly dissolved as the older students left to study in the Philippine capital of Manila.
With everyone leaving Cebu to seek brighter opportunities, I was told to follow suit if I wanted to become a better violinist. My parents and I sought out possibilities in Luzon, the northern island region where Manila is located. There I met people who recognized my potential, and I began weekly flights there to pursue my studies. But this was not without its costs. I found an inimitable teacher who developed my artistry and let me play chamber music with his students, but I struggled to bond with them in the dialect that was not my native tongue. With Ang Misyon and the Orchestra of the Filipino Youth, a Sistema-based program in Manila, I got to play more advanced ensemble repertoire with people my age, but I was the only person who didn’t live within a 60-mile radius of our venue. I became known as “the girl from Cebu,” who would come once in a while for rehearsals and summer camps without ever fully integrating with the group.
As I grew as a violinist, I began to associate Luzon with progress and Cebu with stagnation. The latter was where I ate and slept and went to school, but the former was where I saw my future. It didn’t help that when I joined music competitions, I was always the odd one out—the girl from Cebu. Among the 45 known first-place prizes awarded to string players in the Philippines’ premier music classical competition since 1973, only four have gone to musicians outside of Luzon. Two of the four were awarded just this past decade––one being myself.
For reference, 57 percent of Filipinos lived in Luzon in 2015. The rest are distributed in Visayas and Mindanao, the other two island groups in the country. How could a place that housed a little over half the total population win 91 percent of the time?
It’s not that there were no competent musicians beyond the capital—just that the resources needed to attain said competence were all concentrated in one place. This pattern of inequity led me to equate classical music with speaking a different language and being in a different city. So when I finally had to stay home, I felt helplessly lost.
In 2016, the airline that had sponsored my weekly flights to Manila stopped their funding and I scrambled to find a way to continue playing. Our musical director at Ang Misyon suggested setting up a satellite program (similar to a núcleo) in my neighborhood, to which I tentatively agreed. Armed with a few of my used violins, I marched into this new situation without much hope and with no blueprint for success.
Unsurprisingly, I floundered for a few years, not knowing how, what, and why I was teaching. I enjoyed interacting with my students, but my long-held belief that one couldn’t achieve musical recognition outside of Luzon made me doubt whether I was even doing something worthwhile. On a whim, I decided to ask some Japanese friends who were doing the same kind of work across town if I could spend a summer observing their program.
When I arrived at their studio, I was struck to see 50 Cebuano kids and teenagers casually tuning their saxophones and clarinets while chatting in our dialect. It had been so long since I was in a room of music students who were exactly my age, who looked like me and spoke my language, that the scene felt too good to be true. They proceeded to play a song titled “I Love Cebu,” a tune every Cebuano grows up with. As I watched them perform with fervor, I realized that I was holding back tears.
I cannot begin to tell you how powerful it was to see these kids learn music in the context of their immediate culture. All my life I believed I had to seek elsewhere and be a different person to pursue classical music, but here was living proof that you could excel as a musician without shunning your original identity.
Since then, I have been teaching my students at Tintay String Ensemble, reinforcing their belief that they each have something valuable to offer the world, even when they’re made to feel otherwise. Though we still have a long way to go as an ensemble, I am grounded by the hope that someday Filipinos from all regions will be given the chance to hone their skills without having to leave home. I dream of a Philippines where every child has easy access to the resources they need and to educators who fully believe in their potential.
As I finish the final World Ensemble editorial of this indescribable year, I urge you to look for artistic vitality beyond the usual places. I am here because the editors had faith in me and encouraged me to share my story. It is my hope that you do the same for others, especially those who have been historically and systematically underserved. I was conditioned to accept that there was less promise in my community based on its location on a map, but there is always talent, wherever you are. You need only to stop, listen, and trust in it.