Music may not be a top priority in a country where many citizens are just getting by to cover their day-to-day needs. But Ang Misyon, Inc. — a non-profit organization that aids talented and underprivileged young musicians in the Philippines — shows that music may, in fact, be a ticket to a better life and, later on, a better society.
ABS-CBN Chairman Emeritus Eugenio Lopez 3rd, First Philippine Holdings Chairman Federico Lopez, and internationally renowned concert pianist Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz founded Ang Misyon in 2012 with the belief that teaching the youth orchestral music can spark social change in the Philippines.
Ang Misyon, Inc. and its main performing arm, the Orchestra of the Filipino Youth (OFY), celebrate 10 years of supporting the musically talented, less privileged youth. COVER AND INSIDE PHOTOS COURTESY OF IAN SANTOS VIA OFY
According to celebrated Maestro Gerard Salonga — current Music Director and Chief Conductor of Orchestra of the Filipino Youth (OFY), the main performing arm of Ang Misyon — Ang Misyon was inspired by the success of the social action music program El Sistema.
Founded by Maestro José Antonio Abreu in Venezuela in 1975, El Sistema used musical programs to take vulnerable children away from the streets. The goal was to build them a future that does not involve crimes, drugs and gangs, among others.
“In a conversation with Piki [Federico Lopez] sometime in 2010, we shared our mutual admiration for El Sistema, and then the conversation went to what if we have something like that here in the Philippines. We thought, bagay siya sa Pilipinas because our conditions here are not dissimilar. And like Venezuela, we too have a lot of talented kids,” Salonga recalled in an interview after the successful 10th-anniversary concert of OFY at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Through musical training and instrument support, Ang Misyon and OFY scholars hone their skills to eventually play at professional level and give back by training future scholars. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANG MISYON, INC.
Improving lives of talented kids
It would take a few more years before that dream was realized, but from that day forward, Ang Misyon never turned its back on its mission. So much so that they are ever on track even after enduring the double whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ABS-CBN shutdown.
To this very day, Ang Misyon continues to provide orchestral training and instrument support for their scholars, who now number the thousand-mark count.
And even before performance restrictions because of the pandemic, OFY performed overseas, like Malaysia, United States and Qatar, where they will always be remembered as the first Filipino symphony orchestra to have played at the Katara Opera House.
“Sobrang memorable po sa akin yung performance sa Qatar kasi yun din po yung first time kong makapag travel abroad,” Carmela Casas, 16-year-old flutist of OFY, shared at the sidelines of their anniversary concert.
Casas said she is grateful for the opportunity to travel around the country and overseas. But more importantly, she is thankful for receiving free training from Ang Misyon. The foundation continues to give the scholars one-on-one lessons, sectional workshops, and master classes.
“Yung mga teachers po namin ay professionals, mga nag-aaral sa malalaking universities pati sa ibang bansa and yung knowledge na shine-share nila sa amin, talagang magagamit namin. High quality and libre pa po siya,” Casas enthused.
In its decade-long existence, Ang Misyon has turned several OFY members into mentors to younger scholars and others still as full-time professionals.
Since 2021, Maestro Gerard Salonga has been the Music Director and Chief Conductor of Orchestra for OFY, eager to train the future of orchestra music in the country.
OFY’s double bass player Marloe Kyril Maruyama actually did both. He joined OFY in 2016 when he was forced to stop school due to financial constraints. Now, he is the family’s breadwinner, bringing in the salary he earns from playing double bass.
“OFY yung naging daan sa akin para music na yung maging career ko ngayon. It opened doors for me para makatugtog sa ibang orchestra and mag train din ng mga mas batang musicians. Kung dati nakikitira lang kami at palipat-lipat, ngayon ako na yung nakakabayad sa apartment para sa family ko,” Maruyama shared.
For Ang Misyon and for Salonga, these success stories, among many others, affirm that they are on the right track.
“These inspiring results reaffirm the work we do and are a great example that art is an essential part of life and is a form of livelihood for many. There are various art forms out there, and music serves as a universal language we can all connect with. It can also be one of the most transformative, as it can uplift lives and bring hope to others,” Salonga stressed.
But then again, the mission continues.
In composition, these inspiring stories can be likened to bridges, passages that connect sections of a song, and not the coda or the concluding stanza.
Salonga — concurrently the Resident Conductor of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur — stepped in as OFY’s Music Director and Chief Conductor of Orchestras in 2021 intending to further elevate the orchestra.
“When I came in, it was the middle of the pandemic, and I decided that for the quality to go up, they need individual instruction. So what we did is we looked at the way we were doing things — made modifications, kept some of the great stuff that was there already and made some modifications.
“Now all of them have individual instructors, all paid for. They can’t afford it, so they are given lessons, sometimes, yung mga mentors na very generous, twice a week pa magturo.”
On the other hand, Salonga’s arrival also signaled the start of an “extremely stringent standard.”
“That’s one of the hard decisions you must make for a program like this. I let the kids know that yes, we are giving you lessons, but this is not a dole out; you have to your spot.”
What this meant was a round of auditions for all OFY scholars.
“I want them to learn that there are consequences, for lack of diligence or good consequence if you put in the work.”
Those who were able to keep their spot continued with their online sessions while the country was still under varying degrees of lockdowns. And when the locked downs eased in, they gradually met to play together, from small groups to sections, until eventually, in August, they were able to play as an orchestra, with Salonga meeting them all for the first time.
“What they bring is a very raw energy; it has to be sanded, refined, but that’s your building materials. You can’t do anything with people who don’t want to play. And these kids are desperate to play. That’s the single factor that they have with them that makes them special — desperation. They play like there’s no tomorrow,” Salonga noted when asked what it was like training younger musicians.
Meeting them also afforded Salonga to learn more about their stories.
When the weekly training session in the capital returned, he saw how some students, even outside Metro Manila, would find ways just to join these in-person sessions.
As Maestro Salonga puts it, music for these children is like oxygen. ‘For them, there’s no agenda except to play.’
Some kids from Nueva Ecija would leave their province at 4 a.m. to reach Pasig for their 9 a.m. rehearsals. There’s also a story of one scholar based in Cebu whose parents found a distant relative in Manila willing to take the scholar in.
“They do these because they are desperate to play — it’s like oxygen for them. And for them, there’s no agenda. These kids have no agenda except to play,” Salonga stressed.
Nevertheless, Salonga swore he does not coddle these children and gives them his honesty to further improve their skills.
“Syempre, you have to speak to them in a way that they’ll understand, but they have to be exposed to the fact that someone is demanding much more from them than they can offer right now.”
Besides honing their musical talents, Salonga also takes pride in teaching the scholars professional work ethics as early as now.
“We teach them how to behave in an orchestra, when to show your emotions and when to just really be quiet and deadpan — the decorum, the word of conduct for an orchestra.”
Outside music, these sessions of training, according to Salonga, will allow scholars to correct some negative traits that the Filipino culture usually passes down to the young.
“Music can instill diligence, discipline, and in the case of the orchestra, unanimity. Because orchestra won’t work if one group doesn’t listen to the other one. That’s how orchestras work — they play with their eyes and their ears. And then, finally, there’s precision. We don’t have that.”
The ultimate vision
Ultimately, Ang Misyon hopes to bring the orchestral training program nationwide to benefit children even in far-flung areas.
But for that to happen, the foundation will need reinforcement from partners and other organizations.
As Salonga laid out, training musicians are costly.
“Right now, we are paying for the 25 faculty members. We have to pay for our rehearsal venues but to top it all off, what’s really needed is funding for instruments, which are not cheap.”
For example, Salonga said professional piccolo instruments would cost €8,000 per piece, while professional violins could easily cost $40,000.
Sure there are available entry-level versions of these instruments, but Ang Misyon currently sponsors 70 scholars in OFY and 50 more reserve scholars. The amount could quickly balloon out.
Though institutionally funded by the Lopez Group of Companies, including ABS-CBN Corporation, First Philippine Holdings and First Gen Corporation, there are ways to help keep the music scholarships going for those who may not have the financial capability to master an instrument or play in an orchestra.
“What I hope people will realize is that, yes, it’s founded by a successful company, and they are capable of funding this program. But if we want it to get bigger and make an impact for more people, we will need more support,” Salonga finally emphasized.
For partnership inquiries and opportunities for support, email [email protected] or send a message through the OFY’s Facebook and Instagram pages: @OFY.ph.