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Implementing Structured Learning In The Absence of Local Teachers: The Case of the Jose DePiro Kabataan Orkestra
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Implementing Structured Learning In The Absence of Local Teachers: The Case of the Jose DePiro Kabataan Orkestra

Authors: Anna Hiemstra (Netherlands)


The Jose Depiro Kabataan Orkestra is a music-for-social-inclusion program that offers ensemble-based music education to children in a remote location and with limited means. The program currently serves approximately 140 students in the Dinalupihan region (Bataan, Philippines) every year. In part as a function of its location and the program’s origins, none of the regular program staff have extensive musical training and students are largely accountable for their own music progress. This case study examines the impact of this scenario, ultimately recommending that the orchestra take advantage of online educational resources, forge connections with long-distance teachers, and organize periodic residencies focused on practice exchange. It also recommends that codified guidelines and schedules for practicing, rehearsing, and peer-to-peer teaching be developed for students.

10-16 October 2018 | DINALUPIHAN

In early October 2016, the Jose Depiro Kabataan Orkestra welcomed me to their orchestra program on the outskirts of Dinalupihan, Philippines. My visit was scheduled to coincide with the final preparations for a highly anticipated concert by the orchestra in Manila, the capital city, as part of the “Concert at the Park” series. The children had been playing as an orchestra for just over two years, and this would be their first performance in Manila.

During the week I spent in Dinalupihan, I led orchestra rehearsals, worked with the string sections and individual students, and interviewed the program founder and staff. I observed that students felt comfortable in the program and enjoyed close relationships with each other and with the program staff; as I rode along in the van that was picking up the children after school, for instance, I heard them singing and laughing loudly in the back.

A clarinet teacher—joined occasionally by a brass teacher—visits from Manila on Sundays to work with the orchestra. However, none of the regular program staff have extensive musical training. Through conversations with students and staff and my observations of rehearsals and practice sessions, it became clear to me how challenging it is to run a music education program without music teachers or trained musicians to provide hands-on guidance. The string students in particular needed help developing their instrumental skills.


Kabataan Orkestra means “youth orchestra” in Tagalog and “Jose Depiro” refers to the founder of the Maltese religious order that runs and supports the music program. Previously, program founder Father Joseph Cremona had worked as a missionary priest in Dinalupihan. According to a May 3, 2015 profile in the Times of Malta, Fr. Cremona has a musical background himself and was inspired to start the program in order to give local children a safe place to go after school, help them find direction in life, and develop their talents. Music lessons were virtually unavailable in the Dinalupihan region prior to the founding of this program. With the financial and logistical support of the Missionary Society of St. Paul in Malta, the program collected enough instruments, primarily through donation, to begin offering musical studies to the children. The orchestra program started in January 2014 with approximately 30 children, and currently serves approximately 140 students every year. The orchestra has full string, wind, brass, and percussion sections. Rehearsals are held in the Jose Depiro Formation Center, a complex of about 5000 square feet, which includes a gymnasium, vegetable gardens, an air-conditioned rehearsal room, and storage for all of the instruments.

Dinalupihan is a municipality in Bataan Province with about 106,000 inhabitants. From Manila, it takes between 2.5 and 5 hours to travel there by car, depending on traffic and weather conditions. Most people in Dinalupihan are dependent on agriculture, particularly rice cultivation, for income and employment. However, rice harvesting is seasonal work and many laborers are unemployed during the wet season. Many students in the Jose Depiro Kabataan Orkestra have parents who are seasonal agricultural workers and some of the older students work on the land during the rice harvests.

Students in the Jose Depiro Kabataan Orkestra program range in age from 8 years old to their late 20s. The younger students are in school full-time, while some older students take classes at the local college. One student works as a teacher at a local high school. School classes in rural Bataan Province can have more than 50 students, and children go to school from approximately 7:30 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. According to the Kabataan Orkestra staff, local schools are understaffed and lack basic materials, including an adequate number of textbooks. Many students do not have access to educational resources, such as computers with Internet, outside of school. According to Fr. Cremona, recreational activities for children and families are largely unavailable in Dinalupihan and previous to the founding of the orchestra program, children would regularly show up to the church mission center after school and on weekends, often spending whole days at the center. The center provided them with lunch and a safe place where they could play basketball, use a computer to do homework, and spend time with their friends. The mission staff recognized that an orchestra could offer these children a productive and fun way to spend their free time.

The delivery of the music program is currently the responsibility of Mr. Felicito Sacdalan, a clarinetist and conductor based in Manila who travels to Dinalupihan every Sunday to conduct the orchestra and work with the wind players. He also has a background in wind instrument dealership and repairs, and can help the children with small repairs on their instruments. Most Sundays, Mr. Sacdalan is accompanied by Mr. Roberto Salazar, a brass teacher from Manila who supports the brass and percussion sections during rehearsals and offers private tuition for brass students. By tapping into his extensive network of musicians and cultural leaders in Manila and other parts of the country, Mr. Sacdalan has organized performance and learning opportunities outside of Bataan Province for the Kabataan Orkestra. For example, on November 13, 2016, the orchestra made its debut at the Luneta Park Auditorium, an open-air performance space in Manila that runs a prestigious concert series.

In addition to Mr. Sacdalan and Mr. Salazar, the staff of the Kabataan Orkestra consists of Fr. Cremona and one of the older students, Rome Jake Fajardo, a violinist and concertmaster of the orchestra. Mr. Fajardo is instrumental in taking care of logistics: he can be found many afternoons driving around the town in the orchestra’s van, picking up children and bringing them to the orchestra site. He also drives students home at night after rehearsals, as many of them do not have access to reliable and safe transportation. Mr. Fajardo leads the orchestra during the week and, in October 2016, he started offering private violin lessons to some of the younger students. Volunteers also drive students home, supervise children during trips, and prepare food. Some of these volunteers even travel all the way from Manila to support the program.

Fr. Cremona has had extensive contact with Sistema-inspired programs in the Philippines and abroad. In 2014, some of the students of the Kabataan Orkestra were invited to attend classes at Sistemang Pilipino, a large Sistema program in Cebu City, Philippines. Additionally, four students traveled to Malta in the summer of 2016, for a month of private lessons and rehearsals with local musicians. According to Fr. Cremona, the music program Ang Misyon, in Manila, had proposed in 2014 or 2015 that some of the Kabataan Orkestra’s advanced players join their program. However, the Kabataan Orkestra staff ultimately decided that this collaboration would not be in the best interests of their program. They feared that children would leave their program upon reaching a certain level of playing, thus disadvantaging younger students who would have benefitted from listening to, and learning from, more advanced players.

Fr. Cremona would like the Kabataan Orkestra to remain independent as a music program rather than develop a formal attachment to the Department of Education. However, the staff of the Kabataan Orkestra has been working hard to build positive relationships with the municipality and the school system, and the Dinalupihan mayor’s office now lends some logistical and financial support to the orchestra for special projects. For example, the mayor’s office pays for Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) music theory exams for the children in Manila each year. The mayor’s office also takes responsibility for safe transportation of the children to concert locations. In 2016, the Kabataan Orkestra began collaborating with the local San Simon Elementary School. Mr. Fajardo, together with some of the more advanced members of the orchestra, now teaches elementary music theory to a number of classes and has started a teacher training course as well, for classroom teachers who have an interest in learning more about music. Unfortunately, I was not able to observe this program in action during my visit.

Since 2015, the Kabataan Orkestra has offered music lessons in Batiawan, a remote mountain village about 70 kilometers, or two hours, north of Dinaluphan. After a Batiawan community leader contacted Fr. Cremona regarding fifteen students in the village who had expressed interest in learning music, the orchestra staff began offering music theory lessons, with the intention of enabling the children to travel occasionally to the Jose Depiro Formation Center to participate in the orchestra.

In 2016, a student from the Kabataan Orkestra was admitted to St. Scholastica College in Manila to continue his viola studies. The program staff would like to see current students become teachers at the Kabataan Orkestra in order to lessen the program’s dependence on outside musicians.


The primary challenge observed was a lack of structured musical learning for the string players and, to a lesser extent, the wind, brass, and percussion students. While Mr. Sacdalan and Mr. Salazar work individually with the wind, brass, and percussion players, the string students do not receive individual instrumental tuition on a regular basis, other than Skype lessons generously offered by professional musicians in Malta. The scheduling of these lessons is dependent on the musicians’ availability, however, and is complicated by the time difference and an unreliable Internet connection. As the students are playing at an elementary level, they would greatly benefit from regular, hands-on instruction. Most of the students are highly motivated and the staff works hard to provide opportunities for playing and performing, but many students lack the instrumental skills necessary to play or independently practice the challenging orchestral repertoire. Without sufficient guidance, many students may remain stuck at their current playing level. During private lessons, some students described feeling discouraged or insecure because they struggled to keep up in orchestra. The Jose Depiro Kabataan Orkestra would benefit from a more detailed curriculum, particularly for strings, and specific learning goals for each orchestra section, so that all students may feel confident about their progress.

The Kabataan Orkestra focuses primarily on enabling participating children to play together as an orchestra, and orchestra rehearsals take place several times per week. However, many string students were barely able to keep up during rehearsal. For example, the cellists did not have proper fingerings for their parts and had not yet learned to determine their own fingerings. The conductor was aware of this issue but was not able to help because he is a wind player. Some of the violinists had not yet learned to shift or read notes in higher positions, yet the repertoire contained sections in fifth position, during which most students did not play or simply guessed at the notes. Some students were quite ingenious in figuring out their own solutions, but other students were so insecure about the repertoire that they barely played at all.

“Because they had not been taught what and how to practice, most students rarely spent time practicing on their own.

All of the program staff share a strong desire to help students in their musical progress and they have acquired many excellent books, methods, and musical scores to this end. These materials could be used to build a curriculum and help the students improve their instrumental technique. However, during my visit, most of these materials were not being used because staff members did not know how best to use them. Both staff and students lacked the knowledge to determine which technical skills the students needed to work on and which method book or piece would be most helpful in addressing those needs. The string students were not working on any repertoire other than the orchestra repertoire. They also did not have knowledge of basic techniques such as different bow strokes, scales, or shifting. The center is equipped with several practice rooms so, with guidance, students could have used their hours outside of rehearsals for personal practice. However, because they had not been taught what and how to practice, most students rarely spent time practicing on their own.

Another impediment to the students’ progress is the lack of a clear rehearsal schedule. Most children show up to orchestra rehearsals on Sundays but weekday attendance is inconsistent. According to Fr. Cremona, school schedules vary and many classroom teachers keep the children in class after school on certain days. The program staff of the Kabataan Orkestra has been making efforts to build stronger relationships with the schools and convince teachers of the importance of regular music lessons for the children. During the week I visited, Fr. Cremona wrote letters to the schools requesting that teachers allow the children to leave school on time to attend lessons and rehearsals. However, many students do not make consistent attendance a personal priority.

On occasion, students came to the program and found that no rehearsal or class was scheduled. On such days, students would spend their time socializing or using the computer rather than practicing music. On these days, the program staff should assign each child to a practice room and offer instruction on how to practice by oneself. Alternatively, the staff could schedule rehearsals at a regular time every day, even if this meant rehearsing with only a few students. If the children had a better idea of what to expect when they arrived at the program, attendance rates might improve.


The following SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis assesses the current strengths and weaknesses of the Kabataan Orkestra, outlines opportunities for staff to change and strengthen the program, and suggests strategies to achieve future goals.


  • Program provides safe place for children
  • Children are welcome every day
  • Every child plays in orchestra
  • Musical instruction in area where none is available
  • A strong library of musical material


  • Stronger collaboration with the school system could increase attendance rates
  • The conductor’s musical connections could open doors to collaboration with more artists and musical organizations
  • The musical library could be used for building students’ individual technique on their instruments
  • Plenty of available space to be used by children to practice individually and in sections
  • Musicians from Malta willing to provide free Skype lessons to students, Global Leaders available to provide on-site teacher training


  • No music teachers on site
  • Students lack formal instruction
  • No structured curriculum for progression on string instruments
  • Orchestra repertoire is too difficult
  • Attendance is inconsistent


  • Students having difficulty keeping up in orchestra could become discouraged
  • Staff could become frustrated by their inability to achieve desired results with the orchestra
  • Older students could move away, leaving nobody to lead orchestra rehearsal during the week


Implementation of a string curriculum is crucial for the students’ development and motivation. All students should be working on scales, studies, and individual pieces in addition to the orchestra repertoire. The program staff could use Mimi Zweig’s StringPedagogy, a free website containing a clear and detailed progression of pieces and many teaching videos. Even though there are no string teachers in Dinalupihan, some of the more advanced students in the program could use these materials and the StringPedagogy site to implement a string curriculum through private lessons with the younger students.

Regular lessons are an occasion for students to receive individual support and could prevent certain students from falling through the cracks, particularly those who feel afraid to ask for help.

The students could also benefit from receiving a regular practice, lesson, and rehearsal schedule. Older students could give individual lessons to younger students at regular intervals. Making a schedule of all lessons and rehearsals at the beginning of each week or month and sharing it with the students could help keep them accountable for their attendance and participation. Skype lessons could also be included in this schedule. Regular lessons are an occasion for students to receive individual support and could prevent certain students from falling through the cracks, particularly those who feel afraid to ask for help. This is especially important given that the program has grown to include more students. Visits by trainers from international NGOs could also be an important asset for the Kabataan Orkestra, particularly if the focus is on training older students to teach the younger ones. Ideally, the program staff would organize pedagogy workshops for older students during these visits.

All orchestra pieces should be at an appropriate level for the students and include bowings and fingerings for the strings. The Kabataan Orkestra may choose to use editions that already contain bowings and fingerings or, alternatively, ask a string specialist from outside the program to provide bowings and fingerings before the start of a new orchestra cycle. Mr. Sacdalan could be asked to assist in finding that support, since he has an extensive musical network in Manila and abroad.


The Jose Depiro Kabataan Orkestra is a unique and invaluable resource in Bataan. It lives up to its goal of providing local children with a safe and supportive place to go after school. In only a few years, the program has achieved musical milestones, such as the “Concert in the Park” performance, and contributed to the musical and personal development of many local children. At least one student has gone on to pursue music at the college level, building on the early training he received at the Kabataan Orkestra and the connections he built through the program. The many volunteers from Dinalupihan and even Manila are a testament to the value and strengths of the program.

To guarantee the continued progress of both the orchestra and individual students, the Kabataan Orkestra should arguably invest in curriculum building and continue to strive for high-level music making. Given the absence of on-site music teachers during the week, the creative use of long-distance resources and peer teaching should become an integral part of the program. Fortunately, the program has access to a music library, sufficient practice and rehearsal spaces, and a network of musicians willing to contribute from a distance. By developing an effective way of working in these circumstances, the program could serve as an example to other music programs in remote locations or without access to local music teachers. The Jose Depiro Kabataan Orkestra has the potential to become a global leader in social as well as musical development, both in the Philippines and beyond.


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