The Flip Side of Arts Education in Cuba

By Zoila de la Cruz

HAVANA TIMES — There’s no doubt that Cuba’s Arts Education system is a global reference. Since January 1959, the arts and literature were put in everyone’s reach as part of the Revolution’s new cultural policy and society’s poorest classes had the opportunity, for the first time ever, to see their dreams of becoming artists, dancers, musicians, painters, architects or filmmakers come true.

This led to more and more children wanting to study at an arts school. One of the most trying procedures ahead of them, for both parents and students, is when they have to do an aptitude test.

To give you an example, last year over two hundred hopefuls took the entrance exam to go to the Manuel Saumell Music Elementary School in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, and there were only twenty-odd places.

You can imagine just how stressful this was for the candidates.  Furthermore, on the day of the final exam, the school’s board summoned all students to come at 8 AM in the morning, instead of calling on them at different times throughout the day. As there wasn’t any order or a concert, the law of the strongest was finally imposed and children of workers at the school were the first ones to take the exam.

Even though the examiners were mostly objective and unbiased, there were always a few surprises and “they appeared” with places for certain instruments for the children of school employees and other children who noone knows where they came from.

Insight of reality

A few days ago, I was traveling on a bus when I heard two experienced teachers say: nothing is the way it used to be at academies anymore. Students have lost their respect for teachers. Good teachers are no longer in these schools.

For many years, the teaching staff at these institutions provided their students with excellent training. Today, the good teachers who taught renowned Cuban musicians have now retired and, in most cases, the staff room is now full of inexperienced young teachers, who have just graduated or are even just there to do their Social Service.

There are still some good teachers at music schools, but they are only a handful. This is one of the greatest challenges in Arts Education on the island: how do you keep a good level of training among the teaching staff who teach different specialities?

At elementary school, classes are given to students at a similar pace to those of advanced music schools. No teacher takes a moment to clear up children’s doubts, who are coming face to face with hard subjects for the first time, such as complementary piano, music theory and the instrument the student selected. If the student hasn’t understood the class, that’s their own problem and, of course, their parents’ problem.

It is assumed that if you study at a music school you have a private tutor who prepared you to get there in the first place and that this preparation will keep on going until you get to university, because classes at the Academy are sometimes so bad that you won’t be able to graduate without external “help”.

And who are the private tutors who are “helping” these young children? Retired teachers of course, who work as such privately, without paying taxes, of course. An hour-long private class today costs between 2 to 3 CUC (50-75 CUP). At least children are receiving decent classes and will become good musicians one day, but at what cost and sacrifice of their parents’ pockets? 

So, I ask myself, if some private music academies already exist, why aren’t they validated as teaching units and then their qualification can be recognized?  I know a boy who couldn’t get into the Arts Education system and he has been studying with private teachers for years and today he is working as a professional musician in an orchestra. What is the difference between him and anyone else? Well, he doesn’t have a recognized qualification and that’s it because when it comes to his knowledge of music, he knows just as much as any kid who studies at a state school today.

Another factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is that teachers who teach non-artistic subjects such as Maths, Spanish, History, Civic Education, English, Natural Sciences, among other necessary subjects for any citizen’s comprehensive and general culture.

Almost no parent is worried that their child doesn’t know anything about these subjects because the teachers who teach them leave a lot to be desired. Everything can be fixed with a nice gift and the student’s grade will be guaranteed as a result. Time will settle the score with these future uneducated and semi-illiterate artists who won’t know how to write or express themselves properly like today’s reality has already shown us.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of extra-verbal violence in these learning institutions. The most powerful parents “arrive in their newer cars” and their children arrogantly carry their bags, tablets and the latest cellphones. It doesn’t matter if they pass God’s children by, their classmates, who travel to school in state buses where not another single soul could enter.

Teachers only talk and put on a servile face to these powerful parents and their children. They don’t even look at the rest. Powerful parents – whether that’s because of their financial status or because they are school employees – demand that everyone hand over 10 CUC or 250 CUP per year for school parties. Plus, every parent needs to contribute to these activities by bringing soft drinks, sweets and other candies.

If a parent explains that their income isn’t enough for them to pay for private tutors, to give presents to 14 teachers and to hand over 25 Cuban pesos every month for school parties, both they and their son will be mocked and receive collective rejection or be snubbed by teachers.

This is what a day in the life of a Cuban arts school is nowadays. A really tough reality for parents with low purchasing power and for children who dream of being musicians in the future.

The national Arts Education system continues to be a reference. Nobody is doubting that, but I am worried about how the legacy and values of those who founded it are gradually being lost.