There’s something almost magical about seeing a person playing the violin that it also makes you want to pick up a violin and a bow and start playing — even if it’s just a simple song like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or, if you’re feeling a bit sentimental, going for “Canon in D.” Hearing someone play the violin fuels an intrinsic need to pick up the elegant instrument so that you too can start expressing your innermost sentiments via vibrant vibratos. But alas, a realization makes you wince — as one normally would when a loud, unintentional violin scratch is heard out of nowhere. You don’t know how to play the violin. Well, at least, not yet.
It seems that there’s no better time than now to take up a musical instrument. The influx of video tutorials on YouTube and music-making apps are helpful to those who are interested in learning how to play instruments. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, you probably want to make use of the stay-at-home mandate to (finally) start learning how to play. And as you progress with your violin-playing, you’ll want to refine what you now know, learn how to read between the notes, and pick up listening and music-playing techniques that you can only learn from a maestro. And if you want to learn from one of the best violin players in the Philippines, you’ll definitely want to learn from Maestro Alfonso “Coke” Bolipata.
The man behind the bow
Coke Bolipata is a name that has widely traversed the landscape of the local and international music industry. But more importantly, he continues to make a distinct mark in the minds of fellow musicians and the students that he mentors in his four-story red brick house known as CASA San Miguel.
Growing up in a musically inclined family, Coke had little time for play. Reading books and attending musical and theatrical performances took most of his time. His grandfather, Ramon Corpus, is a pioneer of the Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and his family members followed the patriarch’s lead and took the musical path as well.
Coke started playing the violin when he was eight years old under the tutelage of Filipino-born German conductor and violinist Oscar C. Yatco and later on, master teachers such as Basilio Manalo and Rizalina Buenaventura. Since then, he became one of the premier solo violinists in the country.
When he was 12, Coke won first prize at the National Music Competitions for Young Artists and went to the Juilliard School of Music as a scholar not long after. In an interview, Coke shared that the whole experience wasn’t easy for a child; he had to live in New York at such a young age and be thousands of miles away from his family. But during that time, one would really give up everything for music, he said. And that’s exactly what he did.
After years of honing his craft through formal training, playing in orchestras in different parts of the world, and winning numerous awards, he felt that he wanted to do more with his chosen career. And so he traveled back to the Philippines, built CASA San Miguel, and turned his focus on teaching young Filipinos how to play the violin.
The red brick house of musical bliss
CASA San Miguel is a place where he and his siblings Ramon and Plet Bolipata-Borlongan offered music and art classes to local kids in Zambales. The CASA San Miguel building — which has a museum, a bed and breakfast, a concert hall, and adorned with many beautiful trees — was originally designed by Coke Bolipata in 1993. But among the many oh-so-wonderful things in CASA San Miguel, the training of young music enthusiasts tops the oh-so-wonderful list.
“Start them young.” This is Bolipata’s catchphrase. He believes that when you teach music to kids in their pre-formative years, they will ingest everything — especially when they’re into it as well. According to a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra study, nine in ten children want to learn a musical instrument. And CASA San Miguel is an institution that aims to meet the children’s enthusiasm to learn with the musical guidance that they need.
Bolipata is the ardent educator who started the mentorship program at CASA San Miguel. He oversaw the screenings of would-be scholars. Those who would pass would get a scholarship and will be mentored by some of Bolipata’s former students — those who have successfully completed their training and whose turn it is to “play it forward.” The scholars were also allowed to stay in the CASA to borrow musical instruments as needed.
Brycel Amata, a former scholar in the CASA, said in an interview with Rappler that she is generally a shy and quiet girl. But when she’s playing the violin, she could pour out all of her emotions. As a fisherman’s daughter, she said that she felt proud that she was given the opportunity to play the beautiful instrument — even though others might think that it’s a tad old-fashioned.
Home of the hopefuls
Pursuing music may not always pan out to be the most lucrative of careers. This is why CASA San Miguel puts more weight on developing good values that will prepare them to become not just good musicians, but more importantly, better people. Under the tutelage of CASA San Miguel’s instructors, the scholars are taught to focus, work hard, have discipline, and develop a deep love for music. In time, students improve their self-esteem, enhance their determination, and learn more about their individuality and uniqueness. Aside from these, the scholars also learn the value of empathy, as they agree to mentor a young student for six hours each week after they have completed years of training. “Playing it forward,” as its founder fondly says.
For 27 years, CASA San Miguel has become a home for unique individuals who are being equipped to take on the music world with their hearts and minds set in the right place. And though CASA San Miguel’s operations have been put temporarily on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the spirit of “playing it forward” has transcended the walls of the CASA San Miguel — as they now stream live performances on Facebook to raise funds for the benefit of artists and musicians from Davao, Leyte, Zambales, and Manila who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
Before the community quarantines took effect in the country and in different parts of the world, Alfonso “Coke” Bolipata was awarded the first KDR Icon of Music and Philanthropy award during the 5th Wish Music Awards (WMA) held in January this year. His works, as well as his words, inspire so many hopefuls to be persistent in pursuing musical endeavors.
“I’ve spent the second half of my life convincing others to believe in this — to consider the possibilities that [the] arts and culture, despite economic challenges, still have a place in the development of a community. This project has been an immense challenge on time and resources — every year, hanging in the balance of whether to continue or not, while always remaining faithful in God’s providence, the universe, and His muses,” Coke Bolipata said during his acceptance speech at the 5th WMAs.
“This valuable recognition is an unexpected honor and an inspiring reminder that what we do has value — it is valued by the musical community,” he enthused.