A new paradigm for music education and the alleviation of poverty – a musico-socioeconomic MODEL for the rest of the world!
Can classical music save children from poverty and crime? Or is this a question only quixotic dreamers dare to ask?
Over three decades ago in Venezuela, one man dreamed up a plan for saving the children: give a poor man’s child a musical instrument and he/she will never carry a gun; teach him or her how to play rich man’s music (e.g., Mozart and Beethoven) in an orchestra, and he will learn not only how to make music but how to live a meaningful life.
The dreamer is 68-year old JOSÉ ANTONIO ABREU – a visionary, but also a credentialed composer/conductor, economics professor, and one-time politician who served in the Venezuelan National Assembly. He admittedly had his moments of doubt, but his persistence and hope never flagged.
Today, his dream is a living reality known as EL SISTEMA, the country’s ensemble-based national system for music education administered by a state foundation (FESOJIV), that has survived political upheavals and changes in government – and he has the numbers to show for it.
In Venezuela today, there are
- over 30 professional orchestras, where 30 years ago there were only two;
- over 90 music schools or (or núcleos) where children (from age 2 to the 20s) learn to play music together 6 days a week, 4 hours a day;
- over 250,000 children and young adults, 90% from humble backgrounds, who while learning music under the tutelage of 15,000 paid teachers, are members of over 135 youth orchestras and 90 children’s orchestras that in addition to the schools comprise El sistema,
- whose lives have not only been spiritually enriched but saved from poverty and crime,
- from whose ranks have evolved the flagship SIMON BOLIVAR YOUTH ORCHESTRA OF VENEZUELA (SBYOV), a now-internationally recognized ensemble of more than 150 young musicians, who by the end of 2007 will have performed some of the symphonic repertoire’s most formidable pieces in many of the world’s great concert halls,
- and has risen one of today’s most gifted young conductors, Abreu protégé GUSTAVO DUDAMEL who by the time he turned 27 in January 2008 had conducted many of the world’s great orchestras and in 2009 had the honor of calling WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL in Los Angeles his artistic home when he became the LA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA’s MUSIC DIRECTOR while retaining his posts with the SBYOV and Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony of which he has been Principal Conductor since 2007.
The basis of El sistema is the development center called a nucleus (or nucleo), of which there are approximate 90 throughout the country, with each nucleo having 3 or 4 orchestras classified as pre-school, children’s or youth, comprised of children, age 2 to 18, who upon receiving their musical instrument are almost instantly immersed in ensemble playing. Thus from the outset, as they learn how to make beautiful music together, they learn the rubrics of both musical and human harmony. The Director of the Latin American Violin Academy, JOSE FRANCISCO DEL CASTILLO, sums it up well – both for his Academy and for the program itself: “In Venezuela, we have created a unity of style. This is a school like no other in Latin America. We must talk about the inspiration that the orchestra represents for them.”
El sistema’s success as a force for cultural upliftment AND an agent for socioeconomic change, so phenomenal that it can no longer be ignored or denied, has caused the Inter-American Development Bank to take serious notice – to the melodic tune of $150M for the construction throughout Venezuela, not of your usual roads and bridges, but of seven regional centers of music for El sistema which recently inaugurated its 11-story, $25M CENTER FOR SOCIAL ACTION THROUGH MUSIC in Caracas. Because he genuinely believes that further empowerment of the poor can be gained by exposure to ALL the arts, Abreu intends for each center to represent – in its design, decor and structure – the best in the visual arts and architecture.
But of course, the first ones who took notice were the high and mighty among today’s music makers. They beat a now well-trodden path to Caracas – wondering why nobody thought of music education in quite this way before but in visibly joyful awe of the music-making miracle that, after thirty years, continues to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Venezuelans.
Treatises can undoubtedly be written about El sistema – its origins, guiding principles, and success stories. But no more eloquent account can be found than the words of the Founder himself, of those who have witnessed or taken part in its success, and of the people (from the first generation to today’s children) who are its greatest beneficiaries. -GJBCajipe /© FanFaire
“Mahler: Symphony No. 5″ with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela was a FanFaire-DGG CD GIveaway.
TWO FILMS on DVD that tell the phenomenal story of EL SISTEMA and the SIMON BOLIVAR YOUTH ORCHESTRA:
Released in 2009: EL SISTEMA: Music to change life
The award-winning film by Alberto Alvero, Tocar y Luchar (To Play and To Fight)
Credit: Images and video clip courtesy of and with permission of Deutsche Grammophon.