Friday, May 18, 2012

El Sistema - Venezuela's Revolutionary Music Education Program

By Stefan Aune of Fein Violins

El Sistema is a publicly funded music education program that brings music into the lives of over 300,000 Venezuelan children and young adults. Active since the 1970's, El Sistema has emerged as a benchmark in the musical education of children. Wildly successful as a mechanism for reaching the most socioeconomically disadvantaged of Venezuela's youth, El Sistema has also produced world renowned musicians and conductors, the most famous of whom is Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic music director of the LA Philharmonic.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
El Sistema was founded under the name "Social Action for Music" in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, an economist and musician. Abreu's goal was to use music as a vehicle for improving the lives of Venezuelan youth and offering an alternative to drugs, violence, and poverty. He argued that "music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values - solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings." Abreu's vision has managed to thrive under seven different Venezuelan governments of both the left and the right, with each government offering substantial financial support. Under current Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez the program has enjoyed an unprecedented level of financial support, with almost the entire operating budget, and additional capital projects, funded by Chavez's administration. El Sistema's focus on the youth, and its ability to operate outside the boundaries of partisan politics, has helped it to flourish and grow into a benchmark in music education. It's unabashed goal of improving the lives of Venezuela's poorest and most vulnerable children is the sort of program the rest of the world should look to and emulate.

José Antonio Abreu with children involved in El Sistema
In 2008 El Sistema was extended into Venezuela's corrections system, with music programs opening up in three jails. One of the inmates participating in the program remarked that “when I first arrived here, I thought, ‘I put a lock in my life, I screwed myself. But one begins to live music, discovers its echo, and the moment arrives when you do not so much feel the music score so much but the harmony one has with the instrument.” One of the most remarkable things about El Sistema is the acknowledgement that poverty and other social and economic disadvantages serve to limit the enjoyment of classical music to the socially and economically privileged. Instruments, classes, and orchestras cost money, and El Sistema has done an admirable job of bringing classical music into the lives of thousands that would normally be denied the privilege of picking up a violin or a cello. The extension of the program into the corrections system is another element of this commitment to make music available to the poorest and most vulnerable elements of Venezuelan society.

Children participating in El Sistema
The remarkable number of programs, ensembles and orchestras that El Sistema operates through state funding should serve as a clarion call to public education institutions in the United States that continue to slash the budgets for music and the arts. In the school district where I grew up I've watched as year after year the orchestra and band continue to flounder, with slashed budgets, laid off teachers, and tepid to non-existent administrative support. Venezuela's nation-wide commitment to music education has continually resulted in an overflowing of wonderfully talented musicians and educators, creating a self sustaining system where each generation of El Sistema contains the seeds for the next. Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the LA Philharmonic, is easily the most internationally visible participant in El Sistema, and his successes have helped the program to receive increased attention and recognition in recent years.

Dudamel is know for his energetic conducting style
El Sistema programs have blossomed in Los Angeles, Boston, Brooklyn, Baltimore, and other U.S. cities. The program has been featured in numerous documentaries and news reports, the most visible of which is El Sistema, a 2008 documentary that won numerous film festival awards. Check out the TV-Spot below, which features El Sistema and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. In it, Dudamel and José Antonio Abreu explain the importance of music and the role El Sistema has played in educating hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan children. This is the sort of music education that the children of every single country in the world deserve, and hopefully El Sistema can serve as a blueprint for the future.  

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