“Playing a musical instrument in an orchestra,” says Dr. Abreu, “is one of the best forms of socialization there is.” A former Minister of Culture and initiator of Venezuela's amazing musical education program, Dr. Abreu has transformed the country into probably the world's leading musical centre.
It began in 1974 in a rehearsal space in an underground car park with a handful of kids. Now, it is estimated, a quarter of a million young people are either playing a musical instrument or singing in a choir. There are literally hundreds of orchestras and choirs throughout the country.
Abreu also managed to get a law passed by parliament, guaranteeing every child the right to a musical education. Teachers go into schools in the countryside, the slums and the towns and let the children play with instruments. If they show an interest, they are allowed to borrow the instrument of their choice, but have to agree to practice and to perform on it within a few weeks. If they keep up their interest and practice seriously for two years, they are allowed to keep their instrument.
Dr. Abreu explains how he sees musical education and working with a group of other musicians, as a vital process of maturation. “ Here you learn to co-operate with others,” he says, “you are an individual performer but you are involved in teamwork with others, you learn to give and take, to show solidarity and sympathy. You pass on your skills and knowledge to others selflessly and learn in the same way from them. You are also creating beauty, giving pleasure to many more. Historically classical music was performed by an elite for an elite, then by an elite for the majority, but in Venezuela it is now being performed by a majority for a majority.”
The country has been visited by some of the world's leading musicians, from Sir Simon Rattle, to Placido Domingo and Claudio Abbado among them. Rattle said that if he were asked where the future of classical music lay, he would unhesitatingly say “here in Venezuela.”
A recent film Tocar y Luchar (Play and Struggle) is a moving tribute to this musical movement in Venezuela and includes interviews with Dr. Abreu, Rattle and others. But what draws the most admiration is watching the youngsters themselves playing and talking about their joy in music. To see a twelve year old black girl wandering past the multi-colored, peeling walls of a narrow alleyway in a slum neighborhood playing Bach exquisitely on her violin, one can't but help but be moved. A nine year-old in a cramped flat of a town suburb explains how he needs to sleep next to his cello – it is his teddy bear, his source of comfort and pleasure. “I can't get to sleep, if it's not near me,” he says, and it means I can get out of bed and practice at any time.” These children are also all amazingly articulate about their playing and the pleasure and pride they get from it.
When I think of most British kids who are interested only in football or computers, and their fascination with celebrity fame, individual wealth or solipsistic gaming, it is uplifting to see how Venezuelan youngsters are transformed into all-round social beings by their very different experience.
To watch one of the youth orchestras playing is a visual experience in itself. There is none of the evening dress seriousness or awesome reverence. Their faces reveal their rich ethnic and gender mix. They dress in brightly colored shirts in the colors of the Venezuelan flag; and in strongly rhythmic pieces they sway with their bodies like dancers and in the end, jubilantly throw their instruments in the air, reminiscent of Grand Prix winners tossing champagne bottles about.
Children as young as two or three are given the chance of playing on an instrument. The program has also been taken into juvenile penitentiaries and schools for the disabled – there are choirs made up of deaf and blind children, the deaf ones being encouraged to gesticulate with their hands to accompany the music. All participants, teachers and students, say that the bond of affection that is built up is life-changing for both sides.
The state oil company PDVSA is one of the big sponsors of this program, because it doesn't come cheap and instruments can be very expensive, but no child is deprived of the chance.
Rattle says the phenomenon is like “a resurrection,” it doesn't just enrich lives, it also saves them; it promotes social and psychological health. Domingo adds, that it is not just the enthusiasm and mass participation that thrills him but also the incredibly high quality.
Gloria Carnevali of the Venezuelan Embassy's Cultural Section in London thinks one of the reasons for the enormous success of this program is perhaps to be found in the rich ethnic and cultural mix of the population. Venezuela has one of the most diverse populations of all Latin America – black, Hispanic and other European, indigenous and Asiatic.
Although the movement began before the present revolution, the Chavez administration is actively continuing and promoting this program, which it hopes to widen out to all of Latin America and beyond. It is shaming for so-called rich countries in Europe or North America, where music has been taken off the curriculum of many schools for lack of funding for instruments or for teaching time. The Venezuelan Youth Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle will be in Britain for the Proms in August – a concert not to be missed if you can get tickets.