Venezuela’s winning system for saving children through music

Venezuela, awash in natural resources but burdened by intractable urban poverty and violence, has for nearly 35 years been building after-school music programs that currently have an annual enrollment of a quarter-million children and teenagers.


When 6th Grader Mairi Padrón was shot in the leg by a stray bullet after school, she wept. But not because of the wound.

She was on her way to her first orchestra rehearsal. “I cried because I couldn’t take part,” she explains. “Getting a chance to play was more important than the pain.”

That scene, taken from a newly released German-made documentary, El Sistema: Music to Change a Life, goes straight to the heart of a Venezuelan phenomenon that causes jaws to go slack and eyes to mist up.

Venezuela, awash in natural resources but burdened by intractable urban poverty and violence, has for nearly 35 years been building after-school music programs that currently have an annual enrollment of a quarter-million children and teenagers.

The State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras -“El Sistema” – gives children a clean shirt, lunch and admission to a new world of music, camaraderie and empowerment.

When their children enroll, parents become part of the equation, too. They have to make a commitment to support attendance, even if this means they can’t send their offspring out to boost the family’s earning power.

“When families discovered that music was helping keep kids off the streets and off drugs, they became our most important allies,” El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, said in an interview on radio station WGBH following El Sistema’s flagship Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra’s debut in Boston two years ago. Teens who attend El Sistema are less likely to quit high school; their drop-out rate is 6.9 per cent compared to 26.4 per cent of their non-participating peers, according to one study.

By the time the youth graduate from high school, they are accomplished singers, instrumentalists and conductors – El Sistema boasts that 85 per cent of students achieve a level of music proficiency considered good to excellent. They have learned how to work with others in common purpose and how to see beyond the gangs, violence and the dead-end life of the barrios (slums).

Everyone from the steady stream of international visitors who see the program at work every year is impressed.

According to the El Sistema website (www.fesnojiv.gob.ve), there are established or budding Sistema-like initiatives in 25 countries now. In Canada, projects are already underway in Ottawa and in New Brunswick.

“It is one of the most profoundly moving experiences, and certainly one of the deepest experiences of music I’ve had in more than 25 years of being professionally involved in the field,” says Glenn Gould Foundation managing director Brian Levine, who came from the recording industry.

The most concrete proof of El Sistema’s local success came in 2007, when the Inter-American Development Bank agreed to advance $150 million (U.S.) to finance the construction of eight “centres for social action through music” in Venezuela. The first one opened earlier this year.

Toronto is about to get a peek at what all the fuss is about. On Oct. 26, the Glenn Gould Foundation will present the eighth Glenn Gould Prize to the 70-year-old Abreu.

The tireless cheerleader must be one of the most-decorated figures in music history. So far in 2009 alone, he has been awarded the Polar Music Prize, the Frankfurt Music Prize and, in the United States, the Bridge Builders Award, the TED Prize, an International Citation of Merit from the International Society for the Performing Arts, a Distinguished Service Award from the Conductors Guild and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Frederick Stock Award.

The most famous of El Sistema’s graduates is 28-year-old conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Two weeks ago, he became the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic as fireworks exploded in front of a crowd of 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl. He is “the Dude,” a shining example of El Sistema’s winning ways.

Already, Los Angeles has an El Sistema-type ensemble on the go – the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Those kids and their parents were also front-and-centre at the Hollywood Bowl.

“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of,” says soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who was invited to participate. “A lot of the people in the sections closest to us had never been to a classical music concert before, so they were unjaded and so tickled. They were crying and screaming. I thought they were going to rush the stage.”

Brueggergosman and Dudamel first met in Tel Aviv two years ago. Since then, she has performed with the conductor several times in Europe, and hopes to continue the relationship. “He is one of the most sincere musicians,” the soprano says. He also inspires everyone to do better.

For the Hollywood Bowl concert, the soloists memorized their parts in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, because Dudamel knew it by heart. “We were, like, if he’s doing it, we should be able to do it,” smiles Brueggergosman.

Dudamel was born in the Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto. He joined El Sistema’s local centre at age 6. At 13 he was a proficient violin player and, after turning 17, was named the music director of the 200-member Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra, which travels the country and the world as musical ambassador.

The group’s international tours brought him to the attention of the world’s top conductors – people like Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim – who opened professional doors for him outside Venezuela.

Dudamel is scheduled to lead the ensemble at the Four Seasons Centre on Oct. 26. That night, Dudamel receives the $15,000 City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protegé Prize in Music and Communication, alongside Abreu’s honour.

The triennial Glenn Gould Prize is usually worth $50,000, but Abreu asked that the money go to El Sistema. So, with a bit of creative thinking, the Foundation handed the money to Yamaha, which was able to turn the cash into 171 musical instruments having a combined retail value of $150,000, Levine explains.

The Venezuelans will not leave Toronto without bestowing a gift of their own – performing in schools and community centres, as well as at a monster school concert at the Rogers Centre on Oct. 29 (see sidebar for full list of activities).

Levine and fellow organizers hope the spirit of El Sistema will fire up interest in its possibilities here.

“It’s more than just music. It’s more than just getting out of the barrios. It’s the spirit these kids get for helping others, for wanting to give back,” says Levine.

Abreu’s tireless, quietly charismatic presence has been there all the way from very modest beginnings.

In 1975, the then-36-year-old economist and amateur musician was frustrated that there was no professional orchestra made up of Venezuelans in his country. So he did something about it.

In an interview with filmmakers Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier, El Sistema founding collaborator Frank Di Polo, shrugs: “For us it’s a huge surprise that the world wants to copy this process, because those of us who have been involved from the start were never really aware of what we were doing.

“First we set up an orchestra, then we set up a foundation, then we created opportunities for everyone in the country. But we never stopped to think, ah, yes, that’s what I’m doing. Never.”

Today, the Venezuelan ministry of social services covers 90 per cent of El Sistema’s operating expenses, with the rest raised from foundations and corporations.

“When you’re walking down the street, everyone knows about it,” says Toronto Symphony Orchestra director of artistic administration Loie Fallis, who used part of a recent sabbatical to go on a Venezuelan El Sistema pilgrimage. “Everyone has, in some way, been touched by the program – that’s over 30 years. That’s fantastic, don’t you think?”

Richard Holloway, chair of the Scottish Arts Council, was similarly inspired by a visit. He returned with a plan to fund a pilot project.

“You can’t help being knocked out by the sexy, almost spiritual intensity of the playing of these kids; it’s so deeply human. We decided we wanted to see whether a similar sort of project could make a difference in Scotland, in the sort of settled, workless areas that seem stubbornly resistant to attempts to break the cycle of poverty,” he said to England’s Guardian newspaper in 2006.

Toronto, with its escalating gang-related violence and almost daily shootings, is also a prime candidate for music-driven improvement.

Both Fallis and Levine describe how the kids go to regular school every morning, then spend four hours of the afternoon at the nucleo, as each music centre is called. On Saturdays, music takes place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

During those 24 hours a week, 3- and 4-year-olds learn the fundamentals of working together by singing. They graduate to recorders, then to orchestral instruments.

By puberty, they’re playing in school orchestras, singing in choirs, and auditioning for community, regional and national groups that represent upward mobility in El Sistema.

Abreu has set up nucleos in prisons, as well as apprenticeship programs that teach young people how to build and repair instruments.

“What amazed me, no matter what level it was, no matter what rooms we walked into, was how focused (the children) are on what they’re doing. They were focusing on the music, they were focusing on these amazing teachers and conductors, and on each other. There’s great communication between them, which is great to see,” Fallis recalls. “And they seem happy and content. There’s no darkness. It’s all very light and very positive.”

Fallis, a former horn player, was struck by how El Sistema is set up to feed itself – where students eventually become teachers.

“You don’t realise until you see it that it’s all self-perpetuating,” Fallis continues. “When I looked at one of those young 3- or 4-year-olds – at that point they weren’t playing instruments yet – that is where Mr. Dudamel or the other young conductors would have begun. You could see where the whole program is going just by looking into the eyes of these young people. Perhaps there would be another Dudamel 25 years from now.”

Any account of El Sistema reveals that the music education itself is different, less focused on the self. Traditionally, most music students aim to become soloists. But, in the El Sistema model, the emphasis is on building community.

A street gang is probably the tightest form of community anyone can aspire to – so you have to offer something pretty powerful as an alternative.

We are a long way from seeing that kind of official recognition for the redemptive, empowering role music can play in childhood. The Glenn Gould Foundation is addressing that, too, organizing a day-long series of talks and workshops on education themes at the Royal Conservatory of Music on Oct. 28 that will feature Abreu as the keynote speaker.

Not that there aren’t people and organizations who have been working in Toronto for similar with similar goals.

The 10-year-old Regent Park School of Music is a prime example. There, volunteer teachers provide music lessons and experience in instrumental and choral ensembles to children from of the city’s most economically disadvantaged areas.

There’s a daring project – the Hammer Band – launched by violinist Moshe Hammer in the gang-riddled Jane and Finch community.

The galvanizing moment for Hammer came in 2006, during what became known as the summer of the gun. “I was so moved by what happened,” Hammer recalls. “Then, in the shower one day, I realised that violins and violence sounded almost interchangeable.”

He put together his plan to start string ensembles and went looking for permission to start small violin ensembles from principals at three elementary schools. This year, he has a half-dozen schools participating and has two other teachers helping get to 120 children in Grades 3 to 6 twice a week for lessons.

“I’m hoping to double those numbers every year,” Hammer says of taking on new Grade 3 arrivals each fall, while continuing to move up the skills scale with the other kids as they grow older.

Coming soon is C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, “one of the most notorious in Toronto,” Hammer says. Like all the other people in the world who recognize the power of musicmaking, the violinist is fearless.

“Some of these kids have a tough life,” he says. “Involvement in sports, doing something that actually works, can give them strength inside.” But music offers even more. “It teaches life skills. The kids learn how to listen,” is one of Hammer’s examples.

Hammer is working toward having more than 500 Jane and Finch-area children involved. “If they make the most minute little shift inside them, the whole energy of the area will change, and I’ll be smiling.”

Since returning from sabbatical, Loie Fallis has been talking to her Toronto Symphony colleagues about how that organization can expand its already extensive youth education and outreach activities.

“I feel different since coming back. I think I’m looking at things in a different way,” Fallis says. “I think I’m more appreciative of the whole teaching and learning process and realising that it’s not just about the music. It’s about the whole experience. It’s bigger than that.”

With any luck, the arrival of Abreu, Dudamel and 200 of Venezuela’s most enthusiastic young musicians will light similar sparks around this city.

“Music represents joy, peace, hope, integration, strength and infinite energy,” Abreu is fond of saying.

Everybody can use a little bit of that.