November 4, 2007 at 6:42 AMI missed something big last night: Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at Disney Hall. This weekend the orchestra has been in Los Angeles, but they will also perform tonight in San Francisco and this week in Boston and New York.
"It was incredible," said my friend and Old Town Music Store owner Fritzie Culick when I ran into her this morning at the Farmer's Market. "They played Beethoven Five like you've never heard it before," she said. When they were loud and fast, it was amazing, and "when they were soft, it was the softest soft you ever heard. Then they played South American music. They turned out the lights and were twirling their instruments – they made it so exciting!"
I had not heard about the amazing system of education going on in Venezuela – called El Sistema -- until one of its brightest stars, Dudamel, was named the new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic earlier this year. He will officially take the baton in 2009. Dudamel, 26, began his musical studies at age four in Venezuela's system.
LA Times writer Mark Swed described the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela as "the cream of a 250,000-student crop" in his review of the group's Thursday concert at Disney Hall. It was one of the most ardent reviews I've seen from Swed, ending, "..musically, Venezuela leaves no child behind, and the results are an inspiration to us all."
When it comes to music education, we have no "sistema" in the United States; we scarcely have it in the public schools at all.
When we do, it's most often at a very low standard, with little support. "At least they are getting some exposure to music," is how we remain satisfied with the disconnected, ad-hoc instrumental programs we set up.
Having "exposure" to music is a far cry from becoming literate on an instrument. Musical literacy requires daily devotion, an awareness of musical excellence, good teachers, parental support. Perhaps it also requires some joy in the endeavor?
At the moment I've got a little experiment going, I'm teaching 48 first graders at a public school, being paid from a city grant that I sought out after teaching the class as an unpaid volunteer for much of last year. All the kids are beginners, and I'm teaching them in groups of a dozen at a time, plus a larger group class, with a modified Suzuki method.
There was so much interest in the program; I had to turn 17 away because I didn't have enough room. I only wish I could clone myself so that I could teach every single child who wanted to do it, and so that I could teach them all second-grade violin, and third-grade, and all the way through until they've finished high school.
Because at this point I have no assurance that they will continue to receive instruction. At our school we have one paid instrumental teacher. She teaches all levels of violin, second-grade through eighth, plus all other instruments, including trumpet, clarinet, flute, trombone, etc., etc., you get the picture.
Playing the violin, or any other instrument, is not a miming game; it requires a set of skills that have to be introduced, perfected and drilled. Not just "introduced."
This doesn't seem to be a difficult concept for people to understand when it comes to, say, soccer. Children, with the support of their parents, willingly submit to long practices, running drills, kicking drills, ball dribbling drills....
But for some reason, despite Shinichi Suzuki, despite the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, people persist in seeing music education as a joyless endeavor, a pursuit for the elite, a "frill" of education. People persist in believing that some people are just talented, so they can play music.
I beg to differ. Take everything you ever learned in your education and roll it all into one endeavor, and that's music. Music is rhythm, it's motion. It's coordination and balance. It's counting, it's reading, it's a social system, it's a physics experiment.
The 150 kids from Venezuela, making all that joy and fantastic music together on stage, trained for years under a well-organized and brilliantly-conceived system. It didn't just come, it wasn't just "talent."
It was talent, cultivated.
The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela performs Shostakovich Symphony 10 II. Allegro at the BBC Proms 2007: Prom 48 Royal Albert Hall
The Monday afternoon announcement of LA's new Music for All initiative was very encouraging. If they can fulfill even some of their lofty goals for putting music back where it so desperately belongs, LA will be improved beyond measure.
But I'm wondering if it is really fair to be making this sort of comparison to the US system. The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is only one Youth Orchestra, no? From all of Venezuela? Yes, Venezuela is a smaller country, but a top US Youth Orchestra can surely play the same repertoire and play it well. And US Youth Orchestras tour nationally and internationally to rave reviews too.
San Francisco Youth Symphony, D.C. Youth Orchestra Program
Heck, even the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County PA went on a well-received international tour in 2002.
I'd be curious, and I just don't know the answer--but I'd assume the competition to get into the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is fierce (just as it is for these US Youth Orchestras and the dozens of others that exist nationwide) and most Venezuelan kids, even most of the talented ones who've been in El Sistema from age 4, don't make it. What happens to them? Do they remain musically engaged and active as adult amateur and semi-pro players or do they end up being relegated to consumer status, valuable only for the number of CD's and concert tickets they purchase, the way US musicians who "don't make it" as professionals tend to be?
To me, that would be the true test of a program's success, not how exciting the concerts given by its elite are.
There are actually two Simon Bolivar orchestras, the "A" and "B" The one everyone is hearing(and that I'm lucky enough to be playing in right now) is the "B" orchestra. The "A" orchestra is for older members, and while being a great orchestra, it does not have the same energy or commitment or technical mastery that the "B" does. Then again, no orchestra in the world does. People continue to play in the system for years and years after they are no longer "youth." There are also hundreds of orchestras that are on the cusp of the Simon Bolivar's level, and some people in the orchestra I talked to said that some of them are better or are going to be better than the current incarnation of the Simon Bolivar orchestra. I heard two orchestras that easily compared, including the Children's Orchestra of Caracas, which absolutely blew my mind with a performance of Tchaikovsky 4th. You can go anywhere in the country and hear an incredible orchestra play.
I don't mean to offend anyone, but from my own experience, there is ABSOLUTELY no orchestra that compares to this one. I played in a fantastic youth orchestra with a fantastic conductor(YPO in Boston with Ben Zander) and it just isn't the same. You really have to see them live to appreciate it. The recordings don't do it justice, even those great videos don't do it justice. The only way to see this orchestra for who it really is is to see them live. I have been inspired over and over by going to Venezuela and seeing what these musicians and great people can do.
I do think that US music education has a lot to learn from El Sistema and I hope it happens.
On the other hand, I don't think it's reasonable to expect that kids will all be practicing 3 hours with a youth orchestra every day and 3 hours individually every day (which someone mentioned in one of the comments above) as a matter of course on a wide scale. Most kids also need time for academic schoolwork, time for family relationships outside of music, and time for the rest of life.
People rightly note that in some places of the US, youth sports have gotten out of control. Kids are encouraged to specialize younger and younger, practice long hours on a daily basis, and to pursue their main sport year-round, and as a result we are seeing a sharp rise in overtraining injuries and burnout at younger and younger ages, and a decrease in participation at the amateur, "just for fun" levels. And, for many kids, sports push music right out of the picture entirely.
I'm not saying this is what El Sistema does, but I'd be concerned that if Americans tried to import the El Sistema model to the U.S., they'd have to be careful that it wasn't just youth sports all over again.
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