What real music education can create: The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

November 3, 2007, 11:42 PM · I 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


November 4, 2007 at 07:36 AM · I attended both nights and can't quite put into words what I saw. The horn playing in the Mahler 5th was other-worldly. The largest string section I've ever seen threw themselves into the music without reservation. The second night started with Beethoven's Fifth and ended as a pops concert with John Williams leading a Star Wars medley and the musicians tossing their Venezuela jackets into the audience after their signature "Mambo". El Sistema's founder, Mr. Abreu, cajoled from his seat, to conduct them in (I think) the Venezuelan National Anthem.

The energy in Disney Hall will not soon be approached let alone exceeded. Mr. Dudamel, believe it or not, transcends all that's been written and said about him. Jaded Angelenos went nuts.

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.

November 4, 2007 at 12:08 PM · Mostly, I work with students from situations of generational poverty who are so used to immediate gratification without effort that they can never get to the point of even understanding the amazing music-making in that video. My students have know problem practicing every day for basketball, but the idea of taking their instruments home to practice or staying after school for a little extra help is considered beyond reasonable. One of my colleagues was told she had to develop "incentives" for her students (= permission to be bad) to get them to do what they are supposed to do in the first place. Our district only has strings in some schools, so it is nearly impossible to build anything of quality. Public schools continue the programs which have the highest number of students-quantity over quality every time. And since our current measure of educational success is based on endless standardized test results (75 accumulative days of testing in my district), our schools our TOTALLY focused on that.

November 4, 2007 at 02:17 PM · I only know about El Sistema that which I've read on v.com--and thanks for posting these stories and links. They are wonderful.

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.

November 4, 2007 at 04:03 PM · Here is another documentary.

November 4, 2007 at 04:20 PM · Important to note these children practice everyday together for two hours.Its instilling a regular practice routine that counts more than talent especially in an orchestral setting.

November 4, 2007 at 05:01 PM · Karen,

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.

November 4, 2007 at 05:09 PM · Sorry to write again, but I also wanted to respond to Janet. The Simon Bolivar's rehearse together for almost 4 hours a day every day and play a new program once a week. We have 4(yes, 4) full programs going right now, including Mahler 5, Beethoven 5 and 7, Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Shostakovich 10, and others. When I received my music for the tour I had 246 pages of music to learn. Every orchestra rehearses for on average 3 hours every day. They also practice individually for at least 3 hours a day.

November 4, 2007 at 05:04 PM · Hello Everyone! First of all let me tell you how haapy I am to be reding the rave reviews that the Simon Boilvar Youth Orchestra is getting all over the world. I am one of the first 200 kids that started 'El Sistema" 33 years ago when most were calling Dr. Abreu, Loco!

The system provided me with a musical education good enought to have an international career as a violinist, and a family to support me. We are a family. I remember Gustavo Dudamel when he was very little and his dad (Oscar) a trombone player would bring him to rehearsals, the orchestra was his playground. I am so proud that he will take the LA Phil to a new places, and that he a product of my orchestra and my hometown of Barquisimeto. For those of you who still don't know much about El sistema, please know that the orchestra you see is not the elite of the system there orchestras in every city and the "Orquesta Infantil" kids under 12 just performed Mahler 1!!! and they haven't tour yet.

There are venezuelans and almost every major orchestra in the world and we have also produced our own audience as polls indicate that in a sold out concert of the SBYO 80% was under age 28.

This is getting quite long and I am not re-writing so feel free to write me directly if you have more questions, I will be more than glad to asnwer.

I am a professional Violinist and Educator (since my blood is El Sistema) that has performed and taught in 15 countries in the last 3 years alone. I now live in Los Angeles, CA.

A su orden por aqui.

November 4, 2007 at 06:10 PM · Josh W and Jesus, Thank you for addressing my comment and making the point that there are numerous excellent orchestras all over Venezuela and that this is just the tip of a very large and deep "iceberg" (although that's probably not the right metaphor, given that the playing is so fiery).

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.

November 4, 2007 at 06:38 PM · Josh W, you said that you played in the YPO in Boston and your bio says you're now at the NEC (looks like we're neighbors, I live in Belmont :-). So how did you come to be playing in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra? Are you Venezuelan and did you just recently move to Boston? I'm just trying to get some feel for where the players come from and what "youth orchestra" means in this context. Clearly my own experience in a US Youth Orchestra many years ago doesn't quite apply here.

November 4, 2007 at 08:54 PM · Wow !! They are thrilling Bravo

November 4, 2007 at 09:37 PM · More on this, on a blog



November 5, 2007 at 04:05 AM · Laurie, I am always impressed with your beginning violin lessons for 48 kids. I know that you have a lot of other responsibilities, both professional and personal, and I don't know how you find the time to teach these 48 kids. You are an inspiration.

November 5, 2007 at 06:05 AM · Thank you for your encouragement, Pauline. :) So many kids want to do this, and yet there aren't the teachers, and there aren't the funds to pay the teachers. It's frustrating!

November 5, 2007 at 04:32 PM · An update: LA Times arts writer Mark Swed felt compelled to write a second review of this orchestra. Among other things, he wrote: "...after witnessing the mass hysteria among an audience of 2,200 on Friday night, and after observing an orchestra perform feats no orchestra has in quite the same way, I now have a reporter's obligation to state the facts. The Earth revolves around the sun; the Big One will, sooner or later, hit L.A.; the Venezuelans, under their 26-year-old conductor, are the future."

November 5, 2007 at 06:19 PM · I heard Dudamel and the SBYO last night in San Francisco's Davies Hall and it was one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life. I will blog on it soon, but I'm glad to be reading all these comments from others who have experienced the group.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop



Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine