It feels like a new movement is afoot in music education, inspired by Venezuela's successful system of youth orchestras, El Sistema.
"I was here when Suzuki came, and now... Dudamel, and El Sistema," mused my colleague, violist Jane Levy.
We were gathered in downtown LA at classical music station KUSC to take in the impressions of Samvel Chilingarian and Louise Ghandhi, who had traveled to Venezuela in January to learn about El Sistema, the remarkable system of music education that produced Gustavo Dudamel, who at age 28, will take the baton next season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Samvel, a violinist, is the director and conductor of a youth orchestra I work with called the Verdugo Young Musicians Association in Glendale, California, and Louise is its board vice president.
Samvel and Louise went with a friend, cellist Circe Diaz-Gamero, a graduate of El Sistema who now lives in Los Angeles, and they stayed with her parents in Maracay for 15 days. Their goal was to learn first-hand about "El Sistema," and if possible, to meet its founder Jose Antonio Abreu.
What first struck them, they said, was the poverty in Venezuela – around 50 to 60 percent, compared to, say, 10 to 20 percent in Los Angeles. In Caracas, the slums known as "barrios" are very densely populated, and most have no water or electricity. Along the steps leading to the various homes, criminals lurk in corners, waiting. "You have to pay them off," said Louise, "People will assault you with a knife for shoes, or for your necklace."
In the few homes with power, "sometimes people will steal the power line to redirect it to their home," added Samvel.
The best homes are made from bricks, the worst of sheet metal boxes, or egg cartons put together, or simply dried mud.
"In the countryside, I thought I was seeing a bombed-out town, with holes in houses – but it was just a rural barrio," Louise said.
In this environment, Maestro Abreu, an economist and musician, started El Sistema 32 years ago. The program officially serves 300,000 children, providing free instruments and instruction, as well as a system of children and youth orchestras for them to play in.
Here's how Circe described Abreu's effectiveness: "When Maestro Abreu says something, it's done."
The music education system has about 20 centers throughout the country, called "nucleos."
The nucleo in Maracay was the first in the country, and in the early days, classes were held wherever they could find space, even outside.
"I had to teach in a park," said Circe, who like many El Sistema graduates, also taught in the system. "There were flying birds as we played!"
In the entryway of "Nucleo Maracay," a poster shows pictures of the many facets of El Sistema: very young children just learning their instruments; deaf children wearing white gloves to perform to music; huge youth orchestras wearing patriotic jackets in Venezuela's colors; and some of El Sistema's brightest stars, including Gustavo Dudamel and Maestro Abreu.
Maestro Abreu meets monthly with directors from the nucleos.
"It's very centralized conceptually, in terms of Abreu's vision and philosophy," Louise said. "It's de-centralized in terms of funding and some organizational aspects."
Each nucleo has up to six categories of programs for children ages two through 18:, including three children's categories (Kinder, Pre-Infantil and Infantil), Youth Orchestra, Advanced Youth Orchestra and then the top level orchestra, which is the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra.
"In all these levels, they take other classes as well," Samvel said. Those classes include theory, choir, history, other instruments (like piano) and sight reading.
The children learn to read music in the "kinder" classes, and "when they are five, they already know how to read anything in the musical language," Circe said. Though they play arrangements at the kinder and children's levels, the youth orchestra plays all original works, with no arrangements.
Classes tend to have about 35 children, and by now, "all of the teachers are graduates of El Sistema," Circe said.
Any child in Venezuela can register for El Sistema.
"There is no waiting list, because they accept everybody," Circe said, "just waiting lists for instruments.
"Because of the demand," Circe said, "they can't get all the instruments they need from outside the country." China is sending teachers to Venezuela to teach children to make instruments.
Korea and Japan have made a deal to provide interactive technology, so that students in distant nucleos can watch important events like masterclasses in Caracas, Louise said.
Sometimes the youth orchestras from various parts of the country join together for enormous concerts. Circe described the experience of playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with 1,000 kids:
"We'd have four conductors in different places, and a guy with a microphone to amplify his voice to say, 'Hey, let's tune!'" she said.
Music is truly a career path in Venezuela, and musicians begin working young.
"All the students who have some proficiency are encouraged to perform. They provide entertainment all over the country," Samvel said, and that means being paid to perform and teach. "They want you to start working."
"The kids are very happy," Samvel said. "They've worked very hard, put in hours and hours of practicing." And despite the long work, "there is nothing you see in them that indicates that are repressed in any way."
"Over there, being part of El Sistema is a privilege," Samvel said. Not everyone who goes through it ends up being a stellar musician like Dudamel, but "if you go through it, you have set yourself up with a successful career. They know that if they stick with it, they will get the benefit."
"You become sort of the hero or the start in your community if you carry an instrument," Circe said.
El Sistema costs about US$80 to 90 million a year; with 60 percent of the budget coming from the government and 40 percent from international banks and donations. It not only provides children with education, but it provides a safe place for children in an often dangerous environment.
"Abreu is a musician, but he also is an economist," Louise said. "It is a social intervention program: to pull children out of poverty, and save them from poverty."
There are lawyers who help troubled children who are in the orchestra, and Abreu has even been known on occasion to personally retrieve a youth from jail.
"You know you're going to be in a supportive place," Circe said, "that no matter what, you'll be supported."
"You also get to travel for free," said, Circe, who started in El Sistema at age 4 and remained in it until she was 21. "You get paid for tours, it's awesome!" As a child, Circe said she traveled all over Venezuela, to other Latin American countries, and also to Spain, Germany, Italy and other countries.
"This is heaven for a child who is imprisoned by poverty," Louise said.
Not only that, but "El Sistema" has produced musicians of the highest caliber, the most well-known being conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and another being double bassist Edicson Ruiz, who at age 17 became the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic. The Simon Bolivar Orchestra itself is achieving acclaim the world over, from London to Los Angeles.
El Sistema also is growing an audience that so many organizations have written off: "In Venezuela, 90 percent of concert goers are younger than 25," Louise said, quoting Dudamel.
Samvel and Louise did get their wish, to meet founder Maestro Abreu. They happened to be visiting a new building called "Centro de Accion Social Para la Musica," where much of "The Promise of Music" was filmed and where The Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra rehearses. When they visited, a 15-year-old boy was leading two combined youth orchestras through a smokin' fast version of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony for an audience that included the newly elected governor of the state of Carabobo. (They videotaped part of this performance, incredible!)
They saw that Abreu was sitting in this audience, so after the performance they introduced themselves, and snapped a picture with him.
Several days later they visited Abreu at El Sistema Headquarters, where he sat down with them.
Samvel and Louise presented him with a yearbook of our group, the Verdugo Young Musicians Association from California, which he flipped through with interest, "marvelous...," he said, "marvelous!" They told him about VYMA's plans to begin an after-school program inspired by El Sistema, and Abreu responded to their enthusiasm and energy with warmth, Louise said.
Louise described something else she had said to Abreu, right after hearing the youth orchestra perform.
"Thank you," she had told him, "for the present you have given all humanity."
Abreu turned to her and smiled, "It is only a beginning."Tweet
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