Imagine a group of 4th-grade students excited to remain after school for classical music instruction. They play instruments, study Mahler’s first symphony, train with their ensemble, and practice again at home.
Day after day, they are dedicated to learning and playing music. But most importantly, they think it’s fun. They are passionate about classical music. They can’t wait to pick up their instruments again; they dream of performing in an orchestra.
The students are not child prodigies, born into well-heeled families and studying at the top music academy in their region. They are poor. Their parents work several jobs, and struggle to keep food on the table and shoes on their kids’ feet. Their families would likely not have the means to afford new instruments for their children, let alone classical music instruction, if it were not for a community vision that considers music education a right, not a privilege.
The vision, the network and the program make up what is known in Venezuela as El Sistema. It began in the South American nation in the 1970s and is slowly spreading around the world.
El Sistema Venezuela
Dr. José Antonio Abreu, an economist and musician, founded Venezuela’s El Sistema (“the system”) program in 1975 to bring free classical music education to the children of Venezuela. The program was made up of núcleos or small community-based orchestra programs that allowed underserved and impoverished children the opportunity to learn and practice music, and eventually to participate in children and youth orchestras.
The emphasis within El Sistema is on community-based orchestra training from pre-school and early grade school, with a focus on making music fun and making the young musician passionate about music.
Many of the children begin learning classical music as early as 2 years old and continue into their teens and beyond. The program follows a national curriculum and is intense, with music instruction lasting up to four hours a day for five or six days a week.
By 2010, the program, known formally as the State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras, is nationwide, has impacted more than 4 million students, includes 200 youth orchestras, 60 children’s orchestras, 270 music centers and currently reaches about 400,000 young musicians.
In addition to producing star conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan program also produced the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and internationally renowned double bass player Edicson Ruiz, who was the youngest musician to ever join the Berlin Philharmonic.
Coming to America
The Venezuelan El Sistema model levels the musical playing field for children of all socioeconomic backgrounds by ensuring that children from low-income communities receive the same introduction to and instruction in music (and specifically classical music) that would be available to children of families with greater resources.
In 2009, Dr. Abreu won the TED Prize, an award run by TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. That award brought Dr. Abreu’s mission $100,000 and the granting of a wish to change the world. His wish was this:
“I wish you could help create and document a special training program for at least 50 gifted young musicians, passionate for their art and for social justice, and dedicated to developing El Sistema in the U.S. and in other countries.”
And the U.S. really needed the help. A 2007 study showed that since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, 30 percent of districts with at least one school identified as needing improvement have decreased instruction time for arts and music.
Add budget cuts and a recession to the mix, and some schools have cut music and arts programs altogether. Scaling back on music education disproportionately impacted America’s low-income and underserved students, making music education, in some regions of the country, a luxury attained by those who could afford it.
With financial, institutional and promotional help from the TED Prize, El Sistema USA was born. A partnership with the New England Conservatory of Music allowed for a year-long fellowship program that turned out to be the backbone of El Sistema USA. The Abreu Fellows, as they are called, are musicians who completed a post-graduate program at New England Conservatory in Boston and traveled to Venezuela for two months to study El Sistema. The goal was to have the Abreu Fellows master El Sistema’s tenets, so that they could return to the U.S. and create their own El Sistema programs throughout the nation and eventually throughout the world.
“Núcleos” for the U.S.
One Abreu Fellow – trombonist Daniel Berkowitz – is the director of Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA). He says that the goal of YOLA is to be a social program.
“It is a program of humanity,” he says one evening at YOLA’s Expo Center site in South L.A. “What we try to do is go into neighborhoods that wouldn’t otherwise have access to orchestral education and provide intensive music education from the best teachers that we can find.”
And while YOLA uses music to reach children, not every young musician is going to join a symphony one day.
“Our goal is to make citizens. It’s not to make professional musicians,” Berkowitz says. “As Maestro Abreu put it, the orchestra is a really unique community, because it’s the only community that comes together for the sole purpose of agreeing with itself.”
YOLA operates at a second site in L.A.’s Rampart District at the Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) community center. YOLA at HOLA, as it is known locally, is run by Abreu Fellowship alum Christine Witkowski and offers 17 hours of programming from Monday through Saturday for children in the first and fourth grades. The program is more than just a location for music instruction. The site operates “as a safe haven and ‘home away from home’ for our students,” Witkowski says.
In February 2010, bassoon player and Abreu Fellowship alum Dantes Rameau co-founded the Atlanta Music Project. The program is an after-school youth orchestra and choir program, which operates 5 days a week to bring music education to metropolitan Atlanta’s underserved youth.
And the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston is unique in that music is built right into the school curriculum, making it the first U.S. public school to make El Sistema a mandatory part of the school day. Students receive ensemble-focused instruction in music in a school day that is extended from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
This is just a sample of several community-based programs that are part of the growing El Sistema USA system. Other U.S.-based programs include:
Corona Youth Music Project or Núcleo Corona (Queens, NY);
Harmony Program (Brooklyn, NY);
Imagine Syracuse (Syracuse, NY);
Juneau Alaska Music Matters;
KidzNotes (Durham, NC);
ORCHKids (Baltimore, MD);
People’s Music School (Chicago, IL);
Tune Up Philly (Philadelphia, PA);
Verdugo Young Musicians Association (Pasadena, CA);
Youth Orchestras of San Antonio Music Learning Center (San Antonio, TX).
And the list continues to grow.
The Future of Music Education
Just as El Sistema-inspired programs are springing up in the United States, the same holds true around the globe.
Music programs inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema model now exist in 25 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, India, Jamaica, Scotland and Uruguay.
In addition to training future musicians, El Sistema and El Sistema USA continue in their mission to touch and change the lives of children and inspire communities through music.
For more on El Sistema USA, visit http://elsistemausa.org.