In 2009, Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu won a TED Prize for the incredible impact of El Sistema–a Venezuelan youth orchestra movement that uses music as a vehicle for social change for more than 350,000 children. With this prize, Dr. Abreu wished for the creation of a training program for “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.” The Abreu Fellows Program was born.
During my time with the inaugural class of Abreu Fellows, we worked to unpack and understand the philosophy, ideals, practice and pedagogy of El Sistema. The lessons we learned have helped all of us support and start El Sistema-inspired programs around the United States. But truly, the most important learning curve was experiencing the movement on the ground in Venezuela, where an orchestra positively shapes the life of a child, a family and a community. The experiences changed my life as a musician and continue to guide my work every day now as the program director of Youth Orchestra LA at Heart of Los Angeles.
Santa Ana de Coro
As musicians visiting El Sistema music schools–or núcleos–across Venezuela, we were graciously (and regularly) invited to teach and perform as special guests. So, I was not surprised when the director of the Coro núcleo, upon realizing that I was a horn player, summoned a promising 11-year-old horn student into his office to perform on the spot. This young girl had been born with no right hand, and her left hand was not fully formed. Years before, when she first came to the núcleo, no one had wasted any time making a list of the instruments she would never play because she lacked a right hand. They handed her a horn. It is the only instrument that is played with just the left hand; naturally, it was meant to be hers.
I had worked with children with physical deformities before and had watched them struggle to hide their difference at any cost. This girl, however, exuded a quiet confidence years beyond her age, shaking hands and slapping high-fives without a second thought. She played impressively and beautifully, clearly having a gift for horn. In the sectionals I taught, she acted as the principal horn of the group, translating my bad Spanish into comprehensible statements and constantly asking me for advice and tips on how she and her section could improve. She spent extra time offering encouragement and pointers to the students who were struggling.
I was struck that, in so many other activities, this child would have been excluded immediately because of her special need. In El Sistema, teachers had focused on her abilities rather than her disability, and she had been welcomed in. As a result, she had gained a strong sense of self and had emerged a leader.
Las Panelas Modulo, Coro
Evening was just beginning to settle on a narrow barrio street in Coro. I stood outside a 15-by-25-foot, one-room house, meeting the woman who owned it. She explained that she and a few other music teachers had bought the space when they realized that many of the children from the barrio were not making the trek to the main Coro núcleo. For these children, who had the fewest resources, weakest support systems and yet the greatest need, an access point had to be given on their street. And that is exactly what this group of musicians had done.
Inside the room, old paint buckets had been turned upside down to serve as makeshift seating, and a white board had been posted against the far wall. This would be their home for music.
I watched as the woman stepped outside, cuatro in hand, and yelled down the street, “Time for music class! Time for music class!”
As if on cue, young children popped out of homes and hiding places and ran down the street, recorders held high over their heads. It was as though they had been waiting all day for this moment.
The children sang and played recorder choir pieces with incredible focus and heart. While they rehearsed, their parents gathered informally outside, sometimes peering in through the bars on the window to listen, but mostly just catching up with neighbors and friends while the music of their children played in the background.
After class, the children eagerly showed me their recorders–an instrument that they were responsible for, cared for and loved to play. This was their most prized possession, because with it, they could create music together. In that instance, I understood the incredible importance of what Dr. Abreu calls “affluence of spirit.” In a barrio where not every person had a pair of shoes, every child has a safe space to create and learn music in a community of friends.
The National Children’s Orchestra
While Venezuela celebrated Semana Santa, the 357-piece National Children’s Orchestra of 8- to 15-year-olds celebrated Mahler’s First Symphony with days of rehearsals. With 16 bassoons, 18 horns, six tubas and a sea of strings, the large rehearsal room in Caracas felt cramped, but the excitement in the air was palpable. In just a few months, these students would tour the country of Venezuela under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.
As I looked across the orchestra and saw a number of students with legs dangling off their chairs, too short to touch the floor, it hit me that the first time I touched Mahler’s First Symphony, I was in college. The orchestra sounded unbelievable. It was their first week coming together. Though they were elementary school students, the commitment to the music from the students and their teachers was unshakable; so they were not satisfied. The bar was set to the highest possible artistic standard–even the 8-year-old bass player who had to stand on top of a box to play his instrument was accountable for every nuance in the symphony. Rehearsals were run as though these children were professionals, and the students behaved liked professionals. Their final performance of Mahler’s First Symphony was beautiful and moving–every child in the orchestra understood the art they were creating. No one placed limits on what these children could achieve, and so they achieved the impossible.
In these experiences, I learned some of the most basic tenants of El Sistema–create an open program where every child, no matter what her ability or economic situation, has access, and then trust the child to achieve the impossible. She will exceed your expectations every time and, in the process, become a resilient, creative and caring human being.
Christine Witkowski is a performing musician and music educator dedicated to using art for social change. In July of 2010, Christine moved to Los Angeles to become the director of the El Sistema-inspired program Youth Orchestra LA at Heart of Los Angeles (YOLA at HOLA), where she and a team of faculty serve 100+ students in L.A.’s Rampart district.