Changing Lives Through Music

In the impromptu neighbourhoods of Caracas (Venesuela), settlers left their mark and reflect the social reality: behind the glass palaces and banks, shacks made of red brick and boards crowd the slopes as far as the eye can see. Everyday life is marked by violence in the streets, corrupt police and gang warfare. Few find their way out: work is hard to come by even with vocational training, and the public schools failed to prepare students for university entrance exams. These structures create a system of poverty, social exclusion and poor prospects.

José Antonio Abreu, a conductor, composer and economist, had the idea of providing intensive musical training as an antidote to the ills of poverty, an enveloping reality in Venesuela despite its oil wealth. In 1975, he gathered 11 young musicians in a garage in Caracas and marked the beginning of  “El Sistema.

Abreu has kept the program alive through 8 Venezuelan governments, often on the phone looking for funding.

Children’s orchestras have evolved into youth orchestras, and music centres have become colleges where highly gifted musicians can study. Today, the network has a total of 280 music centres, known as ‘nucléos’, most of which are within walking distance from poor neighbourhoods. It has more than 300,000 students, and counts roughly 500 orchestras and other ensembles, music groups for children from age of 2, choirs that integrate disabled children, and orchestras set up in juvenile detention centres.

It has created hope in a country where 80 % of the population lives in precarious social circumstances and 30% are under 15 years of age. Abreu, a Catholic, called El Sistema an antidote to violence. “When we perform abroad, we are messengers of peace but also for social justice,” He was unperturbed when it was pointed out that Venezuela has become one of the most violent societies in the world. Violence is a global problem, he said: “Orchestras and choirs are incredibly effective instruments against violence.”

The same unique teaching methods are used in all of them. Musical perfection is not the first priority; what’s important is being able to play together with others. The children are integrated into orchestras from the start, and older children pass their knowledge to the younger ones. For Abreu, an orchestra is first about togetherness, a place where children learn to listen and to respect one another. The aim is to integrate children into a united social structure, in which each child assumes responsibility and contributes to a commonly achieved result.

“800,000 children have passed through the system in 32 years,” Abreu said, “Music produces an irreversible transformation in a child. This doesn’t mean he’ll end up as a professional musician. He may become a doctor, or study law, or teach literature. What music gives him remains indelibly part of who he is forever,” Abreu said.

International attention has been drawn to the El Sistema through the national youth orchestra ‘Simon Bolivar’ on concert tours, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel. The best musicians from ‘El Sistema’ over the last 10 years perform together in this orchestra. The members live in Caracas; their workplace is the Teresa Carreño Theatre. Those who come from outside the city share apartments close to the theatre. The others live with their parents and must brave the journey to this district every Friday evening. Even for the locals, the centre of Caracas and the district are absolute no-go areas once darkness falls. Caracas is counted amongst the most dangerous cities in the world. The orchestra system may have changed the young people’s lives, but every day they experience the contrast between the world of music and the reality of their home lives.

Clarinet player Lennar Acosta who came with a violent criminal background joined the orchestra while he was in the juvenile detention center in Caracas. When interviewed, he said his has changed a lot and the music taught him how to treat people without violence.” Recently, Lennar was sent by to work as an apprentice in Germany, learning to build and maintain organs that he can come home to take up this responsibility in the new headquarter.

Classical music educators, administrators and professional players around the world have clutched at its mantle, forming alliances with the movement, establishing Sistema-inspired music programs and engaging its top orchestras and their conductors. El Sistema has also produced talented musicians now competing on the international stage – including the world renowned Gustavo Dudamel who holds posts of music director in US and Sweden on top of Venesuela; Diego Matheuz who is named principal conductor of the Fenice opera in Venice and Christian Vásquez, chief conductor of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra in Norway.

But in the tradition of El Sistema, the newly minted stars stay closely connected to the mother ship, returning often to conduct and teach. “We can have external careers as conductors, but we will always go home to support El Sistema,” said Manuel López-Gómez, a Sistema podium talent with a budding international career. “It’s something ethical. We have to help the next generation.”

José Antonion Abreu, a devoted Catholic who aspires to be a noble servant of God,  has been awarded the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’ for his life’s work and has been named Ambassador of the Peace by UNESCO.

Source:;; CBS News 11/02/2009


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