“An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement. And what does the experience of agreement mean? Team practice – the practice of the group that recognizes itself as interdependent, where everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty.”
– Jose Abreu, the founder of El Sistema
One of the most exciting initiatives in educational reform today hails unexpectedly from Venezuela, where in 1975 economist, composer and conductor Jose Antonio Abreu launched El Sistema, a free program in classical music for young children from highly impoverished backgrounds. Thirty-five years and 800,000 students later, El Sistema is the national jewel of Venezuela, a world-acclaimed program being emulated around the globe. Officially known as the Fundacion del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, El Sistema currently enrolls some 300,000 children and youth throughout Venezuela.
Through classical music, an anathema in the slums, children find themselves transported to another world with all of its possibilities and promises.
From the outset, Dr. Abreu has seen himself as much a social reformer as an advocate for music education, and it’s El Sistema’s dual purpose that propels the program and its international imitators. In Abreu’s view, musical training can help to overcome the disadvantages of poverty and inequality, not merely by developing otherwise-untapped intellectual potential for success in school, but by unlocking and instilling the self-confidence to succeed.
In particular, Abreu argues, the ensemble nature of classical, orchestral training affords children opportunities to acquire valuable social skills and values “virtually non-existent in the crime-ridden, drug-infested barrios of places like Caracas.” Values like teamwork, responsibility and mutual respect. With orchestra as the central paradigm of instruction, children are embraced in a new community from the outset, rather than practicing alone until they’re good enough to join in.
El Sistema’s mission is not to create professional musicians, but to promote the collective practice of music through symphony orchestras and choruses in order to help children and young people in achieving their full potential and acquiring values that favor their growth. Nonetheless, the program has produced some remarkably talented and accomplished professionals, the most famous among them, Gustavo Dudamel, a 33-year-old virtuoso conductor who now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Others include bassist Edicson Ruiz, at one time, the youngest member in the history of the Berlin Philharmonic; Natalia Luis-Bassa, now conducting three English orchestras; flautist Pedro Eustache; violinist Edward Pulgar and violist Joen Vasquez.
Literature Review – Research and publications relating to El Sistema and Sistema-inspired programs.
“El Sistema, Open Secrets” A list of fundamentals for El Sistema-inspired programs co-authored by Eric Booth, international teaching artist, and Katie Wyatt.
“Fundamentals of El Sistema” A wonderful summary of El Sistema.
YOLA Resources– A veritable treasure trove of youth orchestra and El Sistema resources from the Youth Orchestra of LA, run by the LA Philharmonic.
“Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music”– A history of El Sistema and the growth of inspired programs in the US by Tricia Tunstall.
VIDEO: CBS Special that inspired Kidznotes, “El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music”