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El Sistema - Changing lives through Music

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It seems as though artists achieve their greatest deeds when they are in the midst of personal or societal turmoil. Certainly, this is apparent when looking at the history of American popular music. I have often written about iconic artists who have experienced pain, deprivation, and/or physical challenges; yet overcame these impediments to achieve greatness. I had always viewed these achievers in a heroic way. I believed that their fame came out of an ability to be resilient. That may be true in some cases, but there is another side to this that I hadn't considered originally. Some of these artists may live with the pain but deal with it through their artistry. In these cases, the creative process is almost like a narcotic. Unfortunately, for some, the art isn't enough.

However, whether it's about resiliency, achievement, painkilling, or looking for approval, a need for change is often the genesis of art. If you accept that, there is a wealth of creative potential in ghettos. Moreover, there is a way to create lasting social change by positively affecting the lives of those children. The National Association for Music Education (NAMC), educators, and scientists are making the case that music education should be part of every child's core academic curriculum. The reasons for this go well beyond music training. The contention is that music education is a critical element for success in society, success in school, success in developing intelligence, and success in life. Scientific evidence proves that arts education makes better math and science students, boosts spatial intelligence in newborns, and can be a solution to teen violence. There is a movement in America and other countries to change the educational focus. Things are beginning to happen. Curiously, the model wasn't developed in America or another country is typically associated with exporting music.

Over thirty years ago, one man did something that about the concept of using music to change the future for children. He has done that and much more. His vision was to use music as a vehicle to overcome poverty and hopelessness. He was particularly qualified to see the advantages of using music to improve socioeconomic conditions in his country. Jose Antonio Abreu is a pianist, economist, educator, activist, and politician from Venezuela. He focused his energies on the dangerous and poverty-stricken shantytowns of Caracas. His aim was to absorb youngsters from poor families into the world of music; giving them prospects in a climate where drugs, disillusionment, and crime were endemic. In a story that almost sounds like a fairytale, the system has had outstanding results. He called his project, El Sistema (the system).

The Simon Bolivar Orchestra (watch this video) is a symbol of Abreu's dream. One of its double bass players, Edicson Ruiz, is now a member of the Berlin Philharmonic. At 17, Ruiz is the youngest musician ever to join the Berlin Philharmonic! Today, quite a few of the system's young graduates are now among the most sought after young musicians in Europe. Gustavo Dudamel has become the musical director of the Los Angeles Symphony at 28. He is exciting and carries the aura of a rock star. Dudamel is just what the classical music world needs to energize and build new audiences.

You must be wondering how this system works. It's actually elegantly simple! Many of the children in the program start as early as age two, learning the basics of pitch, rhythm, and harmony. These children are taught by highly dedicated teachers. Many of these teachers are El Sistema trained themselves. By age 7 or 8, they are already becoming accomplished young musicians, having started learning to play instruments or sing in chorus by age 4 or 5. The children in The System develop at an astonishing pace, through 12 hours per day of classes, lessons and guided rehearsals, Monday through Saturday, leaving Sunday off for individual practice time. Classes and lessons are taught at 90 System Centers scattered throughout the country. Ironically, many of these centers were part of the nearly non-existent public school system in Venezuela.

The philosophy behind El Sistema is unique because of its unrestricted ideals. The philosophy is built around a progressive concept of the role of art plays in society. The El Sistema viewpoint on their website is very enlightening. It describes the concept that art began as minorities conveying to minorities. Over time, it then became minorities creating art for majorities. Their concept is to change that paradigm so that majorities create for majorities. They believe that change becomes building block for educating and facilitating successful integration of the disadvantaged into society. El Sistema employs the collaborative nature of classical music to help youngsters understand what it means to work together while creating something that is both spiritually and socially uplifting. Every child learns that their contribution is a vital element in an experience that is more than just the sum of its parts. When children experience the beauty and harmony of playing music together, that experience helps them realize that same kind of beauty and harmony in the wider world. Classical music becomes a metaphor for life and opens doors for the young musicians. The lessons learned are transformative. No matter what path they choose to follow in the future, classical music conveys a powerful lesson. They develop self-control, intellectual stimulation, social abilities, and teamwork principles that serve them as they grow older.

The interesting thing is that many don't become professional musicians, but have gone on to thriving careers in law, business, medicine, education, and other pursuits. Naturally, the most talented and dedicated are chosen to perform with Venezuela's most prestigious orchestra, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (SBYOV). Selection for the SBYOV is the pinnacle. It represents years of painstaking work. These children, between the ages of 12 and 17, realize that intense training has transformed them into master musicians, whose skills rival that of many professional musicians.

Abreu's astonishing ideas have gained worldwide recognition and awards including as the subject of a CBS 60 Minutes segment in 2008 and a PBS special. Given that, his concepts have the potential of transforming poverty beyond the Argentinean borders. This notoriety has caused many countries to reassess their early childhood education policies and a number of universities are either evaluating or emulating the El Sistema model including our New England Conservatory. One day, Jose Antonio Abreu may be viewed as one of the most influential people of his generation.

If you want further information, you can write to one of our extremely involved members, Jaime Austria: [Link]

Friends of El Sistema on Facebook: [Link]

60 Minutes link: [Link]

The Wikipedia article is: [Link]

New England Conservatory: [Link]

Michael Stokes

Mike is the founder of Makin' Music NY, which is a music community in the NY area. The network has grown to include musicians and fans the world over. Many of these musicians are renowned. To visit this site, go to http://www.makinmusicny.com/.

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