One of the most remarkable features of the System is that children begin
playing in ensembles from the moment they pick up their instruments.
The principle is that students are learning to behave as much as they are
discovering how to make music.
As Igor Lanz, the executive director of the private foundation that
administers the government-financed sistema says, “In an orchestra,
everybody respects meritocracy, everybody respects tempo, everybody
knows he has to support everyone else, whether he is a soloist or not ….
They learn that the most important thing is to work together in one
The creator of the System is Jose Abreu, a classical musician and
economist, who wanted to bring high culture to as many of his
countrymen as possible. He started in 1975 with 11 students and
volunteer teachers, working out of a garage.
Now, there are 200 youth orchestras and 246 centers (known as nucleos)
nationwide. The success of the System has resulted in continual funding
from successive Venezuelan governments whether the oil-rich country’s
economy is doing well or otherwise.
Abreu is proud to state, “Art is not an ornamental accessory to education, but
each child has the clear right to musical, art or literature instruction from an
early age ….. the System allows the talent to be detected early on. That’s
important. It’s detected in grade school, not the conservatory, so that the child
can in time be developed and taken to the maximum artistic level …. I felt that
music education and art should be part of the patrimony of the whole country.
From the beginning, I had the idea of inserting strong teachers in classrooms in
sectors with dire social needs …. In those cases, it’s not just the lack of a roof or
of bread, it’s also a spiritual lack, a loneliness and lack of recognition. The
philosophy of the system shows that the vicious circle of poverty can be broken
when a child poor in material possessions acquires spiritual wealth through
Our ideal is of a country in which art is within the reach of every citizen so
that we can no longer talk about art being the property of the elite, but the
heritage of the people,” and perhaps most importantly of all, “An
orchestra is the only group where people get together to reach agreements
and they reach those agreements producing something beautiful.”
Supported by the government, the System has started to introduce its
music program into the public school curriculum, aiming within five years
to be in every school and to double its enrollment to 500,000 children.
President Hugo Chavez was a fervent supporter, and the government funds
the System with $29 million a year. It is seen as a flagship of national
achievement, with children from youth orchestras frequently
accompanying him on his visits, as Head of State, within Venezuela and
Officially opened at the end of July, the Center for Social Action Through Music
is an 11-story, $25 million building on the edge of downtown Caracas.
Influence of the System
Javier Moreno, general manager of the System, relates how it is doing far more
than teaching children music however much this is important in itself.
He says, “We’re interested in creating citizens with all the values they need to
exist in society, responsibility, teamwork, respect, cooperation and work ethic.
Many of the facilities are situated in some the poorest barrios in the biggest
cities as well as far distant villages.”
Inter-American Development Bank became interested. It helped underwrite the
System with a $5 million loan and is now advancing $150 million for the
construction of seven other regional centers of the sistema throughout
Venezuela. No need to add that development banks prefer to lend money for
infrastructure: sewers, roads, water-treatment plants!
Within the I.D.B., many bankers objected to a loan for such a frivolous-
seeming project. “One of my colleagues joked, ‘Are you going to finance
the poor kids to carry the instruments of the rich kids?’” says Luis Carlos
Antola, a representative of the bank in Venezuela. “Because there is the
feeling that classical music is for the elite.”
In fact, the bank has conducted studies on the more than two million
young people who have been educated in the sistema, which show that
two-thirds of them are from poor backgrounds.
Other studies link participation in the program to improvements in
school attendance and declines in juvenile delinquency. Weighing
such benefits as a falloff in school dropout rates and a decline in
crime, the bank calculated that every dollar invested in the sistema
was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends.
Discipline, respect, achievement through work and teamwork
Susan Siman is director of the center in Montealban, a neighborhood in Caracas
where as many as 600 young people learn at any one time. “Some of these
children are semi-abandoned and some come from very poor classes. They’ve
had it rough.”
She continues, “The goal is not about music. It’s about discipline, respect,
achievement through work and teamwork, and never, ever taking away the idea
of being excellent.”
The System continually attempts to attract children living and existing in the
most unfortunate circumstances. It has introduced pilot programmes in 3 cities
for homeless children who mainly subsist as scavengers in garbage dumps.
This is a radical social project in which children, often living in unthinkable
circumstances, are given the chance to punch through the poverty cycle - with
the help of skills learned through music.
For these very young children, says Siman, “the method uses singing, dancing,
arts and crafts, and there’s lots of focus on parents’involvement.” The key, she
says, is that “music is seen as play rather than a chore, so the kids don’t push it
away.” Instead, the pleasure and pride that the children took in their collective
effort was infectious.
Compare how children learn in Venezuela to what happens in most developed
nations where children spend tedious, boring hours practising alone. The
comparison is worth emphasizing. In Venezuela everything is communal,
everything is about the team. In the System, all practice is supervised.
As Sir Simon Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic
observes, “You also immediately notice a different feeling among these children
from the competitive, individualistic atmosphere that prevails if you are a
young musician hot-housed in Britain. The culture here is one of mutual
support. The point is not to be the best, but to be the best you can. The height of
achievement for these children is to be part of the national youth orchestra; in
other words, to be part of a group, an ensemble.”
As one commentator said, “There is much less focus on aspiring to be the
Nietzschean superhero at the front playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto, or
what have you - an aspiration that is, after all, nearly always frustrated.”
Maibel Troia, musical director at the Don Bosco center, said a bigger
challenge is reaching children in the barrio who are inherently distrustful of
outsiders who make promises. “They think it’s another lie, or that it’s not a
real future for them,” she said. “But as they start coming and they get
uniforms and they see the possibilities to do the work or go out and see
concerts, they become excited about it.”
But more than that, the vitality of this music-making, the rapt faces of these
young musicians, render words such as “urgent” and “passionate” utterly
inadequate. In fact, everything they do makes European and North American
ways of dealing with classical music seem grey and dull. These young people,
aged up to 25, are playing as if their lives depended upon it, and in some ways,
perhaps they do.
The programme has produced star musicians. The most famous is Gustavo
Dudamel, who at 25 has conducted orchestras in Berlin, Israel and Los Angeles.
Still in his mid-20s he was offered an unparalleled five-year contract as music
director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which started in the 2009-10 season.
Rattle has called him “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come
across.” In addition, Rattle says the sistema “is the most important thing happening
in classical music anywhere in the world.” Now at 29, Dudamel is the most-talked-
about young musician in the world.
Edicson Ruiz, at nine, was stacking supermarket shelves to contribute to the
family’s meagre income. At 17, Edicson Ruiz was selected as the youngest bass
player to join the Berlin Philharmonic.
At just 12, Legner Lacosta was on the streets. Leaving school, his mother and
stepbrothers, he started hanging out in Pinto Salinas, a notorious Caracas barrio
where bullet-ridden shacks pile on top of each other in a ravine nestled beside the
motorway. By 13, Legner had a crack habit and a .38 calibre gun and a regular role
as a drug-dealer and thief.
“I got trapped by money,” he says, “when I was high, I felt as if I were
somewhere else; you clear everything out of your mind and start to invent
your own world.” By 15, the police caught and beat him, and he was sent to a
young offenders’ institute in Los Chorros, east Caracas, among 150 glue-
sniffers and abandoned or abused children.
Forced to go cold turkey, Legner withdrew into himself. “I was bored and
didn’t want to do anything,” he says. But one day, the Youth Orchestras
Project turned up and he had his first meeting with a clarinet. “When the
instruments arrived, the director told me there was a clarinet left. I didn’t
know what it was. I was fascinated when I saw it. He taught me the first four
notes. I played those four notes all day.”
By 17, Legner was back at the detention centre, but this time in a smart polo
shirt and trendy thick-rimmed glasses, there to teach clarinet. “Music saved
my life,” he says. “It helped me let out a lot of the anger inside. If music had
not arrived, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Thousands of other underprivileged kids across Venezuela have made a
similar journey. Legner has now moved to Germany to continue his
International interest, external funding and the continued flush of high oil
revenues seem set to keep the Venezuela production line of budding
musicians rolling. The System is filled with confidence with an excess of
audiences, young and old, who pack out our theatres, which is quite the
opposite to Europe.
The result is that conductors from abroad are continually attracted to
Venezuela as the place to visit. They say that Venezuela is like nowhere
else in the world because every time you come you get to work with a
different orchestra. So if the program’s future looks so bright, how many
more Dudamels can we expect? “Ah, we’ve got plenty like him,” says a
spokesman, with a smile. “Just you wait.”