Saturday Art: El Sistema and Venezuela’s Artistic and Educational Renaissance
Venezuela, the country that opened its door yesterday (Friday, July 5th) to American whistleblower and fugitive, Edward Snowden, possesses what many regard as the finest musical education infrastructure in the world. More than any other aspect of Venezuela’s international goodwill gestures, young musicians participating in what has become known as “El Sistema” aurally demonstrate to concert audiences worldwide what enthusiastic young musicians can accomplish.
Ask any young American kid who performs in a metropolitan youth symphony if she or he has heard of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, you’re likely to get “Yes!” as your reply. It is the traveling showcase of El Sistema. Here’s a sample of their performance art, rendering an orchestration of the South American popular song, Alma Llanera, at a London Proms Concert, in 2007:
This orchestra is the premiere ensemble of an educational network that is surprisingly large, and growing:
El Sistema is a state foundation which watches over Venezuela’s 125 youth orchestras and the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. The organization has 31 symphony orchestras, and between 310,000 to 370,000 children attend its music schools around the country. 70 to 90 percent of the students come from poor socio-economic backgrounds.
The funding of El Sistema comes from government and private sources (emphases added):
On 6 June 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank announced the granting of a US$150 million loan for the construction of seven regional centers of El Sistema throughout Venezuela. Many bankers within the IDB originally objected to the loan on the grounds 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 El Sistema which link participation in the program to improvements in school attendance and declines in juvenile delinquency. Weighing such benefits as a falloff in school drop-out rates and a decline in crime, the bank calculated that every dollar invested in El Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends.
Supported by the government, El Sistema has started to introduce its music program into the public-school curriculum, aiming to be in every school and to support 500,000 children by 2015.
The project has been extended to the penal system. On 25 May 2008, Leidys Asuaje wrote for Venezuelan daily El Nacional: “The plan to humanize jails through music began eleven months ago under the tutelage of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice and FESNOJIV….”
El Sistema was created in 1975 by an economist (PhD in petroleum economics) who was also a pianist, José Antonio Abreu. Through its 38 years of existence, El Sistema has educated millions of Venezuelans, and has served as a model for music education infrastructure in other countries, such as the UK and Portugal. It has survived in Venezuela through both right-wing and left-wing governments. In the USA, the Venezuelan model has been spread through the New England Conservatory of Music’s Abreu Fellowship Program:
These cover a wide geographical area ranging from KidZNotes in North Carolina, JAMM (Juno Alaska Music Matters) in that state, and ICAN (Incredible Children’s Art Network) in Santa Barbara, California.
One seldom or never reads of the success of El Sistema in American mainstream media, with its lack of interest in educational models from other countries that might help our kids.
Here is another Proms performance by Venezuela’s premiere youth orchestra. I find this to be one of the best renditions of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony there is. A group of kids, bringing more life to Shostakovich’s remarkable Farewell Good Riddance! to Josef Stalin than 90% of the USA’s adult symphony orchestras are capable of giving it: