El Sistema taps the power of classical music to help US children flourish
A Venezuelan poverty program brings its musical discipline to underprivileged youths in the United States.
In Venezuela, some 250,000 mostly poor children spend several hours each day playing classical music. But much more than learning Mozart or Beethoven happens. Lives are transformed as many of the students find their way out of poverty, stay in school longer, and begin careers.Skip to next paragraph
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The program, called El Sistema ("the system"), boasts a world-famous graduate in Gustavo Dudamel, the dynamic young conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And the program's signature performing group, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, has won ovations from sophisticated audiences at famed concert halls in places like Boston, New York, and London.
But can El Sistema, a bootstrap poverty program that receives government support in relatively poor Venezuela, work in the affluent, free-market United States, a nation where classical music has become an afterthought?
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Mark Churchill passionately believes it can. The dean emeritus at the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston has founded El Sistema USA in an effort to bring the benefits of the original program to underprivileged American youths.
In just 18 months, groups inspired by El Sistema (called "núcelos" in Venezuela) have sprung up in more than 30 US cities from Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Philadelphia to Salinas, Calif., and Durham, N.C.
"I think it's the greatest social experiment in human history," says Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and of youth orchestras at the NEC. He has traveled to Venezuela five times to experience El Sistema in action. He'll be going again in March.
El Sistema has become "one of the great social programs of our time, and it's caused huge transformations in people's lives," Maestro Zander says. "I would say that of all the things that musicians talk about, the El Sistema program is probably the single most [thing] on people's minds."
José Antonio Abreu is the "godfather" of El Sistema. He founded it in Venezuela in 1975, offering poor children an opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument and join an orchestra, while teaching them self-discipline, self-esteem, and the value of working together. ("The orchestra is the only group that comes together with the sole purpose of agreement," Dr. Abreu famously says.)
Today, Venezuela has more than 100 youth orchestras.
The program is grounded in the idea that poor children, when given the chance, can achieve the same level of excellence as affluent children, Mr. Churchill says. While "a lot of people believe that," he says, "not everyone does."