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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Joshua Lewis listens during a rehearsal at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Mass.

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.

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?

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."

The goal is not to turn out a new generation of classical musicians, though that is one result. And it's not to build a new audience for classical music, though some who are involved hope that will happen, too.

El Sistema taps what its advocates say is the unique power of music.

"Music offers this exquisite balance of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, the social, and the spiritual – five very important aspects of human existence," Churchill says.

Academic studies suggest that musical training can be especially effective in developing young minds. "In Venezuela, 75 percent of medical students are graduates of El Sistema," Churchill says.

This fall, the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Mass., a Boston neighborhood, added roughly 2-1/2 hours of El Sistema training to its school day. Children from prekindergarten to fifth grade from all over Boston are selected by lottery to attend the school. The 154 students are not chosen because of any special musical talent.

The children arrive at 8:15 a.m. and leave at 5:15 p.m. "It's a long day, but it goes quickly," says Diana Lam, the head of school. "With the little ones, there's a nap in there somewhere," she says with a laugh.

On a recent visit, first- and second-graders are seen in their classrooms with violins, violas, cellos, and basses in their tiny hands. A teacher claps two sticks together to keep the beat as the children practice fingering and bowing. In another room, under the patient guidance of teacher Levi Comstock ("eyes on me"), miniature violinists practice playing "Scotland's Burning." The tune is already recognizable, even though they have had their instruments for only a few weeks.

Several blocks away, third- through fifth-graders are rehearsing for a holiday performance at the Thomas A. Edison School. The Conservatory Lab, run out of leased classrooms in the back of a parochial school, has no auditorium of its own.

Several fifth-grade students seem pretty sold on the program.

"Music is pretty much my life to me, my career, and it livens up every day," says 11-year-old Joshua Lewis, who plays the viola. Today's popular music is "OK," he says, but he prefers classical music because it's "pretty much like the origin of where music came from. And I like the rhythm and how it comes out."

"I came here to get a better education," says preternaturally mature 12-year-old Asia Raspaldo. She and her parents hadn't realized the conservatory was a music-oriented school until she arrived. "They said, 'Here's your violin and your bow,' " she says. "It was quite a shocking moment. I didn't expect it."

But she's grown to love it. "This school is very talented," Asia says. "It's not only a school, it's a family."

Ms. Lam would like to triple the size of the student body and extend the school through eighth grade, meaning it could hand off its most promising students directly to arts or other high-achievement high schools. A decision on that is expected later this year.

Being able to stay longer, Asia says, "is my dream ... that's what everybody is hoping for. I don't want to leave."

In northern California, the Youth Orchestra Salinas sprang to life last summer, inspired by El Sistema. Its education director, Jenean Watrous, a music educator who had read about El Sistema, eagerly came on board in June after Joanne Taylor Johnson, a local music lover and philanthropist, decided to start a group.

This fall, 70 children are learning music after school through singing and playing recorders and violins, violas, and cellos. A wind instrument instructor has been hired, with the hope of starting a full orchestra in the spring.

The city of Salinas has seen some rough times. "The gang violence is not going away. There was another shooting yesterday of a teenager," Ms. Watrous says. The youth orchestra program keeps kids off the streets after school and provides a safe alternative.

"The No. 1 rule is having fun," she says. "You're building musical instruction in a kind of sneaky way."

She tells of one 9-year-old boy who bragged when he first arrived, "I get in trouble all the time." He was sent to the principal's office on a daily basis for getting into fights and other mischief.

After two months in the El Sistema-style program, Watrous says, "he really transformed before our eyes from bragging about getting into trouble to his principal actually coming up to one of my teaching artists and saying, 'You know, this child is significantly different from the child we knew from the last three years of being at this school. He has changed, and it's because of this program.' "

Today, the boy volunteers to help out at his school. "And in our program he's our No. 1 helper and supporter and really proud of himself," Watrous says. "It's really marvelous."

Such anecdotal evidence is heartening. But financial backers often want more proof of concrete results. El Sistema USA would like to conduct research projects to try to identify and quantify the specific gains children are making in the programs. It would also like to send more consultants into the field to help build up El Sistema programs and upgrade its website to make it a more useful resource.

All that will cost about $400,000 more than NEC says it can afford to underwrite, says NEC spokeswoman Ellen Pfeifer. For that reason, El Sistema USA eventually may decide to look for a new home at another US institution.

El Sistema USA's other chief role (it doesn't franchise or accredit El Sistema programs around the country, Churchill points out) is to select and train 50 "Abreu fellows" over a five-year period. These young teacher-musicians, mainly in their 20s, travel to Venezuela for study and then fan out across the United States to start programs.

The second class of 10 Abreu fellows will head to Venezuela this winter. There, El Sistema is a source of national pride and receives substantial government funding. In the US, it is still not widely known, and government funds are likely to be difficult to obtain.

The US system "closes some doors, but it opens others," says David Gracia, a new Abreu fellow who grew up in Spain. There, he says, the government provides many social programs. But he also saw little private philanthropy.

Here, volunteers and community groups take the lead, meaning "there are more places that you can get the money," he says.

Whether El Sistema principles will work in the US is "a very, very serious question," Zander says. "Am I optimistic? Absolutely I'm optimistic. Am I certain that it will work? No, I can't say I'm certain it will work. I don't think anybody knows."

Classical music actually has a long tradition of involving the poor, he says. "The musicians in [18th-century Italian composer Antonio] Vivaldi's orchestras were all orphans, because that's what orphans did."

For Watrous in Salinas, funding will last only until the spring. More will have to be raised if the El Sistema-inspired program is to continue.

"I'm excited to be a part of what's happening here and seeing it grow," she says. "I just know it's going to work. You have to have that mind-set."

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