Venezuela’s El Sistema movement: Orchestrating a musical role model for the world


The founder of the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras, Jose Antonio Abreu (R) and the President and Chief Executive Officer of Los Angeles Philharmonic, Deborah Borda, greets a young venezuelan musician during a free concert by the Simón Bolívar Youth Symphonic Orchestra at Teresa Carreno theater in Caracas, Venezuela. (LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
November 30, 2012

Sometime in the 1920s, it occurred to Shinichi Suzuki, a young Japanese dispatched to Berlin by his father, that children could learn to play the violin the same way they learn to speak. A half-century later, it occurred to José Antonio Abreu, a young Venezuelan petroleum economist with a diploma in piano performance, that children could play in an orchestra without being middle class.

Years passed before their ideas morphed into the Suzuki Association of the Greater Washington Area or the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra that Abreu’s star protege, Gustavo Dudamel, is bringing to the Kennedy Center on Tuesday. But it was worth the wait.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, the orchestra’s patron ex officio, is only a little more popular in official Washington than Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad or Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet 2,442 tickets at $45 to $175 sold out weeks ago for Dudamel, the hottest classical property since Van Cliburn returned from Moscow in 1958.

The Suzuki method made its U.S. debut in 1964, when a show-and-tell by 10 small Japanese youths and their 10 small instruments set an Oberlin Conservatory audience on their ears. “This is amazing,” said Juilliard’s Ivan Galamian, whose own students included Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. Within a few years, what Suzuki himself called “Talent Education” had become one of Japan’s most popular exports, and Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras, founding mother of Opus 118, a program that Harlem kids scrambled to join, saw herself played on screen by Meryl Streep.

In 1995, Rosemary Nalden, a London violist, established Buskaid, a similar program in Soweto, South Africa. In 2010, another violist, Sebastian Ruth, won a genius grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for establishing his Community MusicWorks in Providence, R.I


Gustavo Dudamel, Jose Antonio Abreu’s star protege, conducts the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. (Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging)

But Abreu’s creation is arguably the most remarkable program of all in a country whose principal exports include oil, drug trafficking, beauty pageant winners and four San Francisco Giants. Venezuela’s gross national product per capita is barely a fifth of what it is in Japan and the United States. Income inequity is startling even by Latin American standards. About a third of Venezuela’s 30 million people live below the poverty line.

The murder rate, double Mexico’s, is exceeded only by Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador and the Ivory Coast. According to Human Rights Watch, the ministers of interior and justice estimate that one of every five crimes is committed by the police.

Yet thanks to Abreu, the country is not only home to the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela), known popularly as El Sistema; it serves as a role model for much of Latin America as well as American spinoffs from YOLA, the youth orchestra of Los Angeles, to Baltimore’s Orchkids. Visitors, who show up in battalion strength to watch it, are regularly moved to tears by the enthusiasm and dedication of ensembles whose members extend from teens to toddlers.

Programs from Seattle to South Africa match El Sistema’s dedication and purpose, but nothing matches its scale.Project 113, Buskaid and Community MusicWorks are islands of private support in a sea of public default only aggravated by mandated priorities that leave school music programs far behind.

Yet within two years of its creation in a Caracas parking garage, Abreu’s orchestra had leveraged an international competition victory in Scotland into public funding. Since then, El Sistema has grown to a network of almost 200 so-called nuclei, a staff of 1,000, an army of teachers and 300,000 participants.

“The most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world,” says Sir Simon Rattle, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and himself a product of Britain’s National Youth Orchestra. Foreign players from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus have come to see and coach.

In 2009, at Abreu’s request, a national center for an El Sistema USA was established at the New England Conservatory in Boston, with a one-year program. Fellows first study El Sistema at home, then in its Venezuelan habitat. On their return, they practice what they learned. Last January, 54 programs were up and running across the United States, although the New England Conservatory, fearful of mission and budget creep at the expense of its traditional priorities, canceled its affiliation.

Enveloped in aphorisms of almost Zen-like elusiveness, such as “tocar y luchar” (perform and struggle) and “ser no ser todavía” (to be and not yet to be), El Sistema is not easy to explain to an outsider. But comparison with Suzuki, Opus 118, Buskaid and Community MusicWorks helps to a point. For all of them, music is a structured means to a public end.

Like Suzuki, El Sistema echoes with reminiscences of the Enlightenment and even Plato’s “The Republic,” where arts education is civic education and the link between great music and good people is a truth as self-evident as the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “The greatest poverty is feeling like a nobody,” says Abreu, paraphrasing Mother Teresa.

Like Opus 118, Buskaid and Community MusicWorks, El Sistema targets the marginalized and underserved. Asked if he has a dream, Mark Churchill, the founding father of El Sistema USA, replies that he’d like to persuade elected officials and the cultural establishment to recognize and take El Sistema to heart as a social program.

Like Suzuki and Buskaid, El Sistema owes much of its success at home to the validation of patrons and audiences abroad, and high-profile attention from global media. The success of alumnus such as Edicson Ruiz, a bass player who auditioned successfully for the Berlin Philharmonic at 19, and Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since he was 26, have only added gloss.

The earthly payoffs are familiar, too. Reports that El Sistema grads are more likely to finish school and go to college, and that they comprise 75 percent of Venezuelan medical students, are entirely plausible. Suzanne Duryea, a staff economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, says the bank has calculated a yield of $1.68 in social dividends for every dollar of the $150 million it invested in El Sistema in 2007.

Who made El Sistema happen has been clear from the beginning. Born in 1939, Abreu earned his economics degree at 22 and his piano diploma three years later. For several years, he served as a member of the Venezuelan Congress before returning to academic life to teach economics and planning. In 1983, he served briefly as minister of culture. But El Sistema was clearly his life’s work. Austere as an El Greco, he assured his earliest players that they would change the world.

A generation later, a trickle of local recognition had turned into a Niagara of honors from Sweden, Japan, Canada, Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Jewish community of Venezuela, as well as the World Economic Forum and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Selected in 2009 by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), his 18-minute presentation has been viewed on YouTube over 60,000 times.

A happy conjunction of artist and material seems to have been an essential part of his success. Nationalism, high culture, oil wealth, endemic poverty and social mobility can be found in many countries. But there are relatively few where all five converge as they do in Venezuela. It was Abreu’s genius to see opportunity where others had probably never even thought to look for it. Within days of their legendary parking garage rehearsal in 1975, the original 11 players had reportedly doubled and tripled. Within a year, he was taking them on tour. In an interview decades later, he pointed to statutory, even constitutional, guarantees of a musical education for Venezuela’s young.

That the money came not from the Ministry of Culture, where Abreu himself served briefly as minister, but from the Ministry of Social Welfare, was another demonstration of his political virtuosity. So was the 1982 UNESCO grant he ingeniously invested in seven trainee violin makers for a program with a perennial instrument deficit. Five years later, the trainees were ready to train the next generation themselves.

By 1998, when Chávez won the presidency, El Sistema had not only survived, but flourished under as many as 10 regimes from right to left. In 2007, after Abreu’s orchestra returned from ecstatic receptions at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Chávezlet it be known that Venezuela was entering a golden age of arts and culture and increased support to $29 million, which is about more than $100 per participant.

According to the American arts educator Eric Booth, participants begin to sing and play as early as preschool age in ensembles that meet four hours each day, five to seven days a week for full rehearsals, sectionals and private lessons. The programs are free for everyone, and advanced students are even paid small stipends.

No one who wants in is turned away, and motivated players move up in a network that includes 60 children’s orchestras, 200 youth orchestras, 30 adult orchestras, and peaks in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela that will perform in Washington on Tuesday night.

David Schoenbaum is a Washington writer whose latest book, “The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument,” is being released this month.

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra

performs a sold-out show at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.

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