Venezuela's Magnum Opus

National System of Youth and Children┬┐s Orchestras of Venezuela
Children prepare before orchestra practice at the Montealban music center in Caracas on November 10, 2006. (Scott Dalton - for The Washington Post)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Amid tumbledown cinder-block homes, the Don Bosco community center rings with music. A chorus of pint-size students sings traditional Christmas songs; 20 budding teenage musicians take gratingly painful stabs at playing violins and cellos; and tiny harpists dwarfed by their instruments strum as the late-afternoon sun sets over the poor Chapellin barrio.

This country is known for its pulsating salsa and down-home folk ballads, songs with bawdy lyrics played on four-string guitars and maracas. But for 31 years, an ambitious state program aimed at instilling a love of classical music in children -- particularly poor children -- has drawn the admiration of conductors from as far away as Berlin and Boston, while producing musicians who have excelled in Europe's most hallowed concert halls.

"I don't know any country in the world that has such a great network of symphony orchestras," said Jan Van der Roost, a Belgian-born composer who has conducted orchestras in dozens of countries, including Venezuela. "It's really unique. I think if all the countries in the world would do the same as here, there would be a lot less problems and a lot more happiness."

As part of the state program, about 250,000 students are playing in orchestras and learning at centers like Don Bosco, facilities tucked into the poorest barrios of the biggest cities as well as villages in some of the most far-flung corners. Their music education, fully funded by a succession of Venezuelan governments, has become an international model that has spurred the creation of similar programs in about a dozen countries in Latin America.

But while the program has produced star musicians -- including Gustavo Dudamel, who at 25 has conducted orchestras in Berlin, Israel and Los Angeles, and Edicson Ruiz, who at 17 became the youngest bass player in the Berlin Philharmonic -- its central focus is to reach into barrios riven by drugs and guns and use music to teach broader lessons.

"The important thing is to work with children and rescue children and teach them values and the work ethic," said Susan Siman, 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," she said. "Some come from very poor classes. They've had it rough."

The idea behind the program, Siman and others say, is to provide another path for young people with few options, like 16-year-old Samuel Martinez.

Martinez is tall and athletic and sports a toothy smile. But his young life has been marked by hardship. His mother died soon after he was born. His father turned him over to an orphanage. He grew up in a gritty Caracas barrio where the incidence of death by gunfire has skyrocketed in recent years. But instead of finding trouble, like so many of his friends, Martinez has spent the past five years mastering the viola -- an instrument that he says obsesses him. He wants a career in music.

"You see how people from the street become a part of the orchestras," said Martinez, who plays at the Montealban center. "You change, switching one life for one that is good, one with instruments. You can be a good person. Music can really change people, even though you may not believe it."

The music program is called the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela, but it is known informally as the System. It's the brainchild of José Antonio Abreu, a slight, birdlike conductor and teacher 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 136 centers nationwide.

His quiet lobbying, and the acclaim his program regularly receives, have led one Venezuelan government after another to provide funding, whether this oil-rich country's economy was in boom or bust. Any child who wants to learn an instrument gets one, then participates in four hours of instruction after each school day for years on end.

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