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.
"Now, art is not an ornamental accessory to education, but the child has the clear right to musical, art or literature instruction," said Abreu, 67, who sits hunched in his chair wearing large-frame glasses. "That permits the talent to be detected early on. That's important. It's detected in grade school, not the conservatory, so that the child can in time be developed and taken to the maximum artistic level."
In more than three decades of infusing a love of music in children, the teachers in the System have learned techniques that leave smiles on the faces of European conductors schooled in stodgy, traditional methods. Although young adults can join the program, there are literally thousands of students who enroll as young as 4 or 5. In Montealban, a few are as young as 2. "You have to change their diapers," Siman said.
To teach small children, instructors use games and nursery rhymes, helping them apply the sounds and cadences they know to the musical instruments they're learning to play.
Anabel Astudillo has about 40 children, most about 5 or 6 years old, in her violin class in Montealban. To many teachers that would be a nightmare, but Astudillo's young charges were in rapt attention on a recent afternoon. They raised their violins in unison when asked to, placed the instruments below their chins and took simple, if hesitant, swipes with their bows. Some giggled nervously.
"We have them play games with words that they know," Astudillo, 26, said. "We attach rhythms to these words. Those are the rhythms they associate with their instruments."
The coarse, lopsided sounds wafting from classrooms on a typical day were a far cry from Vivaldi or Mahler. But teachers in the System said the program moves fast: It takes a matter of weeks for students to get a handle on their instruments, months to play with a certain accomplishment. Getting children to appreciate classical music is the easy part.
In the "nuclei," as the music centers are known, children learn as a group. The little ones sing and clap together. They practice at the same time. The focus is not long hours of solitary, tedious practice, but rather teamwork.
"You compliment them, you motivate them," Astudillo said. "When you compliment one child, the one next to him wants to be complimented. We all work a lot with motivation, with motivation and with the games."
Maibel Troia, musical director at the Don Bosco center, said a bigger challenge is reaching children in the barrio who are inherently distrustful of outsiders who make promises. "They think it's another lie, or that it's not a real future for them," she said. "But as they start coming and they get uniforms and they see the possibilities to do the work or go out and see concerts, they become excited about it."
The big enticement -- what seems to win over even the most indifferent child -- is the instrument. Teachers in the System say that once children hold a tuba, oboe or viola in their hands, they are hooked.
Erick Cordero, 10, said he first heard classical music at the Teresa Carreño, Caracas's most important concert hall, and knew then that he wanted to be in the System. His father, José Cordero, 33, a cook, supported him from the beginning.
"I told him, 'I want to play the clarinet, I want to play the clarinet, I want to play the clarinet,' " Erick recalled. Now he's considered an up-and-coming musician, good enough to solo in youth concerts.
"When I hear him, I get really emotional," his father said. "The professors say he's very good. You want to hear him? I can have him play for you."
Coming from homes where classical music is never heard, some of the young children stumble from one instrument to another as they find their way. Christian Castillo, 9, said that he started with the viola but that administrators couldn't find one that fit quite right. He then switched to the cello. "I liked it right at first, because it's big," he said. "I was really curious."
Once in the program, students sing in a chorus, go to concerts, and learn scales and music history. Many of them learn to play instruments such as the cuatro, a four-string guitar, or the Latin harp, which are central to the raucous gaitas of the northwest or the llaneras of the great plains in the south.
But what drives them is classical music -- the challenge of playing with a hundred other musicians, the pomp of dressing in black tie for concerts, the thrill of tackling difficult composers like Bach.
"It's a way of freeing yourself, of expressing yourself," said Samuel Martinez, the teenager who grew up in an orphanage. "Music transports you to another world, a world of happiness and emotions."