Armed with Violins, Fighting Poverty!
Rugged tin roofs, shambles of cinder-block huts, small alleys filled with filth, the possibility of violence at any turn. This part of Sarria barrio is not that bad in Caracas, Venezuela. However, Sarria is also the center of El Sistema, a program for social upliftment via classical music. So, one can find young children with trumpets, French horns and violins in an elementary school right across the street from such violent scenes.
Embark on a ‘reading’ journey to discover El Sistema and it’s relevance to social upliftment.
Traversing a Musical Path!
If you walk into the scene, you will find a brass ensemble practicing in a corridor, soaking in the Caribbean air. A small group of percussion players rumbling in the dirt courtyard outside. Take a peek inside a classroom, and you will find newly formed violinists playing a G major scale and string of simple tunes.
It is definitely a stark contrast but so distinctive of El Sistema, which was established in 1975. However, it came under popular glare only in last 5 years with the phenomenal rise of it’s most popular prodigy, the famous conductor Mr. Gustavo Dudamel. He became the music director of the Los Angeles Philarmonic in 2009.
Here’s an account of Emily Castaneda, one of the learners. She’s all of 10 years, who started playing French horn recently. She said, “It’s my goal to keep going, so I can become a great musician.” Her mother is a cleaner and she does not know who is her father. She added that she can become a doctor, if her plan does not work out.
Changing Lives through Music!
The primary aim of El Sistema is to address a heinous universal problem: how to rescue innocent children from penury’s snares, like desperation, gangs, crime and drugs. The technique employed by it’s founder, the trained musician and economist, Jose Antonio Abreu, was simple yet solid – classical music.
Various music training centers and orchestras around the nation were established in order to occupy the youth with music study and imbibe values acquired from playing in groups: a sense of self-worth, commitment and community.
El Sistema – The Musical Foundation!
El Sistema is reaching far and wide! Since it’s founding, the program includes 310,000 children in 280 teaching centers. These are called nucleos. The executive director of the program, Eduardo Mendez says that around 500 orchestras and various other ensembles come under El Sistema. These range from preschool children making paper cutouts of musical instruments to the top-notch Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Their goal is to enroll 500,000 children by 2015.
The unique program has become a sensation in the music world, inspiring similar initiatives in different countries and involving influential musicians like the conductors Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado. Apart from influencing others, the program has even prompted various documentaries, countless news reports and books. Also, it has motivated a growing surge of educators and musicians via showcase nucleos. Even the Hugo Chavez government is happy with the program’s outcome and has invested nearly $64 million. Donors and foundations help by adding various amounts and gifting musical instruments every year.
Touched Forever by Music!
Most children from Sistema don’t go ahead and make music their career, however, many come back and start working for El Sistema. The program instills a hope and self-belief in the students that can’t be taken away.
Music transcends all barriers and makes the children see the world in a new light – far away from the reaches of violence, hatred and riots. One can’t deny the grim realities of life, but one can stay away from the vicious cycle of violence. That is what El Sistema aims for. A better tomorrow for the future generation!
As Mr. Mendez said, “ Once you get touched by El Sistema, you will never leave El Sistema.”