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Music Education XXL

Impressions from the hugely successful Venezuelan music education programme »El Sistema«.

In Venezuela habe ich die Zukunft der klassischen Musik gesehen

Sir Simon Rattle

The Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, which performed all nine Beethoven symphonies at the ¡Viva Beethoven! festival, has its roots in the Venezuelan music education project El Sistema, as does its conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

»In Venezuela I saw the future of classical music« – big words, spoken by no lesser figure than Sir Simon Rattle, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. He was talking about a music education and social project that is without parallel anywhere in the world: El Fundación del Estado para el Sistema de Orquesta Juvenil e Infantil de Venezuela, known as »El Sistema« for short.

Eröffnungskonzert von  »¡Viva Beethoven!«
Eröffnungskonzert von »¡Viva Beethoven!« © Claudia Höhne
© Andreas Knapp

The project was the brainchild of Venezuelan conductor and visionary José Antonio Abreu, who set it up back in 1975, when no more than two symphony orchestras existed in the whole country, both of which were made up mainly of musicians from Europe and North America. In those days, classical music was reserved for the wealthy elite.

A Daring Project

Abreu wanted to dissolve these structures. His vision was to turn music education into a basic right, thus giving children a perspective. He began by setting up the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, named after the South American freedom fighter, and managed to persuade the government to support his project. Thus the system of children’s and youth orchestras was born, which to this day have had some 500,000 participants. The young students are taught by more than 15,000 teachers at 350 or so music schools, so-called »núcleos«, in every corner of the country.

Music for Everyone

The demand is so great that there is sometimes a shortage of instruments provided by the State, and the youngest participants have to start by practising on home-made cardboard instruments. But this doesn’t seem to affect their motivation. On the contrary: the children enjoy free music lessons almost daily, and – a special feature of the project – they play in an orchestra of their own age group from the very first day.

© Andreas Knapp

In the meantime, El Sistema has produced no fewer than 500 children’s orchestras, 180 youth orchestras and 30 professional symphony orchestras. But all this musical and artistic success notwithstanding, in a country where some 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line, El Sistema is first and foremost a social project.

Music Affords New Perspectives

As Abreu himself once put it: »Exclusion is the root of all evil in society«. And it’s here that a symphony orchestra, whose structure is in many ways comparable with a society, can contribute to change. Here, every member has his or her role and bears partial responsibility for the result. An ideal place, in other words, to learn skills like teamwork, discipline, patience and tolerance.

Wenn jedes Kind einen Zugang zu Kultur hat, wird die Welt ein sensiblerer und besserer Ort sein.

Thanks to El Sistema, children and young people join forces, independent of their social background or skin colour, to work for a common cause. This focus is important to Abreu: »The project uses music as a vehicle, but it’s first and foremost a social endeavour that aims to promote general human qualities«. And Gustavo Dudamel is likewise confident that »if every child has access to culture, the world will be a better and more sensitive place«.

His intense social commitment has brought José Antonio Abreu many different awards, among them Unesco and Unicef awards, the Polar Music Prize, the TED Prize, the Yehudi Menuhin Award and the Frankfurt Music Prize.

In this way, El Sistema caused such a stir that numerous local branches have sprung up – in the USA and Canada, as well as here in Germany. The German branch of the organisation, for example, has sponsored such projects as »An Instrument for Every Child«. The future of classical music has begun – worldwide.

Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar at the Elbphilharmonie