Fighting Poverty, Armed With Violins

The following is an excerpt from a NY Times article written by Daniel J. Wakin—February 15, 2012

music to fight povertyCARACAS, Venezuela — Corrugated tin roofs, ramshackle cinder-block huts, labyrinthine streets caked with garbage and rubble, the possibility of random violence at any turn. And this section of the Sarría barrio is not even bad for Caracas.

But Sarría also plays host to a center of El Sistema, Venezuela’s program of social uplift through classical music. So just across the street from such blighted scenes young children with violins and French horns and trumpets filled the spaces of an elementary school on Tuesday.

A brass ensemble barked in a corridor open to the Caribbean air. A percussion group rumbled in adirt courtyard nearby. In a classroom newly hatched violinists played a G major scale and simple Venezuelan tunes after a week of learning. At least two choirs were rehearsing.

The contrast was stark but also typical of El Sistema, which was founded in 1975 but became widely known only in the last five years thanks in part to the meteoric rise of its most famous product, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Mr. Dudamel, 31, became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 and is now in Caracas with his orchestra for a cycle of the Mahler symphonies.

“It’s my goal to keep going, so I can be a great musician,” said Emily Castañeda, 10, who began playing French horn two weeks ago and was producing honorable sounds during a lesson. Or, added Emily, whose mother is a cleaning woman and who does not know her father, she might become a doctor.

El Sistema’s aim is to address a depressingly universal problem: how to remove children from poverty’s snares, like drugs, crime, gangs and desperation. The method, imagined by El Sistema’s founder, the economist and trained musician José Antonio Abreu, was classical music. Orchestras and music training centers around the country were established to occupy young people with music study and to instill values that can come from playing in ensembles: a sense of community, commitment and self-worth.

With nearly one-third of Venezuela’s population of 29 million under 14, the need is large.

Since the program’s founding, El Sistema estimates that it reaches 310,000 children in 280 teaching locations, called núcleos, said Eduardo Méndez, the executive director. About 500 orchestras and other ensembles, from preschool groups using paper cutouts of instruments to the world-class Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, fall under El Sistema’s umbrella. Mr. Abreu has said his goal is to reach 500,000 children by 2015.

The program has become the envy of the music world, inspiring similar programs in many countries and attracting influential proponents like the conductors Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle. It has prompted a number of books and documentaries, countless news reports and a steady flow of musicians and educators tramping through showcase núcleos.

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