I first heard about El Sistema from my brother. He sent me a recorded programme from the BBC about an incredible experiment with youth and classical music from Venezuela.
I watched and was moved and inspired by the seemingly endless young people, many of them from slums in cities such as Caracas who were being given instruments, taught to use them and who were becoming part of some of the greatest orchestras (not just youth orchestras) in the world.
The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra has played at such celebrated venues as the Proms in London and at Carnegie Hall in New York. To listen to the beautiful music produced by these people is one thing, to realise that they have become musicians and very accomplished ones because of the vision of one man, Jose Antonio Abreau, is another.
El Sistema has 30 symphony orchestras. But its greatest achievement are the 250,000 children who attend its music schools around the country, 90 percent of them from poor socio-economic backgrounds.
The vision of Abreau is nothing short of amazing and the idea that you could take children off the streets and then train them in classical music only goes to show that my belief in human potential is a very real one and that those who say that environment and poverty will seriously affect educational potential did not look at the great social experiment that happened with El Sistema.
The ideas behind this great social experiment have spread to many other places in the world. In the BBC documentary a group of people from Scotland visited Maestro Abreau in Venezuela to see El Sistema in the hope that they could start a similar experiment with disadvantaged children in Britain.
The greatest product of El Sistema so far is probably Gustavo Dudamel, who at 29 years of age is the resident conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and has performed all over the world. He still conducts back in his native Venezuela and has been the mastermind behind the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) which was founded along the same lines as El Sistema and has sought to get poor and disadvantaged children from the city of Los Angeles and train them to play musical instruments. I have a feeling that, as in all the “El Sistema” experiments there will be brilliant and maybe great musicians produced from YOLA.. watch this space.
I am including a short film in this blog. It follows a group of musicians and educators from New Brunswick, Canada as they go to Venezuela to find out about El Sistema before they begin their own version of “the system” in their country. Watch for the very young conductor at the beginning and notice the passion and proficiency of the musicians…. remember that many of them are from poor backgrounds and never had any intention of learning a musical instrument.. then tell me that you do not believe that there is real potential in all children from whatever background.. if they are just given the chance.
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