An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement. And what does the experience of agreement mean? Team practice – the practice of the group that recognizes itself as interdependent, where everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty.
– JOSE ABREU, Founder of El Sistema
In 1975, Venezuelan economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema , originally called Social Action for Music, and became its director. Abreu has navigated the program for the past 36 years through ten different administrations, based on his unorthodox belief that what poor Venezuelan kids needed was classical music. The Venezuelan government began fully financing Abreu’s orchestra after it succeeded brilliantly at an international competition in 1977 in Aberdeen, Scotland.
When its network reached 102 youth and 55 children’s orchestras (numbering approximately 100,000 youngsters) it came under the supervision of the Ministry of Family, Health and Sports. As El Sistema, its goal is to use music for the protection of childhood through training, rehabilitation and prevention of criminal behavior. Children as young as 3 or 4 years old begin music training at one of 180 community-based centers, or nucleos, located throughout the country. Through rhythmic movement, chorus, and other activities, they learn basic musical concepts and literacy; by age 5, they play recorder and percussion instruments, and at age 7 the children choose their first wind or string instrument. From the outset, ensemble work and performance is emphasized, and children learn teamwork, responsibility, and mutual respect. School-age children typically train six days a week after school and quickly gain habits of discipline and perseverance.
The program is known for rescuing young people in extremely impoverished circumstances from the environment of drug abuse and crime into which they would likely otherwise be drawn. Participants of the program who have begun international careers include Gustavo Dudamel, the Conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, among others.
An important product of El Sistema is the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar). In 2007 the orchestra made its debut at Carnegie Hall and at the BBC Proms début under the baton of Dudamel, receiving enthusiastic reviews.
Tavis Smiley aired a series on music education in the United States, called “Dudamel: Conducting a Life.” The report includes a spotlight on Conservatory Lab Charter School the first El Sistema-infused charter school in Massachusetts. Conservatory Lab elementary school students receive free orchestral instruction for three hours each day, integrated into their academic program.