El Sistema Taps the Power of Classical Music to Help US Children Flourish

By Lamb, Gregory M | The Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

El Sistema Taps the Power of Classical Music to Help US Children Flourish


Lamb, Gregory M, The Christian Science Monitor


A Venezuelan poverty program brings its musical discipline to underprivileged youths in the United States.

In Venezuela, some 250,000 mostly poor children spend several hours each day playing classical music. But much more than learning Mozart or Beethoven happens. Lives are transformed as many of the students find their way out of poverty, stay in school longer, and begin careers.

The program, called El Sistema ("the system"), boasts a world- famous graduate in Gustavo Dudamel, the dynamic young conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And the program's signature performing group, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, has won ovations from sophisticated audiences at famed concert halls in places like Boston, New York, and London.

But can El Sistema, a bootstrap poverty program that receives government support in relatively poor Venezuela, work in the affluent, free-market United States, a nation where classical music has become an afterthought?

Mark Churchill passionately believes it can. The dean emeritus at the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston has founded El Sistema USA in an effort to bring the benefits of the original program to underprivileged American youths.

In just 18 months, groups inspired by El Sistema (called "nucelos" in Venezuela) have sprung up in more than 30 US cities from Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Philadelphia to Salinas, Calif., and Durham, N.C.

"I think it's the greatest social experiment in human history," says Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and of youth orchestras at the NEC. He has traveled to Venezuela five times to experience El Sistema in action. He'll be going again in March.

El Sistema has become "one of the great social programs of our time, and it's caused huge transformations in people's lives," Maestro Zander says. "I would say that of all the things that musicians talk about, the El Sistema program is probably the single most [thing] on people's minds."

Jose Antonio Abreu is the "godfather" of El Sistema. He founded it in Venezuela in 1975, offering poor children an opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument and join an orchestra, while teaching them self-discipline, self-esteem, and the value of working together. ("The orchestra is the only group that comes together with the sole purpose of agreement," Dr. Abreu famously says.)

Today, Venezuela has more than 100 youth orchestras.

The program is grounded in the idea that poor children, when given the chance, can achieve the same level of excellence as affluent children, Mr. Churchill says. While "a lot of people believe that," he says, "not everyone does."

The goal is not to turn out a new generation of classical musicians, though that is one result. And it's not to build a new audience for classical music, though some who are involved hope that will happen, too.

El Sistema taps what its advocates say is the unique power of music.

"Music offers this exquisite balance of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, the social, and the spiritual - five very important aspects of human existence," Churchill says.

Academic studies suggest that musical training can be especially effective in developing young minds. "In Venezuela, 75 percent of medical students are graduates of El Sistema," Churchill says.

This fall, the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Mass., a Boston neighborhood, added roughly 2-1/2 hours of El Sistema training to its school day. Children from prekindergarten to fifth grade from all over Boston are selected by lottery to attend the school. The 154 students are not chosen because of any special musical talent.

The children arrive at 8:15 a.m. and leave at 5:15 p.m. "It's a long day, but it goes quickly," says Diana Lam, the head of school. "With the little ones, there's a nap in there somewhere," she says with a laugh. …

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