Fighting Poverty, Armed With Violins
By Daniel J. Wakin
The New York Times, Feb. 15, 1012
CARACAS, 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 a dirt 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.
The attention has made Sistema officials adept at playing host to visitors, who receive a warm but fairly controlled welcome, which is usually necessary in dangerous areas. These officials and Sistema fans speak in near mystical terms of Mr. Abreu and his program’s results.
The populist government of Hugo Chávez is also happy with the program, pouring 540 million bolivars, about $64 million, a year into it. Foundations and donors add various amounts each year as well as gifts of instruments.
The Sarria núcleo, on the city’s northern edge, is housed in a prekindergarten-through-sixth-grade school of 1,200. In an arrangement with the government it offers after-school activities from 2 to 6 p.m. for 600 children.
Sarria embodies many of the principles that seem to make El Sistema so successful. All instruction and instruments are free. No child is turned away, teaching is done in groups, and many of the instructors have passed through El Sistema themselves (and are thus committed to the movement). Public performance is ingrained from the beginning. The núcleo is within walking distance of the students’ homes.
All performers are given medallions that have the image of a violin on one side and the motto “Tocar y Luchar,” “To Play and to Fight,” on the other.
“From the time they start playing and performing for others, they feel they are proud of what they are doing,” Mr. Méndez said.
The Sarria orchestra was in the final throes of rehearsing for a concert this week. The núcleo’s director, Alejandro Muñoz, 32, was conducting. He is a stern figure who had already assigned some timeouts to talkative members. They were playing Handel’s “Water Music” and “Alma Llanera,” considered an unofficial Venezuelan anthem that every Sistema orchestra player learns.
“The main thing in our núcleos is the quality,” Mr. Méndez said. “We teach them with the best quality possible.”
Mr. Muñoz, a violinist, was himself born in a barrio and passed through a núcleo. “My mother thought it would be a safe place,” he said. He was identified as a conducting prospect and sent to a conservatory.
At Sarria the beginning violin teacher was Ismenia Molina, 51, who was one of the earliest members of the first Sistema orchestra, giving her the aura of a founder. She has been with El Sistema for 33 of her 51 years.
El Sistema also has choirs and programs to teach instrument-making and repair.
Things don’t always run smoothly in the program. Tensions sometimes arise between Sistema officials and the administrators of the buildings they use. The program’s growth sometimes outpaces the supply of teachers and instruments. Parents don’t always cooperate in getting children to rehearsals or lessons. Instruments are stolen in this crime-ridden country.
One fact sometimes overlooked is that Sistema is also open to people from middle-class or upper-middle-class families.
The Sarría núcleo’s founder, for instance, Rafael Elster, had a privileged upbringing. Mr. Abreu assigned him to set up the núcleo in 1999, and he spent 10 years there, suffering several armed robberies and the cleaning out of his house.
The majority of Sistema children do not go on to musical careers, but many come back and work for El Sistema anyway. Mr. Méndez, for instance, is a lawyer.
“Once you get touched by El Sistema,” he said, “you will never leave El Sistema.”