Classical music as a means of social development in Venezuela

Niños Sistema 36
El Sistema provides an opportunity for children in Venezuela to learn classical music

When you think of classical music, what do you think of? It could be orchestra’s playing beautifully arranged symphonies written by past greats, or perhaps you think of expensive instruments, ornate concert halls, and well-dressed musicians.

Whatever it is you think of, it is unlikely to be children in the slums of Venezuela learning their craft for hours every day. Unless that is, you have heard of El Sistema.

For those that haven’t heard of it, let me bring you up to date. El Sistema is a Venezuelan music project that has been hailed worldwide as a model way of using music to improve the life chances of children.

It does this by providing free classical music education to children in Venezuela. It is available to all children, no matter how rich or poor the are, and everything is provided free of charge, including instruments.

We were lucky enough to hear from Mendez Eduardo, the Executive Director of El Sistema, at this year’s Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity as he gave a speech titled “How culture can contribute to peace and development.”

One of the main goals of El Sistema is social development and Mendez Eduardo started off his speech by highlighting the effectiveness of music as a way of doing just that.

“We believe music has to be recognized as an agent of social development in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values of tolerance, solidarity, harmony, mutual respect, and, of course, intellectual and interfaith dialogue.”

El Sistema know that not every child who enters the scheme will become a professional musician.

Because of this Mendez Eduardo explained that the program has to offer much more than simply the chance to become better musicians. In fact, the program aims to give those that take part a belief and skill set that they can use to succeed, whatever they choose to do with their life.

He talked about the problems many of the students face. Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates (in 2016 official figures put it at 70.1 per 100,000 inhabitants) in the world partly down to the gang culture that exists in its poor slums.

Mendez Eduardo explained that “the root of most of the problems that lead to violence is exclusion.”

This belief forms the basis of why they want to provide a chance for every child to take part in the classes provided by El Sistema.

However, he went on to talk about how simply providing a chance to experience culture to these children wasn’t enough.

Instead, they need to ensure that the culture they are trying to bring to these students is one that is aspirational and ambitious. That the students who take part are able to aim for something bigger than themselves and most importantly, encourage them to stay away from crime and violence.

“Culture for the poor can’t be a poor culture. It must be big, ambitious with quality, advanced. It can’t just be leftovers.”

To say that the El Sistema project is ambitious is no understatement. In fact, they currently have over 840,000 students in the system and former students of El Sistema have reached the heights of classical music.

Two of their most successful graduates include Edicson Ruiz, who became a principal member of the double bass segment of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel, who grew to become the musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra.

These success stories are able to able to add to the feeling of hope that the children get from being part of El Sistema.

Mendez Eduardo explained that “When a child or youngster with El Sistema begins to play or sing, they immediately become full of hope. They begin to feel valued by his fellows and teachers. He begins to understand that there is a different path to what the streets offer him.”

Mendez Eduardo hopes that not only will the program have a positive effect on the children involved, but also on the community as a whole. The children will be able to pass on their learning to the people in the community that surround them.

“Each of these young people becomes a leader for this collective consciousness, transmitting their feelings to their families and communities.”

The idea of not just giving the children a chance at improving their lives, but of also improving social cohesion is one that El Sistema take very seriously.

The hub of an El Sistema group is what they call a Nucleo. This is the place where the children learn their instruments. However, due to the sometimes intense schedule the children follow, it is also somewhere that they often spend a significant part of the day.

Here, there are no boundaries of race, gender, nationality, etc. Instead, they are all grouped together and “when the children begin to make music, all the barriers are demolished.”

The Nucleo has a further role as a hub of the community that it is in. In fact, Mendez Eduardo used the metaphor of the walls of the Nucleo being a “membrane” where “members of the community often volunteer and are also able to use the facilities to support other community needs.”

By giving children access to these lessons, El Sistema fully believe that they are able to have a positive impact, not just on the lives of the children that take part, but on the lives of Venezuela society as a whole.