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Music, Poverty and Self Esteem in Venezuela

Classical escape from life on the mean streets
by Shirley Apthorp
Financial Times UK August 1 2005

The sound is unleashed with the force of a tornado. This is Beethoven's fifth symphony as you will never hear it in Europe, played with such vehemence that the walls seem to shake. Well over a hundred jean-and-T-shirt-clad Caracas children, some so small that their feet do not touch the floor, are attacking Beethoven with ferocious intensity. The notes sound so fresh that the ink could still be wet on the page. The youngsters conjure sounds of raw terror and ecstatic joy from their battered instruments.

This is not a national youth orchestra, nor even a regional orchestra. It's just the house orchestra of the Montalbán music school, one of 90 similar institutions across Venezuela. In a country with a population of only 22m, 75 per cent of whom live below the poverty line, there are 125 youth orchestras, 57 children's orchestras and 30 adult professional symphony orchestras.

"This is the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world"

.......declared the conductor Simon Rattle after a recent visit. You can see why he thinks so when you hear the children play. Nearly all of the Montalbán musicians come from impoverished working-class families. The music school offers them free instruments and tuition from the age of three, every day after school and often at weekends. For most of them, music offers the way to a better life.

"Our first goal is not to create professional musicians," says Xavier Moreno, secretary of the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema de Orquesta Juvenil e Infantil de Venezuela (the State foundation for Venezuela's youth and child orchestras, or Fesojiv). "Our goal is to rescue the children."

This is not mere rhetoric. The grim slums surrounding the Montalbán music centre testify to the hardship of everyday life. Across the country, 250,000 children, 90 per cent of them from poor socio-economic backgrounds, are participating in Fesojiv. Venezuelans refer to it simply as el Orquesta or the sistema. And the musical results are astonishing.

Gustavo Dudamel, a child from the Venezuelan town of Barquisimeto, came to the sistema hoping to play the trombone. "I knew the trombone because of salsa and popular music," he says. "But my arms were too short. My friends had violins, so I thought: 'well, why not?'

"Music certainly changed my life. I can look back now and see that many of the boys from my class went on to become involved in drugs and crime. Those who played music did not."

The violin led Dudamel on to an interest in composition and, in turn, to conducting. He showed exceptional talent. José Antonio Abreu, the man behind the scheme, appointed him chief conductor of the sistema's flagship ensemble, the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, when he was just 16 years old. Last year, at the age of 23, he won the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra's international Gustav Mahler conducting competition. Today, he is widely rated as one of the most exciting talents of his generation, and has engagements with leading orchestras in London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Salzburg, Paris, Rome and Los Angeles.

Edicson Ruiz, another sistema graduate, became the youngest-ever member of the Berlin Philharmonic when he was appointed to its double bass section three years ago at the age of 17.

As more and more outstanding Venezuelan musicians hit the international circuit, the world is taking notice. Conductor Claudio Abbado spent more than two months working with the youngsters in Venezuela earlier this year, and speaks of the sistema in superlatives. Zubin Mehta, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and the late Giuseppe Sinopoli have come to work with the Venezuelan ensembles, and left expressing the highest praise. The programme has received awards from Unicef and Unesco and expressions of admiration from figures such as the former South African president Nelson Mandela.

The Seeds of Social Hope

It all goes back some 30 years, when Abreu, a qualified economist, organist and politician, resolved to change social conditions in his country. At the time, there were just two symphony orchestras in Venezuela, both employing largely European musicians.

Abreu gathered 11 youngsters for a rehearsal in an underground car park, and told them that they were making history. At the next rehearsal, there were 25 musicians; the following day, 46; the day after, 75. In the heady days of the Venezuelan oil boom, Abreu managed to get government funding for his scheme from the department of health, arguing that the well-being of children at risk was at stake.

Today, the sistema employs 15,000 music teachers. Its activities include several schools for instrument-making and training in arts administration and recording technology. The government puts an annual $29m (£16.5m) into the sistema - less than the budget of a single opera house in a large European city, but, in a country where the average annual income is below $3,500, enough to work miracles.

Extraordinarily, Abreu has persuaded seven successive changes of government to back his sistema. "The government funds it precisely because of the social emphasis of the programme," he explains. "The state has understood perfectly that this programme, although it works through music, is essentially a social project, a project for human development, which is the main aim of the Venezuelan state.

"For the children that we work with, music is practically the only way to a dignified social destiny. Poverty means loneliness, sadness, anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration to success. It is a big family dedicated to harmony."

A diminutive figure in jacket and tie, Abreu, now 66 years old, is an omnipresent figure in the sistema, attending several concerts a day, often with a government minister in tow. He is the genius behind the complex system of regional "núcleos" and their unique pedagogical approach.

A visit to the younger classes of Montalbán shows the use of an eclectic mix of Asian and European music education techniques. Song, dance and movement are used, and children are put on stage in front of an audience the minute they can clap their hands in time. As soon as they can hold a tune, they begin to teach the younger children. Classes are small, and the children are given a great deal of affection and encouragement along with their lessons. They respond with trust and confidence. A sense of play is a constant, an atmosphere of joy a given.

To Abreu, this is only the beginning. Ultimately, he wants every Venezuelan child to have access to an instrument, music lessons and orchestral life. Already, he has launched programmes to work with children with disabilities and those at risk.

Astonishing Results

Los Choros, a juvenile detention centre on the outskirts of Caracas, is home to a sistema pilot project for young offenders, street children, and victims of abuse. Twenty-two teachers work with 80 children for four hours a day, six days a week. The results, says Nancy Carreno, the project leader, have been astonishing. Lennar Acosta, whose face is scarred by knife wounds sustained in gang warfare, had been arrested nine times for armed robbery and drug offences by the time he was 15. The Los Choros music project gave him a clarinet. Now he plays in the national symphony orchestra and studies and tutors at the conservatorium.

"Children who have lived on the street are fast learners," says Carreno. "They have to be. We have one small boy here who came to us from the street suffering from severe malnutrition. We gave him a violin, and by the end of the first day he could play it. It was miraculous. Today, he is the concertmaster of the Caracas Children's Orchestra."

It is not easy work, Carreno admits. Sometimes the children cry so much that it is impossible to teach them. Sometimes they are violent. She has been punched in the stomach, stabbed with a pencil, and threatened with a gun. "These children should not be here," she says. "They are being punished for the mistakes of their parents. To be honest, every day I feel like running out of this place screaming. But every time I hear them give a concert, I realise that it is all worthwhile."

Music rehabilitates the children to the point at which they can return to their communities, she says, though many of them choose to return to Los Choros every afternoon to continue playing in its ensembles. Next year, a further 10 projects based on the Los Choros model are scheduled to start.

Of course, not all sistema students go on to become professional musicians. But, says Abreu, after a thorough musical education, they are more likely to become doctors or lawyers than criminals or idlers.

"Music teaches them citizenship, social awareness, and an aesthetic sense of life," he says. "These are the first steps."

Gustavo Dudamel will lead the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela on a tour of Germany from 22-29 September.

Published Date: August 4th 2005

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