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Critic's Notebook: El Sistema for all, U.S. kids too

Venezuela's music education system was on glorious display during the L.A. Philharmonic's visit. Here's what the U.S. could learn.

February 26, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Children at La Rinconada in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 14, 2012. Gustavo Dudamel, right, among students at a showcase of El Sistema in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 15.
Children at La Rinconada in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 14, 2012. Gustavo… (Mark Swed / Los Angeles Times )

Reporting from Caracas, Venezuela — — Musically, Venezuela is like no other place on Earth.

Along with baseball and beauty pageants, classical music is one of the country's greatest passions. In the capital, Caracas, superstar Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel is mobbed wherever he goes. Classical music teeny-boppers run up to him for autographs when he walks off the podium at concerts. The state-run music education program, which is known as El Sistema and from which Dudamel emerged, is the most extensive, admired and increasingly imitated in the world. One of its nearly 300 music schools for children, or núcleos, is deep in the Venezuelan Amazon, reachable only by boat.

Foreign visitors who stream into Caracas to observe El Sistema in action invariably leave Venezuela amazed. I am no exception, having tagged along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its recent eight-day Caracas Mahler Project residency. Nor were the L.A. Phil musicians, having performed with and coached impressively aspiring younger Venezuelans.

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So pervasive is El Sistema in this society that if you were to ask the average Venezuelan whether he or she thought classical music is dying, you might be questioned about what planet you are on. So strong is the Sistema lockbox that this program is equally supported by rich and poor, the political left and right. President Hugo Chávez allots it $100 million a year and regularly promises more. The opposition party knows better than to oppose music education in the upcoming fall election. For a reality check, imagine President Obama demanding a $1.2-billion music education system under the rubric of social welfare, only to be challenged by Ron Paul insisting that Congress allocate an even greater sum for socialized music.

Is it replicable?

It should be obvious, then, that El Sistema is a uniquely Venezuelan miracle and hardly replicable elsewhere. I found it downright surreal to visit La Rinconada — a núcleo for 2,000 children, most of whom come from dangerous surrounding barrios — on Feb. 14, the same day the Los Angeles Board of Education met to consider a shocking proposal that would eliminate arts education from the elementary curriculum. But it is not only us. A combination of the international financial crisis and an increasing emphasis on popular culture has meant that cutbacks are happening even in such countries as Finland and Japan, where music has long been a core part of early schooling.

The populist, anti-elitist Sistema pedagogy is also remarkably singular and difficult to import to the United States. The basic tenet of José Antonio Abreu, the revered founder of El Sistema, is the universal aspect of music. He likes to say that music is a human right. That's an effective, politically expedient slogan. But what he has demonstrated on a greater scale than ever before is that music is not so much a right as a given. El Sistema is not about talent, ingeniously effective system though it may be for discovering and fostering musical talent. The truly revolutionary aspect of El Sistema is its proof that everyone has a capacity for music.

For Abreu, music is meant for all, and he really does mean all. Although he doesn't talk about it in quite these terms, we're wired to learn it, just as we are for language, and he has proven that if we start early enough and are effectively taught, we all acquire basic musical ability.

Team effort

What El Sistema does is take children, some as young as 2, into the núcleos, where they spend their after-school afternoons learning the basics of music and playing in youth orchestras. No child for whom there is room is left behind, and that includes those with special needs. Most come from the barrios, and they are given instruments, meals and, in dangerous areas, transportation. But núcleos also attract middle- and upper-class kids who want that superior education.

The other unique aspect of El Sistema is its emphasis on music education as a social program rather than a cultural one. The nerve center for the program (which has recently changed its name to Fundación Musical Bolívar, or FundaMusical but remains branded internationally as El Sistema) is the Center for Social Action Through Music. The politically savvy Abreu, who was trained as a musician and an economist, and who once worked in government, understood when he started with an ensemble of 11 in 1975 that if he wanted support from the government for music education, the only way he would get it would be by promoting his work as a social program.

But it was more than that. Abreu was himself drawn to music as a social activity. He told me in a short interview last week that the part of music education he never liked as a boy was solitary practicing. It was the teamwork, the high he got from playing with others, that was always his love.

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