Since 1975, the children from the shantytowns of Venezuela have been given the opportunity to participate in classical music training. The program also known as El Sistema, encourages children as young as 2 years old to sign up for free music lessons or vocal training. They practice at what are known as “nucleus” centers where the kids are given free access to instruments, and the tutors there help prepare them to join one of the 102 youth orchestral systems available.
The creation of El Sistema started as the brainchild of economist, musician and reformer José Antonio Abreu, who wanted to encourage the Venezuelan youth living under the poverty line to strive for a more fulfilling life. His belief is that children who have a passion for the arts at a young age will grow up to be more motivated and lead happier lives. Little did he know, his project would positively change the lives of more than 250,000 children.
I recently saw a documentary on the youth orchestras called “Tocar y Luchar” (To Play and to Fight), directed by Alberto Alvaro (2006), and I am in awe of the passion and dedication these musicians have developed at such a young age. Throughout the film we see the children playing their violin, cellos, basses, etc. with such concentration on their faces. They practice diligently at home as well as in rehearsals. And when they perform together, they “live the experience of agreement” and create beautiful sounds in harmony with one another. What is even more impressive is the love these kids have for their craft. One musician, Daniel, tells the interviewers that he prefers to sleep on the bottom bunk because that way he is never far from his cello.
Through programs like El Sistema, kids like Daniel have been given a chance to grow as individuals. The benefits of the program are far grander than the music halls the kids have been lucky to perform in. For instance, practicing to learn an instrument teaches the kids self-discipline and concentration. They learn to have faith in themselves as well as others. And above all, playing music makes them incredibly happy. Joyce, a musician featured in the documentary, “Tocar y Luchar,” noted when she played her viola she forgot all about her vices. She no longer felt like a child in poverty but a musician worthy of achieving her aspirations.
The work of El Sistema is so important and necessary for all who participate. From an early age, the musicians are taught that they are responsible for their own success in life. They learn that no matter how dire their circumstances, their situation does not have to be an indication of what is to come. I hope that the programs continue in Venezuela for many more years, and I hope that we can promote similar projects here in the United States.
Maybe in the future we will even be able to create free programs supporting fine arts education for all youths. Until then we can focus on a simpler goal. We can continue to remind ourselves to focus on why we do what we do. Rather than being bogged down by the reality that dreams are hard to accomplish, we can work hard at what really matters to us and see how far we can go. Lucky for us, the early founders of El Sistema figured it out: “What is done with love and conviction cannot be detained.”
Kathy Tun of Spring Valley is a sophomore at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington. She can be reached in care of this newspaper at P.O. Box 340, Princeton, IL 61356.