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U.S. Attempts to Follow Venezuela's "El Sistema"

U.S. Writer

Where in the world do you find more kids playing in orchestras than on soccer teams? In Venezuela, where a national program called “El Sistema” provides music education for hundreds of thousands of at-risk youth. Now like-minded programs are springing up across the United States.

That’s how Lara Pellegrinelli starts her story, published today in the web site of the National Public Radio (NPR). In her article, Pellegrinelli highlights efforts of some people in the U.S. to create such models.

Pellegrinelli explained that in Queens a free program inspired by Venezuela’s the El Sistema model has gotten around 100 “restless” kids together for a choir camp. “Little do they know that their choir is just the beginning — a seed that could grow into an orchestra one day.”

In her story, Pellegrinelli reminded that the Venezuelan El Sistema began 1,600 miles to the southeast in 1975, with 11 kids in a Caracas parking garage. By the 1990s, the program had grown to the point where Venezuela was introducing it to its Latin American neighbors. “When El Sistema’s teachers arrived in Guatemala, Rodas [who was in the Central American country by that time] was skeptical. They claimed they’d start a youth orchestra with whoever had an instrument,” she reported. After 10 days, they already had a 100-piece youth orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth, she added.

Besides the U.S. and some Latin American countries, programs based on the El Sistema model can be found as far away as Australia, India, Scotland and South Korea.

Pellegrinelli highlights that the international growth owes a lot to the visibility of Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. It has toured internationally under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s prize pupil.

“The energetic, curly headed maestro [Gustavo Dudamel] became the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic two years ago at the age of 28,” she pointed out in her article. “Since then, three-dozen nucleos have popped up across the U.S. Many more are on the way, thanks in part to an award honoring El Sistema’s founder, Jose Antonio Abreu. In accepting the TED Prize in 2009, Abreu said he wanted the award money to fund a training program for leaders who will start their own nucleos in the U.S.,” she highlighted.

Some of those 50 young musicians have already completed a graduate fellowship under the auspices of El Sistema USA and its host and fiscal sponsor, the New England Conservatory. Rodas became the first in the initial class of 10 to get his nucleo off the ground, the she refered.

Nevertheless, Pellegrinelli mentioned difficulties to develop a program of this kind in the U.S. According to Richard Kessler, the executive director of New York City’s Center for Arts Education, “El Sistema as it is in Venezuela will never happen in the United States. It’s not possible.” “It’s not possible for the program to be embraced by the social service and child welfare agencies, and be connected to a national health care system that we don’t have,” he said. “Our government does not fund the arts on that kind of level, on that sort of basis,” he added.

The National System of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela, known as El Sistema, is an emblematic program financed by the Venezuelan state. It has received a major boost in funding and support from the government of President Hugo Chávez, who recently put the program under responsibility of the Vice-presidency of the Republic.

Rebecca Levi, one of last year’s Abreu Fellows in the U.S. and co-director of the music program at the Boston Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Mass., said that “if we achieve anything close to what they’ve done in Venezuela, we will be a threat, a very real threat, to conservatories.”

“El Sistema in Venezuela has made the same music relevant to millions of young people, that same music that conservatories here are struggling to get people to pay thousands of dollars go and learn,” Levi said.

Nevertheless, Pellegrinelli concludes her story with hope, considering the example of hundreds of children in the U.S., who are not aware of these obstacles. “Luckily, back in Queens, the kids at the Louis Armstrong Community Center remain blissfully unaware of any behind-the-scenes politicking about their orchestral futures.”

Press Office – Venezuelan Embassy to the U.S. / March 16, 2011

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