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A violin student from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program

Orchestras of Change

The promise of El Sistema for children from Brazil to Baltimore

Andrew Balio

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Every winter – or summer, depending on your hemisphere’s perspective – Campos de Jordão, a resort town in Brazil, hosts a youth orchestra camp. When I taught there, I met music students who had been sent to the program from countries across Latin America. At the end of each week of rehearsals and master classes, the orchestra would pile into the local club, whose DJ spun pop music from across the continent for the young travelers.

During the week, the kids would treat me with formality: I was one of their maestros. At the club, I got to see them simply enjoying themselves. Suddenly, the boys were twirling the girls around the dance floor. It was a dance-off for the sake of fun, national pride, and international courtship.

Many of these students were trained in their own countries in programs inspired by Venezuela’s national musical education program. El Sistema consists of a vast network of neighborhood music groups, called núcleos, which teach music to the children of the poorest of the poor as a way of plucking them from the awaiting jaws of gang membership, drugs, and broken homes. Its results have been extraordinary.

Playing music is about expressing something bigger than just oneself.

El Sistema began in 1975 as an eleven-piece garage band. Its musicians had answered the invitation of conductor José Abreu to get together to play Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel. A polymath, Abreu was simultaneously studying petroleum economics at Andrés Bello Catholic University and learning piano, organ, and composition at the National Conservatory. When he was young, he’d studied at a music school founded by ­Franciscan nuns. The expert and loving training Abreu received there was deeply influential in what he created through El Sistema.

The Catholic Church, whose primary mission is to save souls, is also the wellspring from which classical music flowed. First came chant, whose modal overtones echoing in the vaults of Europe’s cathedrals gave birth to polyphony – music in which independent voices are joined with one another in an ordered harmony. From this evolved what we know today as classical music: a vast body of work unique in human history for its ability to involve many people at once in ever greater musical complexity. The music taught by El Sistema trains children to live in harmony with themselves and others, achieving a formation of the whole person of which the Franciscan nuns who taught Abreu would surely approve. Playing music is about expressing something bigger than just oneself – to play is to lose oneself, in fact, in the beauty that answers truth and goodness.

El Sistema performance in Göteborg, Sweden

An El Sistema performance in Göteborg, Sweden. Photograph from gso.se

Of course, Abreu’s mission wasn’t avowedly religious. At first, his goal was merely to counter­balance the solitude of the practice room by forming ensembles of anyone who desired to play. “From my very first days at the conservatory,” he said, “I felt as though I had come up against a big wall.… One had to study alone for many years… and even then, the possibility of playing in an orchestra was a myth.” In the face of this solitude and discouragement, Abreu wanted to build a community of music.

Soon, those impromptu garage rehearsals grew, drawing not only music students but untrained kids as well. Rather than turn them away, Abreu trained them in an improvised, epic boot camp, often working for twelve hours a day, embedding the novices among those who could actually play their parts. This was the very opposite of the customary “go home and practice” ethos that segmented players by level of ability. In fact, he didn’t even hold auditions.

A violin student from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program

A violin student from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program. Photograph from communityforklift.org/orchkids

And then the government took notice, and soon Abreu’s come-one-come-all garage orchestra was a national program. The benefit of the program is not limited to those who make it big, or to those who are the best players. Music making itself is good for those who do it, however limited they are in skill. Abreu was transfixed by what happens to people when they are playing classical music together; he explained: “Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.” Today, Abreu’s model of music instruction for the poorest children has been replicated around the world.

Among these spinoffs is the one in my own backyard: the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program. In a school just ten blocks to the west of our home, after school, local musicians mentor kids from some of Baltimore’s most impoverished neighborhoods. They learn the skills of music performance, of collaboration; they are brought into the world of classical music: into its traditions, exacting demands, and rich rewards.

Flute students from the OrchKids program

Flute students from the OrchKids program. Photograph by Bill Dennison / marinalsop.com

I’m a trumpeter with the BSO. I play music for a living solely because I showed up for sixth grade band, along with hundreds of others on the first day of school, and was assigned a rusty cornet. That was how it worked in most American public schools when I was growing up – before budget cuts and, later, the exclusive focus on “marketable” subjects relegated classical music training only to schools in the most desirable ZIP codes. Recently, when I gave a master class through OrchKids, I found myself coaching kids struggling with recalcitrant trumpets just as I had at their age in Wisconsin. Abreu’s Venezuelan program is giving back to the United States what our own public school system has allowed to wither: classical music for all, classical music as a road out of poverty, as a community for those who need it most.

Music transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.

After World War II, Venezuela enjoyed great wealth generated by its oil fields and manufacturing, but it also suffered marked social divides. Today, in the midst of unprecedented economic and political crises following the drawn-out collapse of its socialist government and all manner of shortages and civil unrest, funding for everything is in question. El Sistema, launched between the boom and bust cycles as classical music for the sake of itself, has had to navigate seven different governments. It has retained funding in large part because of the political value it has had for each subsequent government. Officially nonpartisan, it has nevertheless become a political football. The current president, Nicolás Maduro, successor to Hugo Chávez, claims it as a feather in his own regime’s cap, a testimony to his legitimacy. In the spring of 2017, this narrative began to fracture. In May, an eighteen-year-old violist, Armando Cañizales, was killed by Maduro’s security forces at a demonstration. The program’s most famous graduate, Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, spoke out against the regime: “Nothing justifies bloodshed. We must stop ignoring the just cry of the people suffocated by an intolerable crisis.… No ideology can go beyond the common good.” A few days later, Cañizales’s friend, Sistema-trained twenty-four-year-old violinist Wuilly Arteaga, was arrested by the National Guard and imprisoned for playing the Venezuelan national anthem in the middle of another demonstration. His violin destroyed, he was taken to prison and tortured. Dudamel became involved in talks to secure the violinist’s release.

In retribution, President Maduro cancelled two upcoming international tours that the Sistema-trained Venezuelan national youth orchestra was to have made under Dudamel’s direction. “Welcome to politics, Mr. Dudamel,” he said, accusing him of bringing partisanship to the previously apolitical music program.

Despite these difficulties, El Sistema carries on. More than one million young musicians have passed through the original Venezuelan program. A few, such as Dudamel, have ascended to the very heights of their profession. El Sistema is a formidable institution, and the considerable number of graduates who have succeeded can be attributed at least in part to the sheer numbers of students, rather than the application of a rigid academic methodology.

A violin student from an El Sistema program in Cleveland

A violin student from an El Sistema program in Cleveland. Photograph from raineyinstitute.org

Today, Abreu’s classical music training community has spawned hundreds of similar programs worldwide, and a network of music educators. These institutions have shaped the lives of millions of children – especially the poor ones whose environments are often the most devoid of clear paths to the good life. The result has been nothing short of a children’s musical renaissance at a time when it seemed the leviathan of modern life would swallow up classical music whole. Each year, as I look back at the young people I taught at Campos de Jordão and see where they eventually landed, I am newly amazed at the power of El Sistema. As Gustavo Dudamel wrote in a May 2017 statement, “The only weapons that can be given to people are the necessary tools to forge their future: books, brushes, musical instruments; in short, those that embody the highest values of the human spirit: good, truth, and beauty.”

Contributed By

Andrew Balio is the principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and founder of the Future Symphony Institute, a research body for the sustainability of classical music.

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