International big names in classical music like Sir Simon Rattle, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, call it the “most important thing worldwide” currently happening in classic music: the outcome of a worldwide unique music education of the Venezuelan “El Sistema”. It is a unique system, which the musician and composer José Antonio Abreu has founded in 1975: he wanted to take the children off the streets, to show those poor children and unemployed teenagers a dignified way into society through music. It became a massive success; not only musically but also socially. Nowadays, 265.000 children and teenagers in Venezuela play classical music, at least four hours a day and strictly according to the slogan: “who carries a violin, does not carry a weapon”. And there is also no place left for drugs. The unusual project, in which music works as an applied social therapy, has changed the Venezuelan society and enriched the international music scene.
The scheme has been funded entirely by the country’s government since 1977. Its remarkable effects are still spreading around the world. Surrounded by poverty and violence, the children who enter El Sistema are, essentially, removed from drug and crime-ridden streets and taught music as an alternative way of life, helping to give them purpose, discipline, concentration, inspiration, self-respect and the ability to work with others. Abreu set the scheme in motion in 1975, with 11 kids rehearsing in an underground car park. Today, El Sistema has a network of 125 youth orchestras. Certainly, cultural achievements are used by regimes in many countries to mask reputations for repression, corruption and human rights abuse; and many would wonder if today’s Venezuela is really a place to celebrate. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that El Sistema pre-dated the Chavez regime and that maestro Dudamel takes pains to associate himself with his country rather than its government. And it has to be said, too, uncomfortable though it may be, that while music education is being slashed in the US and UK, El Sistema remains a beacon of relative enlightenment.