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Music as Path out of Poverty

Why are we stingy with children's musical education? A miraculous program from Venezuela strikes a chord of hope that could resonate powerfully here.

By Fiona Tinwei Lam 25 May 2011 |

Fiona Tinwei Lam's work has appeared in literary magazines Canada-wide and in over 16 anthologies, and has been twice featured on BC Transit, as well as aired on CBC Radio. A former lawyer, she is the author of two books of poetry and the editor of The Bright Well, a forthcoming collection of Canadian contemporary poems on facing cancer.

"The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself ends up overcoming material poverty. From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he's no longer poor." -- Dr. José Antonio Abreu

Last spring, music programs in Vancouver public schools came very close to being silenced. The school board faced a severe budget shortfall and it was looking for cuts. The strong community response, together with an impassioned submission from Bramwell Tovey, music director and artistic head of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, played a large part in saving school band and strings programs.

Tovey, who grew up in the East End of London, received music education from state schools that his widowed mother could not have afforded, emphasized the importance of free music education for children and youth. He stated, "The social benefits of music are extraordinary -- if a student holds a musical instrument then he or she can't hold a knife, or a joint, or a needle or a crack pipe -- or a gun.... After a recent VSO educational concert of Beethoven's music at the Orpheum in Vancouver, a teacher wrote to us with a comment penned by a young student who had spent his brief life in foster care due to a litany of misfortune that made Beethoven's disability seem negligible by comparison. He wrote: 'It was the most beautiful building I have ever seen, it was the most wonderful music I've ever heard, it was the greatest day of my life.'"

While school music programs received a reprieve from cutbacks, they continue to be vulnerable in a climate of financial restraint, not just in Vancouver but elsewhere in B.C.

When people in this well-off corner of the world speak of not being able to find the money to fund the vital relationship that any child, poor or not, might form with music, I think about a day in 1975 in Caracas, Venezuela.

Only 11 children turned up that day to sit in front of the 50 donated music stands that Dr. José Antonio Abreu had set up in a parking garage for the first rehearsal of a new youth orchestra. But Abreu, an accomplished musician, economics professor and former politician, had a vision and a mission to bring music to the barrios. Undeterred, he promised those 11 children that their orchestra would eventually become one of the leading youth orchestras in the world. That promise was realized two years later, when it won an international competition in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1977.

As a result of that success, Abreu's Social Action for Music program evolved into El Sistema, a national network of youth and children's orchestras and music schools, a foundation headed by Abreu that would bring free music education to low income children and youth from the ages of two to 20. Full and consistent funding from the Ministry of Family, Health and Sport allowed the program to survive 10 different administrations ranging the political spectrum, and grow rapidly in size and scope. In 2007, new pilot music education projects for homeless children who work as scavengers in garbage dumps were set up in three cities. El Sistema's program of music education has been introduced in several prisons as well.

At present, 300,000 children from mostly low-income families participate in its instrumental music programs, over 60 children's orchestras and almost 200 youth orchestras. Out of El Sistema came its signature youth orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, which debuted in 2007 at Carnegie Hall and at the BBC Proms and has been ranked one of the top five orchestras in the world by the Times of London, and the newer Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, which contains El Sistema's best high school musicians.

(You can view a video of them performing here.)

Moreover, several El Sistema graduates have gone on to prominent international careers, including Gustavo Dudamel, who at the age of 26 became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Edicson Ruiz, a double bassist who became the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Microcosm of the ideal society

The Inter-American Development Bank, which has loaned funds to construct other regional centres for El Sistema in Venezuela, conducted studies of the more than two million young people educated through El Sistema, two-thirds of whom are from low socio-economic backgrounds. These studies showed that participation in the program reduced school drop-out rates, improved overall academic attendance and reduced juvenile delinquency and crime. In view of those benefits, the IDB calculated that for every dollar invested in El Sistema, there was $1.68 in social dividends. Sir Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra states, "What Abreu and El Sistema have done in there is to bring hope, through music, to hundreds of thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost to drugs and violence. It is impossible to calculate. Abreu has saved those people physically in many cases and he has saved them in other ways too -- he has given them life in all its depth."

El Sistema's success is largely due to its vision of the orchestra as a microcosm of the ideal society.

In his 2009 TED prize lecture, Dr. Abreu quotes Mother Teresa: "the most miserable and tragic thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being nobody, of not being anyone, the lack of identification, lack of public esteem." In the program, students learn how they can contribute meaningfully toward a common goal. They also experience progress as individual musicians as well as through the collective. With the consistent encouragement of their teachers and classmates who support them and their families, they learn self-respect, self-discipline, creative self-expression, collegiality, focus, responsibility, generosity, commitment, citizenship and leadership -- and of course, they acquire a deep pleasure in music that connects them with great composers, other musicians and cultures through the centuries.

Children attend their local El Sistema center, called a "nucleo," up to six days every week, three to four hours a day, starting as early as age two or three, going up to their teens. Participation is free, and transportation and instruments are provided. From the start, children learn music in groups and through peer tutoring (e.g. children who have mastered a scale or two teach younger children) with the focus on forming a mutually supportive team. Music is taught as play rather than a chore. Students' practice is supervised, with teachers also making home visits to instruct parents on how to support their child's practice schedule at home. This early training prepares students for orchestra membership as they start singing in choirs, learning the recorder and percussion at age five, and then moving on to their first string or wind instrument by age seven. The inclusion of peer tutoring and the use of former students as teachers and nucleo leaders provides a kind of supportive scaffolding upon which the orchestras can be built and developed.

The dean of the New England Conservatory of Music, Mark Churchill, states in one of the award-winning documentaries about El Sistema, Tocar y Luchar (Play and Fight, 2004): "We think of social programs as providing food, shelter, housing and medical care. And obviously these are very important for people who don't have these. But by feeding peoples' souls, they will find a way to feed themselves and to house themselves and to find the basic human necessities. And at the same time grow into people of significance and contribution. When you establish the inner life of somebody, which is done so effectively through these music programs, then the possibility for these lives to contribute, to enhance and uplift society is endless."

El Sistema has been profiled in the English language documentary El Sistema, by Paul Smarczny and Maria Stodtmeier, that won the Grand Prix award in Prague in 2009, as well as on 60 Minutes. CBC Radio Two recently aired a documentary about El Sistema, interviewing Abreu himself as well as students who have progressed through the program.

El Sistema's global reach

Over 25 countries have adopted the El Sistema model, including Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, England, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Korea, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, Scotland, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay. In the U.S., programs inspired by El Sistema have been set up Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Pasadena and San Antonio. Boston's New England Conservatory of Music has implemented a year-long educational post-graduate program to train 50 young musicians in El Sistema's philosophy and methodology.

I first learned about El Sistema when reading a news article about the enthusiastic reception in Toronto for Dr. Abreu on his being awarded the Glen Gould prize in October 2009. The Simon Bolivar orchestra conducted by Abreu's protégé, Gustavo Dudamel, was flown in for an impressive Canadian debut and to participate in a four-day celebration of music organized by the Glenn Gould Foundation, which included community outreach events for youth at risk, as well as a concert for 13,000 elementary and high school students from as far away Sudbury and Ottawa. An El Sistema study guide for teachers and policymakers was also prepared for distribution.

So far there are a few El Sistema-inspired music education programs in Canada. In Ottawa, the Leading Note Foundation set up the OrKidstra and KidSingers programs in Ottawa in 2007 with the assistance of private donations and grants from a number of organizations. The foundation works in partnership with both the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy which provides youth mentors, and the University of Ottawa, which has a credit course for university students to teach in the program. Last fall, the foundation expanded from 100 to 170 students.

The El Sistema approach has also successfully taken root on the east coast of Canada. After three members New Brunswick Youth Orchestra Board of Directors travelled to Caracas on a fact-finding mission, they developed Sistema Brunswick, a five-day-a-week, three-hour-a-day, free, bilingual classical music program for 50 students run out of a school in Moncton in 2009. Sistema Brunswick admitted an additional 70 students last fall, and new centres will be set up in St. John in 2011 and Richibucto in 2012 where there are high concentrations of low income families.

Inspired by the 2009 visit by Abreu and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, businessman and social activist Robert Eisenberg has partnered with violinist, educator and administrator David Visentin to establish Toronto-Sistema, which is collaborating with Sistema New Brunswick, the Leading Edge Foundation in Ottawa, and Sistema-USA, as well as other Sistema-based programs internationally. Toronto-Sistema will be launching its first program in this fall.

The needs, challenges, and best practices of Sistema-inspired initiatives in Canada will be examined at an upcoming national symposium entitled "El Sistema: Music Education and Social Change," which is scheduled at the end of May this year at the University of Western Ontario.

Music making a difference in Vancouver

In Vancouver, a few free after-school programs exist for children from low-income neighbourhoods. In 2002, the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach started providing weekly after-school music classes through Arts Umbrella to 140 students from Grades 3 to 12. It has since expanded to 275 students from specifically targetted elementary and high schools identified by the Vancouver School Board as having a significant population of at-risk youth. Participants receive free instruction once a week, ranging from a 45-minute lesson in music fundamentals for Grade 3 students, to one-and-a-half hours for choir participants. Weekly group lessons in guitar, percussion or piano are supplemented by two half hour private lessons per month. For those in the private piano stream, weekly hour-long private lessons are supplemented by monthly master classes. Song-writing classes are offered as well. The program will be expanding this September with the recent donation of a building at 144 East 7th Avenue in Vancouver, to become a stand-alone school with twice as much space.

(See video here.)

In 2007, community activist and mother of six, Kathryn Walker founded the St. James Music Academy, which is run out of St. James Anglican church in the Downtown Eastside. Financially supported by private and corporate donations, the academy provides music instruction in piano, cello, violin, viola, percussion or guitar to 75 students from Grades 1 to 7 from nearby Strathcona Elementary from 3:30 to 6 p.m. three days a week during the school year. The academy intends to increase the number of students and hopes to expand to a five-day-a-week program with a full orchestra in future. Walker visited the Maritimes to learn more about Sistema Brunswick's program very recently.

Walker states, "The gifts, talents and capacities the children and youth possess simply need an avenue to be nurtured, encouraged, motivated. These opportunities should not be limited by economic means -- music is a universal language that can be expressed and shared by everyone."

Video clip of spring recital 2011 of SJMA (five cents donated by Long and McQuade to the school for every hit).

Of course, children and youth are not the only ones who can benefit from music education, ensemble work and access to musical instruments. In 2008, social activist Colleen Carroll obtained a $500 grant to set up the Homeless Band, coordinated by resident musician Rudolf Penner at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside. Sandy MacKeigan, the recreation programmer for the park, told me about the day the donated piano arrived there: "I'll never forget how this man ran into the field, jumped over the fence and went right to the piano to play."

Songwriter, conductor, and choral teacher Earle Peache started a music program at the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings in Vancouver in 1984 with weekly jam sessions and cabarets, continuing as music director for 16 years. When brass and other wind instruments were donated for a stage band, he hired high school band teacher, conductor, and trombonist, Brad Muirhead to work with the group.

Muirhead then took on the leadership of the group to form the Carnegie Jazz Band. Participation varies from week to week, with a core group that attends regularly while others might drop in only once. Participants have divergent musical backgrounds, ranging from novice to advanced. Muirhead states, "I try really hard to accommodate everybody." The first hour of each weekly session provides instruction for beginners, including music theory. More advanced players then arrive for the remaining time to work on a range of songs. Muirhead hopes to see the program expand to better serve all levels of players.

I felt both envious and inspired when I first viewed the El Sistema documentary. My experience of music education as a child and teenager wasn't anything like the experiences of the Venezuelan kids from the barrios profiled in the film. Music was not a group enterprise, was not about teamwork and mutual support. It was a lonely, frustrating experience. I wondered what would have happened if people like me had been introduced to the El Sistema method of music education early on. It was amazing to see these young Venezuelan children play without self-consciousness, able to plunge into the music with such joy and exuberance. You could see the music embodied in their every motion, the pride and pleasure on their faces.

'That is the power of music'

According to Abreu, the Venezuelan system of music education encourages socialization and social development because it transmits values of solidarity, harmony, and mutual compassion that are essential for a healthy society. He has stated, "This not an artistic development planned with the goal of offering a few concerts. The orchestra not only transforms the public that hears it. Before transforming the public that is listening, it has already transformed itself. Originally, art was by a minority for the minority, then it became art by the minority for the majority. And we are beginning a new era where art is an enterprise by the majority for the majority."

Although some might question privileging classical music education over teaching jazz, rock-and-roll or forms of indigenous music, Abreu has emphasized that the El Sistema methodology is flexible, and has been adapted to the needs of specific communities and populations within Venezuela. In any case, classical music can provide an excellent base for learning other forms or genres of music. Is it a form of cultural imperialism to introduce European-based musical traditions to the Venezuelan barrios, to Kenyans or Koreans, or indigenous communities in other parts of the world? Or is it part of the ongoing exchange and flow of musical and cultural ideas that can open the door to creative opportunity -- more collaborations, new compositions and orchestrations, all kinds of fascinating innovations that we cannot foresee or even imagine? Classical music, jazz, blues and rock-and-roll have all evolved from other kinds of music, and are still evolving, cross-pollinating and branching off into new realms.

As witnessed in Venezuela over the past 35 years, and as is starting to be seen through Sistema-based initiatives that have begun in Canada, it is clear that music education can benefit people of any age or culture, and can be a powerful agent for social transformation. There have been significant pockets of change that have happened in Vancouver, but there is a huge untapped potential for much more.

As Bramwell Tovey put it so well, "That is the power of music -- to heal, to inspire, to communicate, to transform and so much else besides."  [Tyee]

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