A music project that like many began in a garage, but unlike most it grew to have a positive impact in the life of more than 800,000 children throughout the last 37 years.
El Sistema from Venezuela is led by José Antonio Abreu, 72, a visionary who fought against all odds to provide hope to some of the poorest children of his country.
Abreu funded the project in 1975 in a parking garage in Caracas with only 11 children. His vision of reaching out to underprivileged children through music was not taken seriously by many, but he knew he had to plant the seed and use music to save upcoming generations.
“Essentially this is a social system that fights poverty,” Abreu said in an interview with CNN in 2008. “A child’s physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides.”
Most of these kids come from the poorest crime-infested neighborhoods throughout Venezuela, where they now count with about 200 youth orchestras, more than 60 children’s orchestras and 30 professional adult orchestras. Music serves to keep these children occupied and out of trouble.
Children as young as two begin attending their local center or “nucleo” and most continue well into their teens. Venezuela currently has 230 nucleos teaching 310,000 students.
The main orchestra, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, is always booked with back to back performances all over the world. The entire program can become very expensive, thankfully they count with government funding and Abreu is always on the lookout for additional funding.
This arduous project is mostly ran by former students who go back to teach and become leaders.
“We can have external careers as conductors, but we will always go home to support El Sistema,” Manuel López-Gómez, former Sistema student whit a successful international career, said in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s something ethical. We have to help the next generation.”
Gifted students such as López continue their music career with enormous success. Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s music director, is a star graduate who has gone off to record eight CD’s on Deutsche Grammophone featuring the Simón Bolívar Symphony. He has even conquered iTunes with seven releases with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
El Sistema has served as an example to follow spreading all over the globe to more than 25 countries such as Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, among many others. Even the U.S. counts with more than 50 El Sistema-inspired programs.
“Three hundred thousand kids and young people play music. In the future, a million. I’m sure of this,” Dudamel told CBS. “I think we are helping a lot, and the orchestra now is a symbol of the country. It’s like the flag.”