Almost half a century ago, one dreamer, the Venezuelan conductor, pianist and economist José Antonio Abreu (1939–2018), figured out how to save children from poverty, drug abuse, and violence. The idea was simple: to give kids from poor backgrounds the opportunity to play classical music in an orchestra by providing them with good teachers, instruments, and a place to practise for free. Thus, in 1975, was founded a social programme called El Sistema (“The System”).
Why an orchestra? Abreu believed that it is a place where children learn key values in life: generosity, compassion, teamwork, responsibility, and self-confidence. The mission of El Sistema has never been to educate a whole pack of “new Mozarts”, but to make the world a little bit better by teaching kids to listen to each other and to respect one another. If none of them ends up a professional musician — that’s fine, the important thing is that they shared the joy of creating something beautiful together.
Children join El Sistema as young as two years old. Mastering the basics like rhythm, by the age of four, they are being taught how to play any instrument of their choice. Kids spend over 20 hours a week in an orchestra after school. The effect is life-changing. One of the programme’s most famous graduates, current musical director of the LA Phil Gustavo Dudamel confirms: “Music saved my life and the lives of thousands of at-risk children in Venezuela… It provides a universal language that transcends our differences and has a unique capacity to build bridges of understanding among all people.”
The first class of El Sistema led by Maestro Abreu brought together 11 children in an underground parking garage. Now El Sistema is a global social movement with ever-expanding network of youth orchestras and choirs in more than 55 countries, from Colombia and Canada to Armenia and the UK. It involves about 900,000 young musicians and 10,000 music teachers in Venezuela alone.