Venezuela’s hard-luck orchestra

How a revolutionary outreach program turned poverty-stricken youth into world-class musicians

What can Canada learn from a program a classical music program based in the slums of Venezuela? A lot, as far as the Toronto-based Glenn Gould Foundation is concerned.

Next week, the organization named after one of Canada’s most celebrated musical legends will present Dr. José Antonio Abreu of Venezuela with its triennial Glenn Gould Prize, given to an individual for his or her contributions to music and communication. Accompanying Dr. Abreu to Toronto will be the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, a 250-member ensemble that was recently recognized by the Times of London as among the best in the world. But its prestigious reputation belies its humble roots. All 250 musicians are between the ages of 16 and 22, and all come from Venezuela’s most impoverished communities—a seemingly unlikely breeding ground for top-tier classical musicians.

Over 30 years ago, Dr. Abreu, an economist and conductor, founded El Sistema, a national program promoting free music education in Venezuela. His hope was to use music to reach out to the country’s most at-risk children. When Abreu first started, says Glenn Morley, chair of the Glenn Gould Foundation, “people would say, ‘Why wouldn’t you have sports programs?’ Sports programs are fine and they have their purposes. But they’re also competitive and they have winners and losers. And one thing you don’t want to have is winners and loser in competitions when people have guns in their hands.”

Since then, the program has grown exponentially. It now boasts 126 music centres in Venezuela, each of which caters to an average of 2,000 students. That’s why Venezuela has “probably the highest per capita ratio of young, outstanding classical musicians of anywhere in the world,” says Morley. Indeed, the program is far more than a casual extracurricular pursuit. From the age of about 4, Venezuela’s poverty-stricken youth are eligible for the free afterschool program. They, in turn, must commit themselves to serious study: four hour practices, six days a week.

Among El Sistema’s graduates is Gustavo Dudamel, the newest conductor of the L.A Philharmonic. Only 28 years old, Dudamel made Time magazine’s 2009 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Dudamel will be in Toronto to accompany the group’s kick-off concert on Monday night.

Morley stresses that the point of the program is not focused on creating better musicians, but better citizens. Though Dudamel stands out as an example of Venezeula’s nascent ability, El Sistema’s boosters are just as likely to tout the fact that while Venezuela’s school drop-out rate for teens 14 and over is 26.4 per cent, that figure drops to just 6.9 per cent for El Sistema participants.

The power of music will be the topic of conversation on Wednesday, when Dr. Abreu joins educators from across Canada in a symposium on music education. The week’s other events include visits to Toronto schools and community centers, in addition to a concert for 14,000 high school students at the Rogers Centre on Thursday. The hope, says the Glenn Gould Foundation’s Beth Sulman, is that Canada will adopt some variation of El Sistema here. Similar programs have already been set up in 20 countries, including the United States and Great Britain. But in Ontario, music education “has just dropped of the radar,” says Sulman. “The Ontario Minister of Education is going to be [at Wednesday’s symposium], so there’s hope.”

Already, programs based on El Sistema have been started in Ottawa and New Brunswick, but they are in very early stages.

Morley hopes his organization can help accelerate this trend, by transforming an award which has long recognized musical talent—that of Yo-yo Ma, and André Previn, for instance—to one that honors perhaps lesser-known social transformers. In particular, Morley wants to turn his prize into a kind of Nobel Prize for the arts, of which there is currently none.

“Now the vision has been so expanded,” says the Glenn Gould chair, “that almost anything is possible.”