LA Times music critic Mark Swed is in Caracas, Venezuela, with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic. He’s getting a heavy dose of the amazing music education system there, called El Sistema. The Venezuelan government allots $100 million a year to El Sistema, the same organization that Gustavo “The Dude” came out of.
What happened in the U.S.? Why don’t we have anything like it? Many educators are perplexed, dumbfounded, and scratching their heads. Swed is amazed by the whole thing. Imagine, he asks, if Obama pledged $1.2 billion to music education?
Swed points out two interesting things about El Sistema. First, it was devised by its founder, José Antonio Abreu with emphasis on music education as a social program rather than a cultural program. It helps young people band together in a common activity and keep off the streets, promoting social cohesion and common goals among youth. (Caracas is a dangerous place).
I remember Linda Yudin’s wonderful LA-based Brazilian dance troupe Viver Brasil, where a middle schooler in the troupe once told me she would get approached by gang members asking her to join them, and she told them she had to get to dance practice.
Second, the article says, the stress is on music making as a communal, not a solitary activity. Students get more playing together, practicing together than they would be just doing solitary practicing. Solitary practicing and a stern unfriendly piano teacher is what made me stop piano lessons as a kid. I’m probably like many people who abandoned studies early.
The great thing about El Sistema, Swed says, is that if you asked the average Venezuelan if classical music is dying, you’d be asked what planet you came from. America would become a better place if we had our own El Sistema.
Here’s a link Mark Swed’s article from Sunday, Feb 26 LA Times: