El Sistema and the Role of Music in Poverty Alleviation


SEATTLE — An inspirational story of music in poverty started with Venezuela’s Jose Antonio Abreu, an accomplished musician, who planned to start a new youth orchestra out of his garage. A donation of 50 music stands was given for the use of 100 boys in the first rehearsal. However, when Abreu arrived at the rehearsal, only 11 boys came. He thought to himself, “Do I close the program or multiply these kids?”, and he promised the 11 children that one day their orchestra would be one of the best in the world. In 1977, their orchestra won an international competition in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Abreu’s program developed into El Sistema, a national foundation that aims to provide free music education to low-income children and youth from ages two to 20. In 2007, new music education projects for homeless children who work as scavengers in garbage dumps were set up in three cities in Venezuela. El Sistema’s program of music education has been introduced in several prisons as well. El Sistema currently enrolls some 300,000 children, mostly low-income families, and has created more than 250 children’s and youth orchestras throughout Venezuela.

El Sistema Establishes a Template for the Role of Music in Poverty Alleviation

When the Inter-American Development Bank conducted research, two-thirds of whom are from low socioeconomic backgrounds of the more than two million young people educated through El Sistema. The research showed that enrolling in the program reduced school dropout rates, improved overall academic attendance and reduced juvenile delinquency and crime.

Gustavo Dudamel, one of El Sistema’s graduates, started as a boy member of the children’s orchestra in Barquisimeto. He became a violinist and later the conductor. He then became the conductor of Venezuela’s junior orchestras. Another graduate was Edicson Ruiz, a boy from a parish in Caracas. Passionately, he attended to his double bass lessons at the San Agustin’s Junior Orchestra.

Through his hard work, support of his family and community, he became a principal member of the double bass section of the Berlin Philharmonic. Both were exposed to the poor conditions of their country, but music has provided them with a greater future. They were all kids in poverty; however, music in poverty was, and still is, a different story. Music was their mentor, adviser, family, friend and home, which was everything they needed to fight poverty.

Music illustrates the complexities of each community and region; it brings deep cultural transformation, solutions and harmony; It is what makes a child return to their home with hope, a chance to be somebody through music in poverty. Dr. Abreu considers music to be key in preventing poverty, violence, prostitution and many other types of harm a child may experience.

Experts Speak on the Importance of Music in Impoverished Communities

In his 2009 TED prize lecture, 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.” He also explained that through the El Sistema program, students learn how they can contribute to a common goal. “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.’’

Mark Churchill, dean of the New England Conservatory of Music, commented on the role of music in poverty alleviation in one of the award-winning documentaries about El Sistema, Tocar y Luchar (Play and Fight). He explained that music can work in tandem with social programs to help impoverished people, as it gives them a sense of importance and inspires them to grow and contribute to their communities in meaningful ways. “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,” he stated.

Through music, a child can become a role model for their family and community. When a child recognizes their importance, he/she begins to seek new ways of improving himself and hopes social and economic improvements for his/her own family. These encourage them to embrace new dreams, new goals and progress. These are children embracing music, following music, and hoping with music to conquer their raging reality: poverty.

– Nicole Dalisay
Photo: Flickr


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