Music Education in the Fight Against Poverty


CARACAS, Venezuela – Providing a well-rounded education for all children is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty. Education equips children to improve and sustain their own futures, as well as the futures of their countries.

On its own music education in the fight against poverty is not enough to abolish it, is an invaluable supplement to any school’s core curriculum. It heightens academic discipline and cultivates the development of other skills, such as language, reading and memorization – benefits which ultimately work to strengthen entire communities.

“To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections,” Professor Nina Kraus, of Northwestern University, said to The New York Times. “Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”

Illiteracy is one of the biggest obstacles to education in developing countries. According to UNESCO, there are 1 billion illiterate adults in the world, and 98 percent of them live in developing nations. Much of this problem can be attributed to lagging education systems in developing nations, where many of these illiterate adults lacked access to education during childhood.

As evidenced by illiteracy rates among adults in developing countries, illiteracy cannot be eradicated unless children are first provided with easy access to schooling. According to UNESCO, 15 percent of children in developing nations are not enrolled in schools, while 45 percent of children in the least-developed countries are not enrolled in school.

In conjunction with a solid core curriculum in schools, music education has been shown to ensure higher enrollment rates, lower drop-out rates and increased academic performance. Among the benefits of increased and steady enrollment rates is an increased literacy – a necessary step in the fight against poverty.

“The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself ends up overcoming material poverty. From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor,” Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, an organization that provides low income children with music education, said to The Tyee.

El Sistema developed out of a Social Action for Music Program headed by Abreu in Venezuela in 1975. The program saw its inception in a garage full of donated music equipment, with only 11 children in attendance. Abreu was able to develop this small group of students into a world-class orchestra that would go on to win an international competition two years later.

Since 1975, the organization has grown radically. 25 countries, mostly in South and Central America, have adapted El Sistema’s programs. 300,000 underprivileged children, and even some inmates, now participate in El Sistema’s music programs globally.

The organization has produced some of the world’s most sought-after orchestras. El Sistema’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra was ranked among the top five orchestras in the world by the Times of London. As a testament to the contributions music education can make to a child’s future, El Sistema graduates have gone on to become directors and members of some of the world’s most-heralded philharmonic orchestras.

Children are not the only ones to benefit from their own music education. Their communities also reap the benefits. The Inter-American Development Bank released a study that indicated a positive correlation between music education and school attendance, improved grades, and lower drop-out rates. The report also showed that each dollar invested in El Sistema’s music programs resulted in $1.68 in social dividends.

“What Abreu and El Sistema have done in there is to bring hope, through music, to hundreds of thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost to drugs and violence. It is impossible to calculate,” Sir Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, said in an interview with The Guardian.

El Sistema’s impact in underprivileged communities shows that music education, although valuable in itself, has immeasurable social value that transcends the classroom. It is an avenue for social opportunity that children would not otherwise have access to. It bolsters education systems and produces an academic security among children that ultimately fosters the well-being of entire communities.

In a 2009 TED talk where he discussed the value of music education, Abreu quoted 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.”

Music education provides students with benefits that outlast formal music training. It provides opportunities for advancement within, as well as beyond, the music community. It produces observable economic benefits, but also greatly increases morale among impoverished children – evidence that music education is an oft-overlooked weapon against poverty.

– Matt Berg

Sources: New York Times Blog, The Tyee, SIL, The Guardian, Ted
Photo: Walter Magazine


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