El Sistema, Instrument of Peace




My Essay for Maestro Abreu's TED Prize Wish Blog 
Republished from TED.Com - April, 2012 

 
El Sistema, the brainchild of Dr. José Antonio Abreu, is considered to be one of the “world’s cultural treasures,” and a successful and insightful model for the role of classical music in our times. For five weeks, the Sistema Fellows at New England Conservatory had an opportunity to be inside the sounds of that glorious music. From Boston, we traveled over five thousand miles, visiting dozens of music learning centers across the country, working with hundreds of students, giving ourselves completely to music. It was a transformative journey for us all. To me, it was the experience of a lifetime. 
 
El Sistema in Venezuela has fashioned persuasive paradigms for the rationale and purpose of art. Music is never seen as a luxury, but rather as a natural extension of a young person’s life. In Mahomito, a humble elementary school in the heart of Guárico, we heard a group of choristers singing a repertoire of boleros, merengues, and musica llanera (songs from the Venezuelan plains). 
 
I saw young children holding hands, feeling every nuance in the songs, and cherishing the splendor of their doing something well together. Many of them immersed in the musical experience, eyes closed, as if somehow they had found their own sanctuary of peace. They were proud to perform for us. 
Very few times have I experienced such powerful music-making. In their performance, I heard a new kind of intention and aesthetic of sound. Their music in two-part harmony juxtaposed by the energetic strumming of a cuatro (a folk instrument of the guitar family), shined with palpable relevance, illuminating the crowded rehearsal room, bringing many of us to tears. What made their performance so moving? 
 
I couldn’t help but to think about the children’s own life stories. Why do they sing? Why does it matter so much? It is clear to me that the children of El Sistema sing and play because it brings them to a world of tangible opportunity, giving them a new sense of unencumbered freedom that allows them to express themselves. 

Music serves as an instrument for social transformation in that it adds concrete value to their lives, providing for new perspectives, amid the challenges that they may encounter where they reside—where more often than not, the living conditions are precarious on many levels. In pursuing music, students generate a level of motivation that leads to re-imagining a new intention for life, creating both poignant music-making experiences and improved social environments. This framework gives us a new aesthetic of possibility where students’ capacity for growth is extended as far as the universe of music. 
 
As a social development strategist, Dr. Abreu has centered El Sistema to the benefit of those youth who are most vulnerable to falling into the anxiety of poverty; for those that have been excluded from experiencing the goodness of life. The maestro wants to reach one million of those children throughout his native Venezuela in the years ahead. “Daily life should be expressed in music,“ he says. 
 
And because he is on a mission, Dr. Abreu never stops searching and learning. During our meeting, at the conclusion of our five-week residency throughout the country, we saw a joyful leader, bustling with energetic impetus and eager to hear the stories of our journey. He began by telling us that he was very interested to hear a perspective on how El Sistema could be improved.  "What have you seen on the ground that we can further perfect?" he asked. 
 
We spoke about the experiences that had the most profound impact on our own learning and development. We pointed out to the strength of the choral programs. I referred to the miraculous energy that emanates from the orchestras. We spoke about embracing our professions in a new light, as musicians eager to culture new ways of thinking about the potential of our art form in the 21st century—as a social and  participatory art. A more generous music-making, to be shared, in and through communities. 
 
As a leader, the maestro is often thinking about ways to multiply the impact and reach of his program. He is deeply invested in finding and applying new technologies that will facilitate the training of more and better teachers. The world's most accomplished artists and educators come to Caracas, but “why not use the most innovative of mechanisms to share virtual lessons with thousands of teachers across the country?” he asked. 
 
After 37 years, Dr. Abreu feels like it is just the beginning. There are more horizons to explore, higher goals to reach, more music to share. The overarching vision: to expand the philosophy of El Sistema into countries outside of Venezuela, to unite the Americas through music; to place music at the heart of communities around the world. A visionary, he wants his philosophy of free access be expanded to other disciplines as well, to sports and to the sciences. 
 
I felt the positive effects of El Sistema’s mission everywhere we went: in my orchestra rehearsals, in our meetings with parents, and in workshops with teachers. An enduring message of hope is ever-present in the ethos of El Sistema. It is a powerful music  because it stems from deep personal and collective aspirations to succeed, from the pride that emanates from developing communities, like Mahomito,  who see themselves being transformed through music. That same spirit also speaks to the strength of music to meet profound spiritual needs. 
 
In these challenging times, as violence and materialism seeks to entice the aspirations of youth, let us turn to music. Let us support and allow music education to shine its radiant light upon our communities so that we may prosper—so that young people may find peace in their everyday lives. This is also our calling and the maestro's wish for the future of music.  

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