New directions for classical music in Venezuela

The "El Sistema" concept - widening access and achieving excellence

Master's Thesis, 2011

57 Pages, Grade: 1

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Table of Contents


I What is El Sistema ?
1.1 Worldwide reputation
1.2 Social context
1.3 Short history
1.4 Administrative structure
1.5 Facts
1.6 Achievements

II How does it work ?
11.1 The method
11.1. aA lot of time
11.1. b Early start
11.1. c Ensemble all the time
11.1. d Orchestras
11.1. e Immersion in music
11.1. fLove and attention to the children
11.2 The results
11.2. a For the student
11.2. b For the community
11.3 The unique features of the System
11.3. a Dynamic tension between opposites
11.3. b Focus of energies, clarity of vision
11.3. c Constant learning and improvement

III What can we learn from it ?
111.1 El Sistema-inspired projects around the world
111.2 Possible fields of improvement
111.2. a Curriculum and pedagody
111.2. b Personal level

Reference List


What we call classical music has developed in Europe for centuries, thanks to numerous influences and experiments. It spread around the world with European colonizers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, becoming important in all the regions where occidental culture remained until today. More recently, “our” music gained great popularity in Asia, mostly in China, Japan and Korea. But in the last decades, South-America has been the theater of an initiative of great scope, opening new ways for thinking occidental classical music.

The source of this initiative takes place in Venezuela and is known as “El Sistema”, The System, formally “Fundacion del Estado para el Sistema National de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela”, short FESNOJIV, State Fondation for the National System of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela.

The first part of this essay will be dedicated to the description of this movement. In the second part we will examine its workings, and in the third part we will try to determine how this experience could profit other music education systems.

I What is El Sistema ?

1.1 Worldwide reputation

Mention of El Sistema first invokes the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, officially Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the highest-level formation of FESNOJIV. In the last decade, this orchestra has been touring in all major venues in Americas, Europe and Asia, including the Berlin Philharmonie, the Carnegie Hall, the BBC Proms in 2007 and 2011, and two residences at the Salzburg Festival. They have been playing with major soloists, and are regularly conducted by Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle. They have recorded since 2006 for the Deutsche Grammophone, and have released four albums including Symphonies from Beethoven, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, and an album of classical music from Latin-American composers. All over the world, audiences are transported by the expressiveness, the energy and the technical precision of these youngsters coming from the poorest shantytowns of Venezuela.[1] [2]

Gustavo Dudamel, musical director of this orchestra since 1999, is also one of the most famous ambassadors of “The System”. Born in 1981, he began conducting studies in 1995 and became internationally well-known as he won the Bamberger Symphoniker Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in May 2004. Since then, he has been conducting the most important orchestras in the world, including the Berliner Philharmoniker, The Wien Philharmoniker, the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala, the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio-France, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and is starting in 2011 his fourth season as Musical Director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and his third season as Musical Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, along with his activities with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra.[3]

Another gem from El Sistema is Edicson Ruiz, born in 1985. At age 15 he became the ever-youngest winner of the International Society of Bassists' competition in Indianapolis, and two years later was appointed to the double-bass section of the Berliner Philharmoniker, being there too the youngest member in the orchestra's history.[4]

Through its achievements, FESNOJIV has won the support of many personalities and institutions, the most famous of whom might be Sir Simon Rattle, who states, If anyone asked me where anything really important is happening for the future of classical music, I would simply say here in Venezuela.[5]

The System received the UNESCO International Music Prize (1993), the “Gabriela Mistral” Prize from the Organization of American States (1996), the United Nations International Arts Prize (2004), and was recognized “Successful Experience in Poverty Reduction” by the United Nations Development Programme (1998), and UNICEF National Ambassador (2004). Its founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, was named UNESCO ambassador for peace in 1998, won the Right livelihood award (also known as “Alternative Nobel Prize”) in 2001 and the TED Prize in 2009.[6]

Gustavo Dudamel was awarded Premio de la Latindad in 2007, an honor given for outstanding contributions to Latin cultural life by the Union Latina organization. The same year, he won the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Young Artists. In 2008, he won the Q Prize from Harvard University for extraordinary service to children and in 2009 he was made Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the french Government.[7]

1.2 Social context

For centuries, the economy of Venezuela has been based on one export, first cocoa and coffee, and since the beginning of the twentieth century, oil. Venezuela was the world largest exporter of oil by the 1920's, and was a founding member of the OPEC in 1960. It is today the world fifth largest exporter and is estimated to have the world's largest crude oil reserves.[8]

Another constant of the country's economy is that the resulting wealth remained far away from the common people. By the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, popular uprising led to the advent of a democratic government in 1958, and the country remained quite stable, politically and economically, until it was hit hard by the drop in world oil prices at the end of the 1980's. By the end of the 1990's, almost half of the population lived under the poverty line.[9] According to the National Statistics Institute (INE), poverty still affects 27.4% of the households today, extreme poverty 7.3%.[10] Slums keep on growing around cities, known in Venezuela as “barrios”, and considered by their inhabitants themselves as extremely dangerous. The murder rate is extremely high, due mainly to drug traffics. In 2002, a stated 60% of the 5 million citizens of Caracas lived in barrios.[11]

Social spending per inhabitant in Venezuela is about the same as in other countries in the region[12], but the way the state has elected to use music to face these problems makes its social development policy stand apart from any other country in the world.

1.3 Short history

FESNOJIV was born thanks to a man who, in the 1970's, grew convinced that musical education would be the best way to fight poverty and exclusion. In the beginning of 1975, about ten young professional musicians joined around Dr. J.A. Abreu in the Caracas Conservatory for the first rehearsal of “La Orquesta Nacional Juvenil de Venezuela”. The ensemble grew very fast, with students coming from the Caracas music schools and the original members acting as teachers. By the end of April the orchestra was 83 musicians strong when Dr. Abreu (today mostly referred to as “El Maestro”) conducted its first concert.

The success of this first concert led to the creation of other youth orchestras all around the country, with the same method of using young professionals both as teachers and members of the ensemble. What was beginning to become “The System” simply brought together musicians living in a city, who themselves recruited young people already learning an instrument, but who had, for most of them, never played in an orchestra. The first years of the movement saw it growing very fast, taking advantage of the then-flourishing economy of the country. But even after the oil crisis at the end of the 1980's the System kept on developing, until each of the 23 states of Venezuela had at least an orchestra. The current FESNOJIV Foundation was created in 1996 with Dr. Abreu at its head. After three decades of stable management and national and international recognition he still continues today the work of expanding the orchestra network.[13]

1.4 Administrative structure

Dr. Abreu is administratively the head of the highest authority of FESNOJIV, the Board of Directors, made up of him as Executive Director, and four Directors, two of whom are appointed by the ministry in charge of the Foundation, and the two other by the board itself. To do this, they get recommendations from the Foundation's Advisory Council, made up of citizens “who have made outstanding contributions to Venezuelan music”[14].

FESNOJIV serves, at the national level, as “the executive and operational administration managing the creation, implementation, outfitting, development, and supervision of the community-based centers, orchestras, and choirs in the System.”[15] It is attached to the Vice-presidency Ministry, but has always been quite free in its decisions, following the ideas of Dr. Abreu.

At the local level, the application of the curriculum established by FESNOJIV is undertaken by 180 community-based centers, called “nucleos”, responsible for choir and orchestra programs, and the instrument and theory classes. They all have at least a youth orchestra and a children’s orchestra, and the biggest also have a professional orchestra, staffed by graduates from El Sistema, who also serve as teachers. The nucleos promote the System through concerts and “recruitment tours” in schools, are active to promote culture in the community, and make sure the most talented students have the opportunity to go on studying music at the highest-level. Each center has a president, who belongs to the national organization, and a director, acting usually as school director and conductor. In most cases, directors are very young people who just finished their studies in the System. Although the structures are quite homogenous, the centers are quite free in the way they apply the curriculum, and they communicate a lot to share experience and resources. There are very important variations in the sizes of the nucleos, the average being 2000 beneficiaries.[16]

To more effectively manage the fast-growing system, FESNOJIV is creating an intermediate level, which will consist of seven regional centers throughout the country, planned to be all active by 2014.[17] In addition to decentralizing the transmission of information and providing space and equipment to be used by the local centers, they will act as larger cultural structures in big cities, housing important concert halls for musical and theatrical performances, audiovisual collections, and organizing a lot of recreational, social and integration activities. This will provide the youth of the area with “a lot of alternatives to the violent use of free time”.[18]

Intertwined in the national structure of El Sistema is an “Academy” system, where the more talented and musically motivated can accelerate their development. Outside Caracas, this impulse may mean little more than precious private lessons for the most motivated students, but it allows top talent students to get into conservatory-like tracks with extra lessons and to highest-level conservatory training in Caracas after they complete their high school years.[19]

In addition to these musical-education structures, the System includes seven instrument- maker centers, the first of which was established as early as 1982. They serve both as schools for instrument-making and as a decisive provider of new instruments for the needs of the growing system.[20] [21]

1.5 Facts

In his acceptance speech for the TED Prize, Dr. J.A. Abreu states:

Art in Latin-America is no more for an elite, but a right for all, a social right.[22]

In 2007, about 2 million children had gone through El Sistema and benefited from this social right. They were 100 000 having daily lessons in 1999, 245 000 in 2007, and they are today 350 000. Although targeted at the unprivileged, El Sistema is open to all. But about 67 % of its members come from the poor strata of the population, without any other mechanism of selection than the location of the nucleos in poor neighborhoods. Due to the rising reputation of the pedagogy developed, more and more rich families are interested in putting their children in orchestras, and FESNOJIV is now developing social criteria of admission to ensure that no exclusion results from its success.[23]

The fight against exclusion is one of the keywords of the System, and leads to the will of including the most vulnerable communities. A “white-hands choir” has been created for deaf children; in Los Chorros a nucleo has taken place in a house for neglected and street children; disabled people are generally integrated into classes.[24] The Penitentiary Symphony Orchestras System was created in 2007 and boasts today 461 members, being helped for their reintegration into society.[25] One of these penitentiary orchestras was to be seen on TV, playing at a parliament sitting.[26]

The consciousness of the government about El Sistema's social effect, and the power it has for the image of the country on the political side, have radically changed the way FESNOJIV expands. After being used to struggle with finding places for its nucleos, occupying any available building, it now has to face ever more requests from municipalities for opening new centers all over the country. The Chavez government has recently committed to triple the funding and the number of students involved within ten years, bringing it to one million children, and to expand the system to the school-day.[27]

Since its beginning, the program has indeed always been almost entirely government funded. That is to say, the Venezuelan State takes in charge the entirety of the musical education of all these children. To ensure that the same opportunity is offered to each child, the parents don't have to pay any charges for the lessons and the instruments are offered. Moreover, almost every student gets a stipend for playing in a youth or a city orchestra.[28]

This led in 2006 a total budget of 61.2 million US$, for which the State's participation was 59 million US $. The budget had been in constant growth since 2000, with an average increase of 24 % per year, and was estimated to reach 129 million US$ by 2015 before Chavez announced that he wanted to triple it. The part of the budget dedicated to investment expenses was at that time already as high as 60 to 80%.[29]

Over its thirty years of existence, the System has managed to keep the State's support growing although the government changed six times from highly conservative to very liberal, even in times of economic crisis. One reason might be that Dr. Abreu always managed for the funding to come not from cultural ministries, but from social welfare.[30] It changed recently from the Family ministry to the Vice-president ministry.[31]

The program also has a few private and foundation donations, but they are not major supports. An important help comes from loans from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). A first loan in 1999 made possible among other the construction of a huge musical complex in Caracas, the “Centro de Accion Social Por la Musica”.[32] It comprises four major concert halls and is soundproofed so that five orchestras can rehearse at the same time. It has enough classrooms, practice rooms and performance space for 4000 students. At the request of Dr. Abreu, the building is strictly dedicated to music and has therefore almost no administrative offices.[33]

The IDB granted a second loan of 150 million US$ in 2007 to support the fast growth of FESNOJIV. This loan will help in a number of areas. The financial and administrative systems will be improved, and more importantly the seven new Regional Centers will be built. Another sizable part of this money will be used for the purchase of new instruments. Finally, fund-raising strategies will be developed, such as working on the System's image and building communication campaigns, in order to increase private funding and make El Sistema more sustainable economically in the long term.[34]

1.6 Achievements

What makes El Sistema so unique and fascinating was aptly summarized by arts consultant Eric Booth: They manage at the same time to “transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of at-risk young people through music, regardless of their abilities, location or background, and develop youth orchestras that perform at, or above, the highest standards in the world.”[35]

In preparing the application for the second IDB loan, a study was conducted at the end of 2006 to establish whether or not El Sistema was economically worth investing in. The results showed that each dollar invested in the System would create a return of 1.68 dollar, due to the diminution of social costs for the state in the areas where the System is present. This represented a net benefit of 105 million US$ in 2007. The drop of social costs comes mainly from lower school-dropout and criminality rates.[36]

Still according to the IDB study, the main individual benefits for children who went through the System are improvement in academic achievement and psychological development, the whole community benefiting from it through amelioration of individual behavior.[37]

The class-attendance rate of children playing in the System is 95.5% versus 87.6% for other children, the school dropout rate 6.9% versus 26.4%.

63% of the beneficiaries of El Sistema have good or excellent achievement at school, compared to 50% for their non-El Sistema classmates.

The percentage of parents or guardians being notified of behavior problems at school is 12.4% among the El Sistema students, 22.5% among the others. Parents report substantial improvements in their children’s punctuality, responsibility, and discipline.

The participation on community activities is 60.1% when going through El Sistema, 37.9 when not.

40.7% of the young people in El Sistema aged 14 and more participate in formal economy, against 12.5%.[38] In Venezuela, almost half of the working population is occupied in the non-formal economy, that is to say, with no written contract and/or no participation in the social security system.[39]

Also, students who spent some years in El Sistema complete high school and go to college in higher percentage.[40]

Some students leave the System when they complete primary school, around age 12, but at this time they have spent in most cases six or more years in it, and have acquired the skills and values that make the statistics above possible.[41]

The reduction of youth violence is to be observed in a spectacular manner in the Los Chorros home mentioned above. According to the head of the home, violent episodes almost disappeared with the start of the orchestra. Dr. Abreu about this project:

We teach them the instruments, and in two or three years they are ready for incorporation into social life.”[42]

Another direct accomplishment of El Sistema is the mixing of social classes. As soon as the children are in the schools or sitting in an orchestra, it is impossible to see which ones come from the “barrios” and which not. Through events in the community, the structure also builds connections between the people involved, no matter from which social class they come, by serving the entire population. It is therefore much more than a welfare program for children, by enabling poor people to escape the barrios.[43]

El Sistema does not only help people to get out of poverty through music. It also offers the opportunity for talented and hard-working students to live from their music and to work at a world-class level, with no consideration of the social strata they come from. The infrastructure and support that FESNOJIV provides for such successes are in other countries very often accessible only to an elite population. This explains in a large part the very high musical level attained.[44]

The most visible result of this support is the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, a professional youth orchestra that keeps performing all around the world. This orchestra is now called A, since they created the B Orchestra as the number of players became too important, and so on and so forth to E currently. Eric Booth relates how he heard them perform in Caracas the single best Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony he ever heard, astonished to see so young people expressing so deep feelings, investing all of themselves in the music.[45] Such statements are to be read in newspapers from every continent.[46]

But this musical achievement is not only true of the very best and older students. Jon Deak, an American composition teacher, tells how he heard the Finale of Tchaikovsky's third symphony by a 12 to 14 years-old orchestra, children looking totally at ease in the technical and writing complexities, playing in superb style. The intonation accuracy was impressive in the strings, but even more among the woodwinds, considering the fact that each part was double or tripled.[47]

Another observer relates how an eighty member choir and recorder ensemble of 5 to 6 years-old perform simply harmonized classical and folk tunes, and sing Venezuelan traditional songs, with perfect coordination and spirit.

After this, a beautiful five-years-old girl steps forward from the front row of the choir, turns to face her friends and conducts them with meticulous rhythm and form in a five-minute song, the words of which the ensemble render perfectly and by heart.[48]

Finally, here is an anecdote by Eric Booth that illustrates well how musical education changes the lives of Venezuelan children while bringing about a revival of classical music:

You can imagine what a 2400 seat concert hall in the U.S. would look like on a weeknight for that concert. Well, the hall was nearly packed, almost half with El Sistema students, some as young as seven. The audience was overly enthusiastic and clearly sophisticated. The image I will remember was the two 13-year-old violinists sitting in front of me. Clearly they were a romantic item. During the performance, every time there was a tricky or flashy violin section, they spontaneously grabbed one another’s hands and pitched forward in their seats in breathless excitement. The response you might see in American children at an action-thriller movie. This demonstrated authentically to me how deeply El Sistema informs the lives and hearts of the young musicians.[49]

II How does it work ?

II.l The method

Many observers will assess that what makes El Sistema's method so efficient is that they actually have no method.[50] Indeed, a lot of variations exist in the way each nucleo applies FESNOJIV's directives, and even in the way each child is taken in charge. The teaching plan may always change, for example a group teaching can become a single lesson, depending on who is present.[51] One observer states that “all schools are examples of the extraordinary”[52], another that “the unexpected is a part of life [t]here, along with the efficient and the ambitious”[53] But still, all the children will follow a similar path and, more important, their education is based on a number of principles shared and applied by all the teachers and people in charge of the System.

II.l .a A lot of time

This is the very first and most basic explanation of how El Sistema gets such results: they see children three or four hours a day, six or seven days a week. Each child receives at least one individual class and three instrument-workshops per week, being at his nucleo for an average of 17 hours a week, 40 weeks a year.[54] This means children make the choice to dedicate almost all of their free time to one place and one occupation field.[55]

The great ability of the System to offer time to children, and of the children to take advantage of it, is best illustrated by the way Mahler's second symphony, to be played under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle in 2005, was prepared, as described by a reporter of the German newspaper Das Orchester. The best youngsters are brought together in Caracas four weeks before the concert, staying at a hotel to be able to work 8 to 12 hours a day. After two weeks of this rhythm, they know the symphony by heart, the whole work, not only their parts. Then musicians from the Berliner Philharmoniker come to coach them the third week, and as

Sir Rattle arrives, one week before the concert, the children are ready to follow him and give the piece another musical dimension.[56]

This kind of work intensity is offered to all children, as theyjoin in annual retreats for one to three weeks during their vacations, working on orchestral pieces in a variety of ways for ten hours a day.[57]

The number ofhours children spend dedicated to learning and playing music is, in itself, enough to explain a greater part of El Sistema's success. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, describes how “logging 10,000 hours of highly attentive practice [is] a general entry gateway to beginning to make high quality choices and contributions to any field.”[58] Any child starting in FESNOJIV at the age of 6 will pass this threshold before he turns 20, without taking in consideration the additional work on his instrument at home. All Venezuelan children are given the opportunity to enter “the zone of expertise in which artistry and excellence begin”[59] in their late teens.

11.1.b Early start

One of the convictions shared by all is that children should be offered musical education as young as possible. El Sistema is setting up structures to start teaching children aged two or three, and one of the objectives of the second IDB loan is to help extend this practice.[60] At this age, children's auditory and motor skills are stimulated by songs, musical games and dance movements, using a mix of Asian and European pedagogy to develop rhythm and body expressiveness.[61]

When starting so early, teachers visit their families to make sure the parents are aware of the important commitment that is required from them and are ready to attend classes with their toddlers and be part of the process. Parental participation is indispensable, they sing or clap with them, the whole feeling “like group play, and a bonding exercise designed to engage the parents as much as the children”.[62]

Around age four, children are ready for group activities.[63] Theyjoin in singing circles,


[1] Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela 2011.

[2] Askonas Holt 2011.

[3] Dudamel 2011.

[4] Ruiz 2011.

[5] Tocar y Luchar 2006.

[6] IDB 2007, p.10.

[7] Dudamel 2011.

[8] OPEC 2011.

[9] Hollinger 2006, p. 3.

[10] INE 2011.

[11] Hollinger 2006, p71.

[12] IDB 2007, p.10.

[13] Hollinger 2006, p.78-85.

[14] IDB 2007, p.22.

[15] Idem,p.10.

[16] Hollinger 2007, p.85-89.

[17] IDB 2007, p.38.

[18] Idem,p.34.

[19] Booth 2010, p.5.

[20] Booth 2008, p.3.

[21] Koch 2011.

[22] TED 2009.

[23] IDB 2007, p.8.

[24] Hollinger 2007, p.132.

[25] FESNOJIV 2011.

[26] Koch 2011.

[27] Booth2008,p.3.

[28] Idem, p.6.

[29] IDB 2007, p.11.

[30] Booth 2008, p.2.

[31] Koch 2011.

[32] IDB 2007, p.8.

[33] Booth2008,p.8.

[34] IDB 2007, p.9.

[35] Booth2010,p.5.

[36] IDB 2007, p.12.

[37] Idem, p.8.

[38] IDB 2007, p.13. “The survey was conducted from October to December 2006, in15 System centers (12% of all centers) in six states. The sample consisted of 840 boys, girls, and young people, as well as 500 parents and/or guardians. They were organized into two groups of equal size: the intervention group and the control group, based on whether or not they participated in the System. Information was collected on a total of 26 indicators.”

[39] INE 2001.

[40] Booth 2008, p.4.

[41] Booth2008,p.4.

[42] Cited Hollinger 2006, p.122.

[43] Hollinger 2006, p.104-108.

[44] Idem, p.3.

[45] Booth 2008, p.7.

[46] AskonasHolt2011b.

[47] Deak 2010.

[48] Levine2010.

[49] Booth2008,p.8.

[50] Thorpe2010.

[51] Koch 2011.

[52] Hollinger 2006, p.88.

[53] Deak 2010b.

[54] IDB 2007, p.12.

[55] Booth2010,p.10.

[56] Vongries 2005.

[57] Booth2008,p.8.

[58] CitedBooth2010,p.10.

[59] Booth2010,p.10.

[60] IDB 2007, p.34.

[61] Booth2008,p.4.

[62] Levine2010.

[63] Booth 2008, p.9.

57 of 57 pages


New directions for classical music in Venezuela
The "El Sistema" concept - widening access and achieving excellence
University of Music Freiburg im Breisgau
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El Sistema, Orchestra, Education, Venezuela, Music, FESNOJIV, Abreu
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Nicolas Billaux (Author), 2011, New directions for classical music in Venezuela, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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