- Category: March/April 2008
by Stephanie Stein Crease
Symphony orchestras from Omaha to Los Angeles to New York are rethinking how young people can once again have meaningful experiences playing classical music—our own “American miracle.”
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Can the Venezuelan miracle happen here? A poverty-stricken country of only 26 million people has a quarter of a million students enrolled in an ambitious and wide-reaching music education program. The majority of the children embrace the program; practicing is part of what they do together, almost every day, without parents hectoring and cajoling them. They produce orchestral music that is as high in quality as anything emerging from conservatories. The program is officially named the Fundacion del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestras Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (FESNOJIV), but it is known universally as “El Sistema.” The results are spectacular. In the last few months its touring musicians have captivated audiences and made headlines internationally. (For an in-depth look at El Sistema, see story starting on page 26.) Suddenly, everyone knows about the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, who will become music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 2009-10 season. w As a result of El Sistema’s heightened visibility, there is a newly energized conversation across the United States in the orchestra world. The vibrant musicianship of Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (SBYOV) has galvanized interest in their musical training. The main question is: Can we translate “El Sistema” to the U.S.? Its success—a national, high-quality music education system that is all-inclusive and cuts across cultural, racial, and class lines—has prompted many people in the orchestra field to rethink our own practice of music education and performance. Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, has said repeatedly: “If anyone asked me where is there something really important going on now for the future of classical music, I would simply have to say: in Venezuela.” Rattle has been pivotal to the high level of visibility that El Sistema has garnered in Europe and the United States, particularly in this last year. The Berlin Philharmonic began collaborating with and mentoring the Simón Bolívar Orchestra under Claudio Abbado, and that relationship has become more pronounced with Rattle, who two years ago hired bassist Edicson Ruiz, then 19 years old and a “graduate” of El Sistema, for the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle’s mentorship and heartfelt praise have put Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in prominent concert halls. Just as significantly, Rattle’s enthusiasm has brought orchestra directors, conductors, music educators, and musicians to Venezuela to witness El Sistema in action at home.
“What impresses me most is the exuberance and joyfulness of the
orchestra,” says Jesse Rosen, executive vice president and managing
director of the League of American Orchestras. Last summer, Rosen spent
a few days in Caracas, experiencing El Sistema firsthand and hearing
the Simón Bolívar Orchestra under Rattle; a few months later, he heard
the orchestra on tour with Dudamel in the United States. Their
performances, says Rosen, are “a wake-up call to what is possible in
orchestral performance at a professional level. As audience members,
you get caught up—you can’t escape the power of 200 people on stage who
are deeply engaged in music-making. A big part of it is that they
move—it’s as if they are choreographed. American orchestras don’t move;
what other genres of music-making are there in which the musicians are
so immobile? A lifetime of playing in ensembles gives the Simón Bolívar
musicians this ability. Performances like theirs get others to want to
perform classical music; this approach ought to be central to what our
Rosen and others are also interested in how El Sistema up-ends our concept of talent development. El Sistema began as a social service to give children in the barrios a safe haven and unique opportunity. It has evolved into a program with universal access. “Our system is to spot prodigious talent early and give it opportunity,” continues Rosen. “Find the few and shoot them up the funnel. Their system says ‘Find the many, and you will be guaranteed that you will have a really strong top.’ The results are startling. The notion of El Sistema as a model comes at a moment when orchestras are more receptive to playing a larger role in their communities and building an audience.”
Other elements of El Sistema stand in high relief to American music
education programs—which number in thousands across the country—and our
own hundreds of youth orchestras. One is that El Sistema’s broad reach
has had a transforming social effect in ways that the United States has
achieved only in small doses. Another is the level of excellence that
resonates through El Sistema’s hundreds of orchestras, not just its
top-tier ensemble, Simón Bolívar. Still another element is El Sistema’s
continuity, which provides its students with an all-embracing musical
education that takes them from preschool through high school and
beyond, meanwhile serving their communities in countless ways. For
example, the growth of the núcleos (the community centers where the
orchestras rehearse) has created jobs for adults, including instrument
building. The success of El Sistema is motivating conversation and
research to translate these elements into new initiatives for American
youth orchestras and for music education. Different conversations are
taking place in different cities all over the country.
Students, musicians, and faculty from New England Conservatory (NEC) have had an ongoing relationship with El Sistema for several years. The signing of a friendship agreement in 2005 formalized a stream of reciprocal exchanges and shared resources—conceptual, practical, and cultural. Faculty, including violinist Donald Weilerstein, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, and Mark Churchill, Dean of NEC’s Preparatory School and Continuing Education, have made several trips to Venezuela to coach young musicians and share ideas. NEC’s own preparatory orchestra, the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (YPO) under Benjamin Zander, toured Venezuela twice, and Churchill and Abreu jointly created the Youth Orchestra of the Americas to forge ties among young musicians all over the Americas.
These relationships became more public last November at a day-long symposiumsponsored by NEC and its Center for Music-In-Education (CMIE), topped off by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra’s concert at Symphony Hall in Boston. The symposium, entitled “The Venezuelan Music Education Miracle: What Is It? What Can We Learn?,” brought together Abreu; Churchill; Larry Scripp, NEC’s Director of the Research Center for Learning Through Music and Chair of CMIE; Polly Kahn, League of American Orchestras Vice President for Learning and Leadership Development; and others active in the field.
Participants had three assignments: to read an article about music as a force for social change; to watch a documentary film about El Sistema, Tocar y Luchar; and to read Jennifer Chang’s Harvard thesis about El Sistema’s social and psychological benefits. These sources primed the participants—including business leaders, public school teachers, and arts administrators— for lively discussions, and a follow-up conference is planned. One principal topic was: Can our affluent country engage in similar ways with our own underserved children?
Mark Churchill, who considers Abreu a mentor, is himself a firm believer in music as a tool for social change. The friendship between NEC and Abreu and his Venezuelan colleagues got a fresh jolt last fall with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra’s visit to Boston. “We put onthe symposium—with 45 participating organizations—to examine the question of what we can learn from El Sistema,”said Churchill. “What we all want to see flourish is bringing classical music to the larger culture, and this is such a compelling model. Now, we may need some sort of national organization to support and share ideas, because so may things came out of this—whether you expand what you are already doing or create something new. But, if you are going to model something on El Sistema, it has to have the same level of intensity and commitment.”
Churchill’s colleague Larry Scripp agrees. “Abreu paid attention to so many things. He believes that music really is of social importance, that it truly is not dependent on a prior conception of talent, and so forth. El Sistema even works with deaf children, and with kids who grew up in real poverty. So this is the case where the medium has become the message. In our seminar, nobody really said, ‘Well, this is the thing to do. We just need to replicate it.’ Replication is a very superficial view of what El Sistema is; it doesn’t replicate itself—it evolves, it adapts. For the Venezuelans, it matters that you do well at music, not that you just participate. There are no apologies for demanding quality in that system, and the quality of the music is the best way to assure that the social and equitable goals are long-term.”
Jennifer Chang was inspired to write her thesis, “Orchestrating an ‘Affluence of Spirit’ ” (Harvard, 2007) after touring Venezuela with the YPO orchestra. Through her research, she rigorously examines El Sistema’s evolution and function. She does not gloss over some of the children’s history of violence, nor El Sistema’s critics. But her findings substantiate the multiple benefits that El Sistema’s combined social services and music education achieve for the impoverished children it serves.
Violinist Josh Weilerstein, a student at NEC, is another veteran of the YPO who was profoundly influenced by his experiences with the Venezuelan musicians. Weilerstein was invited to go on the Simón Bolívar Orchestra’s 30-day debut tour of the United States last fall. A member of the musically accomplished Weilerstein family (his parents are NEC faculty, and his sister, Alisa Weilerstein, has a burgeoning career as a solo cellist), he is keenly aware of the difference between his training, aimed toward being a soloist, and that of his Venezuelan peers. “The YPO met on Saturdays—that was it. Simón Bolívar rehearses on a professional schedule, four hours a day, and plays a concert at the end of the week. The excitement they generate is amazing—nobody plays like that—which was what was so great about them coming to the U.S. Many friends who came to hear us said this was the best concert they had ever seen. People come backstage crying. That happened again and again. The funny thing is that the Venezuelans are kind of used to that. They have humility, but at the same time, they strive for excellence.”
The Los Angeles Philharmonic has made a bold statement to the musical world with the appointment of the 27-year-old Dudamel as its next music director. And the orchestra is about to launch a wide-ranging youth orchestra program that takes its inspiration from El Sistema. But the orchestra’s dedication to music education for young people is longstanding. During his sixteen-year tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, himself a product of Finland’s exemplary national music education system, has helped to promote an atmosphere of engagement with the next generation. Now, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is mounting an ambitious new initiative that aims for the broad reach of El Sistema. The Young Musicians Initiative was announced last October during the Philharmonic’s first International Youth Orchestra Festival, an unprecedented three-week event that presented concerts by orchestras of young musicians from Finland and Switzerland, as well as the Venezuelan group, and also showcased local youth orchestras. The three international orchestras, each of which has a distinctly different history and mission, were the SBYOV, with Dudamel; the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra, Finland’s premier training orchestra, led by alumnus Esa-Pekka Salonen; and the Swiss-based UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, under Charles Dutoit, the newly appointed chief conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra. The festival also included side-by-side performances with the local youth orchestras and the international musicians; in-school appearances by the visiting musicians; and a master class for young conductors by Salonen and Jorma Panula, his mentor. A day-long symposium examined models of music education from around the world, with participants from many countries.
For Deborah Borda, Los Angeles Philharmonic President and CEO, the
time is ripe for these efforts. The Young Musicians Initiative, forged
over the last couple of years, is a partnership of school districts, music-education providers, afterschool programs, and the
city and county of Los Angeles. The goal is to connect the dots among
the programs that already exist in L.A., and to create something new:
Youth Orchestra L.A., an in-school program, inspired by El Sistema,
will start creating a web of community-based youth orchestras for the underserved
children of Los Angeles. A highlight of the festival was the public
pledge by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, business leaders,
music educators, and many others to work together to get the first of
these orchestras off the ground. To demonstrate the sincerity of their
commitment, they each purchased advance tickets to a concert, to take place a year in the future.
A slate of new plans for youth orchestras in Chicago, galvanized by El Sistema, may bring musicmaking to the city’s diverse communities. Chicago’s in-school music programs, like those of many other cities across the country, were largely eliminated by huge budget cuts in the 1970s and 1980s, and have never fully recovered. Yet the city of Chicago has rich musical resources that have provided access for many children, including several youth orchestras, community music schools, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s successful, long-standing programs: its training orchestra, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago; and its Musicorps program, which sends teaching artists into schools. Chicago Symphony Orchestra President Deborah Card takes particular pridein the CSO’s Percussion Scholarship Program (PSP), an intensive Saturday program for a select group of elementary school students. The goal of PSP is to give its students near-professional abilities; but meanwhile its students have garnered extra-musical benefits and unique opportunities.
Even so, the CSO keeps renewing its efforts to widen access to music education and become more inclusive. Here, too, the time is ripe for new collective efforts. The CSO has found an enthusiastic partner in Dr. David Roche, director of the new Office of Arts Education for Chicago Public Schools, a position created in 2006 in response to the growing awareness of what children have lost due to the erosion of in-school arts programs, in this era of high-stakes testing.
Roche, an ethnomusicologist by training, heard Dudamel conduct the CSO last spring. Upon meeting the young conductor, Roche peppered him with questions about El Sistema’s pedagogy. Dudamel immediately invited Roche and a group from Chicago to come to Venezuela, and Roche visited Caracas a few months later. The result of this trip is the exploration of a model that will work for Chicago public schools, through a partnership with the CSO, the Chicago public school system, and other organizations. “We already have a network of musical resources in place. We won’t be starting from zero,” says Card. Roche is studying the viability of starting two youth orchestras in Chicago communities, engaging the city’s significant Latino and African-American populations. There are already families within Chicago’s predominantly Latino communities who are aware of El Sistema and sister-programs that exist in other Latin American countries.
Roche knows that much of El Sistema’s success stems from its intense rehearsal schedule and concentration of teaching resources. He can already envision the pilot orchestra: “One hundred and twenty kids, twelve coaches, four months, four to six days a week, three to four hours a day—that’s the formula for El Sistema. In four months, our kids could have an orchestra concert.” Both Card and Roche are engaged in preliminary but enthusiastic conversations with their leadership teams about how to make this vision a reality. “If Beethoven is ‘cool’ in the barrio in Caracas,” Roche asks, “why not here?”
When asked a similar question, Louis Scaglione, president and music director of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and chair of the League of American Orchestras’ Youth Orchestra Division, answers that the rightful place for instrumental instruction in America is in our public schools. The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, founded in 1939, is one of the oldest and most prestigious youth orchestras in the country. More recently, it has launched other ensembles under its aegis, for musicians from eight to 21 years old, who come from the surrounding areas of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. These include the Philadelphia Young Artists Orchestra, two Bravo Brass ensembles, and PRYSM, a string orchestra program.
Decades ago, Philadelphia’s public schools served as greenhouses for the Philadelphia Orchestra itself, most of whose members came from nearby. But today, most of the musicians in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra’s youth ensembles cannot credit the public schools with their training. Says Scaglione, “El Sistema is nothing more than what happens when a society wraps its arms around the importance of music learning for a child. By following this bright path as toddlers, and cumulatively through early adulthood, it enables the poorest children to develop the tools necessary to be successful in life. It always strikes me as curious why here, being the nation of greatest wealth and resources, we have such difficulty wrapping ourselves around this. If we spent as much time and resources on our kids as they do, we’d end up with the same thing. When the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra was on tour in Brazil, I cannot begin to describe the reception we received—you would have thought we were rock stars! That’s not what we get here at home, so somehow we are falling short in this country. This is how El Sistema stands head and shoulders above us: It puts music education in the center of every community.”
This past fall, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra’s concert at Carnegie Hall, followed a few weeks later by Dudamel conducting the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, made a huge impact in an already rich cultural season. In the ensuing buzz, Theodore Wiprud, the New York Philharmonic’s director of education, heard from musicians all over the city. “People ask me frequently, ‘Well, why not here in New York? Whom do we have to talk to? We would do anything to make this happen here!’” The shifting focus to an orchestral model is exhilarating to those in the orchestra world. “We keep hearing there are more kids playing in youth orchestras in Venezuela than playing soccer,” said Wiprud. “That is a very successful side of their pedagogy—you get the kids on the team right away.”
Like other American orchestras, the New York Philharmonic’s educational programs have grown tremendously over the years to include school partnerships, mentoring opportunities, and numerous programs for children and adults, helping to fill the gap created by the loss of in-school programs. At the same time, Wiprud and his colleagues from other organizations have helped redefine music curricula for New York City public schools. Sadly, while the Department of Education has made efforts to reestablish arts in the city’s public schools, it has been far more embroiled in changing the entire school system, and in high-stakes testing, than making headway in the arts. The question remains: Where can something like El Sistema take root in New York City, if not in the schools? And can arts groups, youth orchestras, community music schools, and conservatories here work together to come up with more widespread access to existing programs and more continuity?
Nora Gibson, executive director of the InterSchool Orchestras of New York, is optimistic. The ISO, a multi-tier program with hundreds of students from all over the city, is trying to find ways to provide both new partnerships and followthrough, and guarantee that the ISO will keep filling its ranks. Its new In-Concert Program is starting to give instrument lessons in a Brooklyn public elementary school that lost its music program nine years ago; one of the ISO ensembles performed there last year, and it is hoped that some of these students will join the ISO. The ISO’s Teaching Intern Program provides a win-win situation for ISO Symphony members (mostly high school students) who give lessons to elementary school students; perhaps some of them will also join an ISO ensemble. The ISO also has an “endangered instrument” program, which provides instruments and free lessons on bassoon, oboe, string bass, and viola—filling another needy niche.
Many youth orchestras across the country share similar programs, as well as similar struggles to provide more access and obtain the funding to do so. “What we are doing is counter-cultural,” says Gibson. “It’s counter-cultural because it’s not what our children are experiencing in the commercial culture that surrounds them. But I think that people are finally realizing that maybe it’s not so good that kids do not have this—and they are turning to us and to community music schools. We have a stratified music system; there are those families that have music education, but many more that can’t or don’t. Many parents don’t have the time or background. The beauty of how Venezuela addressed that problem is its access. What I would like to see is an infrastructure that connects organizations in the city—like ISO, community music schools, and other programs—to keep kids going all the way through. In the process, we are creating a safe community with access to opportunities.”
El Sistema’s success may well shine a brighter spotlight on our own excellent and impassioned youth orchestras—be it the New York Youth Symphony, which regularly wins honors for adventurous programming, or the top-tier ensemble of the Omaha Area Youth Orchestras. A common problem is visibility: Our students’ concerts rarely garner an audience outside the orchestra’s own loyal cadre. This contrasts starkly with the wildly enthusiastic Venezuelan audiences that have grown along with El Sistema and now embrace orchestral repertoire for its own sake.
To Aviva Segall, music director and principal conductor of the Omaha Area Youth Orchestras, the conversation about an El Sistema model is both philosophical and pedagogical: “Abreu’s outlook is that music is its own very worthy goal. His statements remind me of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki’s.” Suzuki’s beliefs—that all children have great capacity for learning, and that by giving a child a musical education we are creating beautiful human beings—are the core of the Suzuki Method, which also stresses playing in ensembles early on. “Orchestra training is such a great medium,” says Segall, “because you are collectively coming up with solutions to challenging problems that involve focus on details and systematic work. These are the things that go along with learning music. But one of the things we need to keep in mind if we ‘import’ a system is to look at the whole picture: What are their kids getting in schools, what do they have in their culture that is different from ours? For instance, many people think Suzuki kids can’t read music. When Suzuki training started here, nobody really took into account the fact that kids in Japan learned how to read music in school, and here they weren’t.
“What’s tremendous about El Sistema is that it cuts across a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. That is a big part of our discussions at youth orchestra gatherings. How do we work with underserved populations, how do we increase our socioeconomic and racial diversity? And nobody really has come up with solutions on that scale. In America, communities look at issues of poverty and they think, ‘These kids can’t possibly do music because they have so many other problems.’ Here, there is probably no one system that can work. But it would be wonderful to communicate on a national scale, to synthesize ideas and create resources.”
The conversations about whether the Venezuelan miracle can be recreated here will undoubtedly continue. League Vice President Polly Kahn, a longtime music education advocate, is clearly open to the new kinds of questions and issues these conversations raise. “Through El Sistema, we are seeing great new musicians and a great orchestra,” she says. “We don’t have a systematic presence for arts education in our public schools; all our arts policy is locally based and very erratic. So does that mean we should re-think how we use our resources—which will always be limited—
and use them in a different way?
“El Sistema inspires us to think about the ultimate goal of our music education programs. For instance, most American programs have been built around musical literacy. Is the goal to develop a love of symphonic music and build future audiences? Or is the goal—as El Sistema suggests—a means to a social good? Should our orchestras be a community resource in a more holistic way? Do we have an Abreu here—or 100 or so people who have that kind of vision?
“The League, in partnership with many of our member orchestras, has developed a Statement of Common Cause in Support of In-School Music Education. One of the first actions we have taken is to try to align symphony orchestras, large and small, around the firm belief that arts education needs to reside primarily in the lives of children in school, and that every child deserves arts and music education. But it is hard for us to have a systematic approach when we don’t have a unified educational system. So we need to think about the role of our symphony orchestras in this—what resources are necessary, and what we can deliver. The ways in which we measure our success have to align with our understanding of what we want our programs to achieve.
“Unlike Venezuela,” Kahn says, “we are a very heterogeneous society, so I keep emphasizing: What do we want to do that is inspired by El Sistema? There will be a thousand answers to that question, and from community to community, the solutions will be different and perhaps stronger than they have been before.”
Stephanie Stein Crease is a New York-based music journalist and author. Her Music Lessons: Guide Your Child to Play A Musical Instrument, was one of Publishers Weekly’s 100 Best Books of the Year for 2006; her new book, Duke Ellington for Kids, will be available fall 2008.