Jose Antionio Abreu was recognized this year at TED 2009 for his role as the founder of the hugely successful music education program El Sistema in Venezuela. Begun in 1975, there are now over 102 youth and 55 children's orchestras educating a total of more than 100,000 children. Most are from impoverished backgrounds, and Abreu's program has managed to create several internationally renowned musicians including the conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the bassist Edicson Ruiz.
While the program has obvious cultural and artistic benefits I was particularly interested in what Abreu said (see speech below) about music education's effect on the communities it reaches in Venezuela. By no longer allowing art to be the "monopoly of elites" El Sistema has allowed music to "become a social right" that anyone regardless of socioeconomic background could cultivate. As a result of children's being enrolled in the program they cultivate a sense of punctuality, constancy and pride. This pride, Abreu says, resonates throughout the impoverished families and communities where these children live. And it makes sense, by bringing this enormous feeling of pride and art into the home, and having the child practice alongside their mother or father, injects a sense of purpose and direction in these children's lives.
Contrast this to what we see so often today as the other side of the coin, where children and their parents are disjointed from the basic realization that with hard work can come reward. For many people this basic truth, that consistent work breeds skills, talent and education, has been lost in a web of excuses about the role of society, the "man," or the system. No longer is it believed that effort equals performance, and this is where I believe music can make the most difference. The underlying tenet of learning an instrument is that diligence, consistency and practice pay off can work wonders for any community where music education exists. Luckily Abreu and his program are getting the recognition they deserve and we should expect to see similar initiatives in many countries around the world in the coming years. Hopefully that will include the U.S. as well.
If you want to find out more see the links below or you can watch a socumentary done on El Sistema in 2004 called Tocar y Luchar and more recently there have been features in programs such as 60 minutes.