The organization’s name is long, but its aim is simple. La Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestras Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (FESNOJIV for short) is the state foundation which watches over some 250.000 children and youths of Venezuela, gathered in 210 “nucleos” or orchestra centers around the country, where they follow intense instrumental training programmes. The walls of the crowded Caracas head office are plastered with photographs of generations of beaming children and their instruments. So many grins, so many children, so many instruments that there is hardly any blank wall left.

The goal of FESNOJIV is to offer children and youths of middle and, particularly, poor socioeconomic backgrounds, opportunities of personal development and social participation and inclusion through the collective practice of music, at the highest level. As a result, the organization (increasingly being referred to, internationally, as “El Sistema”), is not doing a bad job of creating top professional musicians.

One of them is Gustavo Dudamel, a 100% product of El Sistema, already hailed, at 28 years old, as one of the most exciting and compelling conductors of our time. Next October, Dudamel will begin his tenure as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra while, at the same time, continue as Music Director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and Music Director of the Venezuelan Simòn Bolìvar Youth Orchestra, as well as attend numerous invitations as conductor and speaker, from all around the world. He has been an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist since 2006.

Edicson Ruiz, also a product of El Sistema, became the youngest-ever double bass player in the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 17. Eight years earlier, he was working as a part-time supermarket packer to supplement his mother’s meagre income in a rough inner-city suburb of Caracas. Then a neighbour told him about the local music school.

“They gave me a viola and sat me in the middle of the orchestra. I heard the sound of the double basses, and I thought, yes! This is the instrument for me!” recalls Ruiz, grinning at the memory.

“A few months later they put me in the national youth orchestra. Of course, I could not play the music! They always do it like that; they throw you in at the deep end.

“I remember looking at the music on the stand at my first orchestral rehearsal. It was a Tchaikovsky symphony. And I thought, ‘They are crazy!’ But they never, ever say, ‘You won’t be able to do that.’ Nobody ever said no to me in the orchestra. Never.”

Ruiz tells a story that is echoed by the million or so youngsters who have grown with El Sistema since its inception, in 1975. The principles are simple. Children as young as two are given an instrument as soon as they can hold it. Tuition, outings, music and, where necessary, social support are all furnished free of charge in return for the child’s agreement to play in one of El Sistema’s ensembles. Group lessons are given special emphasis, although individual lessons are part of the training, too. Children who have mastered a scale or two are delegated to teach younger children. Peer support is fundamental. And orchestral playing is part of the programme from the beginning. Six days a week, four hours a day, the children play music together in one of 90 music schools, or núcleos, around the country.

Not surprisingly under these circumstances, their rate of progress is astonishingly fast. In an atmosphere of encouragement, affection, mutual support and sheer, unfettered joy in the music at hand, the children have often reached a level of instrumental accomplishment that would win them entry into a European university by the time they are in their early teens.

As more and more outstanding Venezuelan musicians hit the international circuit, the world is taking notice. Claudio Abbado has made extended visits to Venezuela, rehearsing and performing with the youngsters for weeks, and speaks of El Sistema in superlative terms. Zubin Mehta, Plácido Domingo, and the late Luciano Pavarotti and Giuseppe Sinopoli have all worked with the Venezuelan ensembles, and left expressing the highest praise. Simon Rattle has called it “the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world”. The programme has received awards from UNICEF and UNESCO and expressions of admiration from figures as diverse as former South African president Nelson Mandela and actor Roger Moore.

It is all the vision of one man. Maestro José Antonio Abreu, qualified economist, organist and politician, resolved to do something to change social conditions in his country 35 years ago. At the time, there were just two symphony orchestras in Venezuela, both employing largely European musicians.

Maestro Abreu gathered eleven youngsters for a rehearsal in an underground car park, and told them that they were making history. At the next rehearsal, there were 25 musicians; the following day, 46; the day after, 75. In the heady days of the Venezuelan oil boom, he managed to win government funding for his scheme from the department of health, arguing that the well-being of children at risk was at stake.

Extraordinarily, Maestro Abreu has persuaded seven successive changes of government to back his sistema. “The government funds it precisely because of the social emphasis of the programme,” he explains. “The state has understood perfectly that this programme, although it works through music, is essentially a social project, a project for human development, which is the main aim of the Venezuelan state”.

“For many of the children that we work with, music is practically the only way to a dignified social destiny. Poverty means loneliness, sadness, anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration to success. It is a big family which is dedicated to harmony, to those beautiful things which only music brings to human beings.”

Maestro Abreu, now 70 years old, is an omnipresent figure in El Sistema, attending several concerts a day, often with a government minister in tow. A diminutive figure in jacket and tie, tireless, devout and universally respected, he is greeted everywhere with warmth and admiration. He is the genius behind the complex system of regional núcleos, their unique pedagogical approach, and the team work of many dedicated individuals, of which special mention must be given to its 6.000 exceptional teachers.

“Our pedagogy is based on individual creativity on the part of the teachers,” says Maestro Abreu. “They are very inventive. They have adapted the European methodology to our culture. And research has shown that music has changed the lives of the children, of their families, of entire communities here.”

El Sistema has inspired many countries of Latin America to adopt a similar program. The United States has also recently started a network of “núcleos”. Several European countries have, as well, initiated experiences in this sense, amongst them Scotland with its “Sistema Scotland” project. It is the hope of Maestro Abreu to create a global system of children and youth orchestras so as to give the future generations of the world the best opportunities of personal and social progress.

©Deutsche Grammophone GmbH

Additional information about El Sistema and José Antonio Abreu
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