Music Saves Lives

Perception of the potential of music education dramatically changed with the ascension of Gustavo Dudamel to international prominence in the early 2000s. At age 23, Dudamel won the prestigious International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany. His podium prowess had the likes of conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen (LA Phil), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, and others picking their jaws up off the floor. Who was this guy? Where did he come from? How did he get so good?

Within months the classical music world was learning all about vast network of music education called El Sistema, which today serves nearly 400,000 kids each year. Gustavo Dudamel came up through that system as a violinist and conductor, who by age 18 was already the music director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra–the top ensemble in El Sistema.

El Sistema gets financial support from the Venezuelan government. It’s been around since the mid-1970s and, in that time, has survived and thrived under six different regime changes. As a result, everything—lessons, instruments, sheet music—is free. Still, with all those resources, El Sistema is less about making great musicians out of the children it reaches. Rather, it’s about creating great citizens through music. Kids learn about community by being part of an orchestra. They learn responsibility by caring for a priceless musical instrument.

This is something that becomes terribly evident when experiencing the system in action. Earlier this year, the LA Philharmonic traveled to Caracas, Venezuela, to present concerts and to work with the young musicians in El Sistema. Traveling with the LA Phil, I got the sense that this is what music education could be here in Los Angeles (or, more broadly, the United States) if only we would let it happen.

One afternoon in downtown Caracas, a handful of LA Phil musicians went to the Simón Bolívar Conservatory of Music for sectional rehearsals with about 150 young musicians of El Sistema. The string orchestra played Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for members of the LA Phil, who then conducted a sort of master class with the kids. Later the LA Phil players sat down next to the kids and played side-by-side with their Venezuelan counterparts.

Afterwards, pandemonium ensued. The kids–ranging in age anywhere from 10-20–posed for photographs with the LA Phil musicians.

Some played their latest concerto movement.

Others just jammed.

Passion has become an overused word in Los Angeles, particularly as it relates to Gustavo Dudamel. The ubiquity of that word breeds skepticism about artistic depth. But as the young musicians of the Simón Bolívar Conservatory literally chased the LA Phil’s bus down the street to wave good-bye, one can only interpret their enthusiasm and, yes, their passion as genuine.

In Venezuela, the kids who play a musical instrument command respect from their peers. In a country where violent crime is a way of life, people don’t mess with the kids who have instruments on their backs. There’s an incredible sense of honor attached to musicianship.

Sure, there’s some slick marketing involved. Sure, not every single child in El Sistema will turn out to be the next Dudamel. But that’s not the point.

Beyond all the publicity, beyond all the talk, beyond all the skepticism, there’s a real community being built. The foundation is great music.