The Power of Classical Music in Society

This post is a day early because I’ll be busy tomorrow with the St. Nicholas parish council.

Originally I had planned to post on something else today, but I want to bring your attention to El Sistema. El Sistema (really Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela) is a publicly financed private-sector program in Venezuela. They take school children out of the poorest, worst neighbourhoods in Venezuela, give them an instrument, and teach them to play it, free. The children stay an hour after school on weekdays and practice on Saturdays, too. One of the features of this program is that the children start playing in the orchestra right away rather than simply practicing on their own.

El Sistema has been in place since 1975, so it’s time to look at the results. In this time, they have mainstreamed 800,000 (no, that’s not a typo) children. They’ve produced a superstar conductor, thousands of competent musicians, created jobs and even entire industries, and have 300,000 children in their program today. Their budget for this year was $10.6 million dollars (an average cost per year of $267.00 per child per year).

The children (now adults) who have gone through El Sistema talk about how it has changed their lives. It’s inspired a prize-winning documentary film; El Sistema has been featured on the news and even on 60 Minutes. What astonishes me is why no-one here seems to have heard of it.

In the UK, similar programs are being started up right and left. The main problem is the local initiative rather than the centralized force with the entire country behind it. Don’t get me wrong–I love local initiatives, and sometimes that is what has to be done to get something going, but El Sistema succeeds where others fail primarily because of its large organizational structure and the centralization of resources. So once some local initiative gets going, what we need are not competing local initiatives, but local initiatives banding together until a community is formed.

Programs like El Sistema prove that classical music is a stabilizing and socializing force for even the highest-risk children. In a day and age when children in this country everywhere are heading towards self-indulgence, wanting something for nothing, a disregard for the rights of others, a disregard for education and societal standards, why are we not doing this here? Last October, a public symposium on El Sistema was held in Boston, Massachusetts, and is available as a webcast.

Sure, classical music is out of fashion today, because we allow the media (TV and radio) and the recording companies to dictate what is in fashion. It’s time to take back our voices and let everyone know that we don’t want what is popular, but what is healthy. We can do it–just look at the comeback of broccoli; despite former President Bush’s dislike of it, it’s become a staple of restaurant fare everywhere today. If we can do it for broccoli, why can’t we do it for Bach?

Wikipedia entry on El Sistema

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