Thursday, October 14, 2010

What is "El Sistema" ?

I knew about "El Sistema" long before I went to live in Venezuela. I had put together an idea in my mind of what it was based entirely on snippets of information I had gathered from meeting musicians from Venezuela. My husband (Venezuelan clarinetist Jorge Montilla ) had told me quite a bit about it because he grew up in it and has been and still is an active member and teacher in "El Sistema" for 30 years now. But it wasn't until I became involved in "El Sistema" that I really understood what it was all about. Nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed in Venezuela. I remember someone telling me that the "most important thing happening in music today is happening in Venezuela". A quote I later found out came from the video "Tocar y Luchar" which is a documentary about “El Sistema”. What I saw, heard and experienced in Venezuela made that statement come to life. I tried to explain to my friends what life is like in Venezuela for musicians and music lovers with words. Words like: unbelievable, astonishing, exciting, mesmerizing, and moving came to mind. But sometimes words are not enough. Sometimes you need some hype and mass media coverage to get a point across and this is what is happening now with “ El Sistema”. I can tell you that the hype and excitement about” El Sistema” is for a good reason. “El Sistema” is changing the world of classical music as we know it. Change is here, and change is not only good, it's exciting and is filling us with great expectations for the future. When was the last time you thought about the future of classical music and felt excited or hopeful? For me, “El Sistema” is the future of classical music. I am choosing my words very carefully here. I am not saying that “ El Sistema” is the future of classical musicians, or the future of orchestras, or the future of music education. I mean it is the future of everything we know that encompasses classical music. Before I get into that though, I want to write a little more about what I saw and heard during my 3 years living in Venezuela.

In 2007 I moved to Venezuela with my husband Jorge and our then 3 year old daughter Lilian. My husband immediately started playing as Principal Clarinet of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. I, on the other hand, did not start working immediately; I wanted to get to know Venezuela a little and especially the local community where I was going to be living. But, what better way to get to know your community than to dive right in and start working, right? So that's what I decided to do. Looking back, I have to say that I was very fortunate and lucky to have gotten the opportunity to teach and be a part of "El Sistema" in Venezuela. It turned out to be one of the most inspirational jobs I've ever had. I worked at the "Nucleo San Antonio de los Altos". I taught violin to children and youth ranging from ages 6 to 20. I lead sectionals for orchestra, and conducted orchestra rehearsals and concerts. The "Nucleo San Antonio de los Altos" had only been operational for a year when I joined the staff of teachers. In the time I spent teaching there, I got to see the 'nucleo' grow and blossom. They are in their fifth year now and have become an important part of the community of San Antonio de los Altos, a small town located about 10 kilometers from Caracas. They serve over 400 kids 6 days a week, 3 hours a day, and offer orchestra and choir. The kids perform for virtually every local event and the surrounding community shows their support by attending concerts which usually are standing room only because the seats fill up quickly.

So, how does "El Sistema" achieve this? How do they build small community music schools that grow to take on central roles in the lives of the cities they serve? They do it through passion, love, and hard work. Teachers in 'nucleos' in Venezuela are passionate about their work, they love the children they work with, and they show up Monday through Saturday to demonstrate their passion, love and dedication. The end result speaks for itself and all the hype and mass media coverage is trying to show the world how this concept of passion, love and hard work is changing the face of classical music. I worked in "El Sistema" and saw first-hand the passion and love teachers and directors have for their students. I can attest to the kids presence 6 days a week, 3 hours a day, working hard and having fun in the safe environment their 'nucleo' provides. I've seen people walk into our concerts just because it's the local kids performing. There is something special about kids performing that warms our hearts. And in Venezuela, "El Sistema" has tapped into our universal need to see children succeed because somehow, their success is our success. Their achievements are our achievements. We find comfort in the knowledge that children are not out creating mischief, but rather they are in a safe place working hard. There is nothing nobler than a life with purpose. And the 'nucleo' provides that purpose to hundreds of kids who otherwise wouldn't know where to turn to or what to do. Tavis Smiley came to interview us at the Abreu Fellowship program this week and made a comment about how so many kids today seem lost and are searching. They are searching for purpose, and "El Sistema" is filling that need by putting a musical instrument in the hands of thousands of these kids and giving them free membership to a kind of fraternity that is inclusive and welcoming. And that fraternity is orchestra!

Can you imagine a world where orchestra is cool? A world where enjoying classical music is not elitist, but rather a natural and wonderful thing to do? This is how it is in Venezuela. They use classical music and orchestral repertoire in their 'nucleos' and because they have been doing this for over 35 years in local music schools all over the country, in Venezuela, classical music is cool. It is not elitist, it is inclusive and for everyone. I know that "El Sistema" is a lot of things, but to me it really is the future of classical music. "El Sistema" is a world where classical music is shared. Those of us who are lucky enough to have studied classical music know all of its benefits and music educators have for many decades tried to convince the general public of its value. "El Sistema" has found the perfect pathway to making this available to everyone, by placing classical music in the heart of the communities that are furthest from it. We can talk about the resulting social changes that have occurred because of this, but what I want to focus on today is how "El Sistema" has gotten hundreds of thousands of people excited about classical music. We can be optimistic about the future of classical music because "El Sistema USA" is spreading the seeds of excitement and optimism throughout small communities all over the U.S.

1 comment:

Dantes said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. Go on girl! I love what you're writing. You have such a unique perspective as an Abreu Fellow who has already been a part of El Sistema in Venezuela for so long now.