At TM's invitation, I went to see a sweet movie, Tocar y Luchar, documenting and promoting Venezuela's nation-wide program of using orchestral music lessons to engage youth, particularly poor, under-served, and at-risk youth. While I had not heard of the program previously, apparently the ascension of the young conductor Gustavo Dudamel to celebrity circles has brought the program to prominence. A brief description of the program (and link to full article:)
Somewhere around 250,000 children from all over the country, 90 percent of them from impoverished backgrounds, now participate in to El Sistema. Considering the country’s total population of 27 million, it means that one in every 100 citizens plays in an orchestra. Venezuela now has nearly 60 children’s orchestras (for children between 2 and 12), more than 150 youth orchestras (for players between 12 years old and young adulthood), 30 adult professional orchestras, more than 120 local núcleos (training centers) and countless chamber ensembles.The program, started in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, is compelling and seems like a feasible approach to development that can be applied on larger or smaller scales in many countries (and seems, in that it shares models with many athletic programs, that it might be extended to disciplines other than orchestral music, as well). Of course, the current political context in which Venezuela is seen as an outsider to broader political dialogues makes it a bit hard to see through some of the commentary on this program, both positive and negative. While the movie is both sweet and inspiring, it does not tackle these political and pragmatic issues in much detail. Which leaves a host of questions, some practical, some philosophical, in the air:
- How is the success of this program measured, in terms of development goals? The movie does an excellent job illustrating cases of poor, at-risk, and even disabled children who are empowered by the program, but the cases are necessarily a select few. Is the program successful in creating greater skills among the students, and opening up opportunities for advancement (outside of those super-achievers who get selected through the system to play in orchestras)?
- What happens to the kids when they become adults? Does their training in music have any material impact on their well-being? Particularly, what happens to those kids who participate in the program, but aren't successful at progressing through the ranks?
- Does having a population raised on orchestral music do anything in a grander sense to Venezuelan culture? Does the culture have a greater engagement and appreciation of music and art, writ-large, due to the experience of these children?
More questions abound, but the program is certainly inspiring and interesting, for what it has already accomplished, both in engaging at-risk youth, and re-invigorating the classical music world, in Venezuela and beyond.