After an intense week of classes, presentations, introductions, long conversations and meetings, I found myself stuck in Friday-before-long-weekend traffic on the bus to New York. Only one hour out of Boston and barely moving, I knew it would be a long trip. I lay back and took a deep breath. It felt like the first one I had taken since Monday morning, my first day of the Abreu Fellows Program at New England Conservatory. As the bus inched forward it seemed that time had suddenly slowed down, giving me a chance to try to wrap my mind around everything that had happened and everything I had learned in the past five days.
What is El Sistema? Why do we believe so passionately in it? What will its role be in the United States? These questions and many others were spinning through my head in an incomprehensible jumble along with everything I had learned that week. In order to begin to sort out my thoughts, I decided to look back in time to when I first became aware of El Sistema. Why it had drawn me in so quickly and completely?
While teaching cello at a small, family-run music school in Cuenca, Ecuador, I had begun to think about the impact that classical music can have on the lives of the children who study instruments. When the director of the music school showed me the film “Tocar y Luchar” I was in disbelief. Here was the very idea that I had just barely begun to grasp, developed and thriving in Venezuela. Classical music was transforming the lives of children, their families, and their communities. This music program, called “El Sistema” was better than anything I could have imagined. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s most underprivileged children, many growing up in unthinkable poverty, were given free music lessons six days a week from a very young age, and it was having an affect not only on school attendance and crime rates, but on people’s enthusiasm for classical music.
At the core of el Sistema is a symbiotic relationship between classical music and social justice. This relationship fascinates me. In the US, classical music is often assumed to be something for the elite. In Venezuela, there are over 200 orchestras, and classical music is heard everywhere by everyone. El Sistema holds the key of how to reach out to a larger public through classical music. Going into a community that might not have had much exposure to classical music and giving outreach concerts only works to a certain point. Classical music needs to stem from within these communities, thereby allowing them to take ownership of it.
As the bus was pulling into New York, I realized that I had barely made any progress in distilling my thoughts about El Sistema. I was looking forward to a short vacation, but knew that I wouldn’t be sad when it was time to go back to Boston and continue classes…. as long as there was no traffic.