1 Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music More than forty years ago, a wave of popular fascination an extraordinary program for children and youth in with a musical group distinguished by youth, charm, Venezuela, where music education and social reform great talent and exceptional hair was dubbed a form of have been fused on a national scale with astonishing “mania” by the press. We have not seen such a case results. Through the Sistema, a nationwide program of mania again...until recently, with the emergence supported and financed primarily by the government, of “Dudamania,” which concerns another musical nearly four hundred thousand children spend hours phenomenon with ferocious talent, abundant charm, every day intensely engaged in learning music and and – yes, exceptional hair. playing in the country’s hundreds of youth orchestras. The great majority of these children are from poor This time, however, at the center of the excitement is families. not a rock star but a classical musician, and he wields a baton instead of a guitar. The pull of Dudamania is felt El Sistema’s overarching goal is “to rescue the children” by almost everyone who has experienced the conductor from the multiple dangers of poverty, and most Gustavo Dudamel. It’s close to impossible to watch importantly from the sense of hopelessness and low this young man communicate so passionately through self-esteem that can lead to gang membership, drugs music without feeling captivated and moved. and violence. Dudamel entered the Sistema as a young child, and he has never left. Even as he pursues a high- The musicians who work with Dudamel clearly feel the profile international conducting career, he continues to same way. Whether he is leading the Simon Bolivar conduct the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela Youth Orchestra of his native Venezuela or the Los on a regular basis, and he is a tireless ambassador for Angeles Philharmonic, where he is music director, the Sistema’s vision of improving the lives of children orchestra members play for him with all their hearts. and young people by providing them with musical training and orchestral community. “Music saved my My own case of Dudamania goes beyond the personal life,” Dudamel has said. “It has saved thousands of lives and musical charisma of the man. As a lifelong music in my country. I’m sure of this.” educator and writer, I’m keenly aware that he also embodies a compelling idea: that music education can El Sistema was founded in 1975 by the visionary be a means to both individual empowerment and social Venezuelan musician and economist José Antonio transformation. Dudamel is not only a brilliant conductor Abreu. From the very beginning, the Sistema has been and a youthful celebrity on the world’s musical stage; dedicated to realizing the simple but radical idea of its he is also the most famous product of El Sistema, founder – the conviction that music can save lives, can 2 Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music rescue children, and can in fact be a potent vehicle for should follow.” And “Star Wars” composer John Williams, social reform and the fight against the perils of childhood on a visit to Venezuela in 2007, said, “This is something poverty. unique that has to be seen by the whole world...and that we urgently need here in the United States.” “When arts education takes the place in our society that it deserves,” José Antonio Abreu has said, “we The news about El Sistema has spread in the last will have much less delinquency and violence, and few years beyond musical celebrities, attracting the much more motivation towards noble achievement. attention of musicians, teachers, and advocates for My struggle is for a society in which art is not just an social reform across the world. I have been a music aesthetic dimension of life. It is a primary instrument for educator for many years and in a variety of capacities the development of individuals and societies.” – a public school general music teacher, an adjunct professor of music history and appreciation in colleges, The growth of the Sistema has taken place steadily a piano teacher in my private studio. for many years, under the international radar. In the past decade, however, attention has begun to be paid And like music teachers everywhere, I have been – most famously by conductors such as Simon Rattle, touched and inspired by the words of Gustavo Dudamel Daniel Barenboim, and Claudio Abbado, and classical and José Antonio Abreu and by the example of El superstars like Placido Domingo, Itzhak Perlman, Sistema. John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma. These world-renowned musicians have become ardent advocates and I know – we know – that music can change lives. We champions of El Sistema, visiting Venezuela frequently have seen firsthand its capacity to enliven a shy child and conducting or performing with the Simon Bolivar and calm an anxious one, to bring coherence and and other youth orchestras. Simon Rattle, conductor of meaning to the often mysterious chaos of feeling. We the Berlin Philharmonic, has said, “If anyone asked me have seen music lift people out of depression and even where there is something really important going on now despair, and give new spirit and purpose to young lives. for the future of classical music, I would simply have Again and again, we have seen students discover in to say – in Venezuela. It is an emotional force of such themselves new dimensions of creativity and vitality, power that it may take some time to assimilate what through playing and loving music. we’re seeing and hearing.” Claudio Abbado, founder and conductor of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, has But the Sistema’s vision goes even further than personal declared, “To me, it is the example that every country transformation, to include a clear, unequivocal and 3 Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music primary social dimension. The fundamental mission of I think, given the current state of musical culture in El Sistema is not only to help children but often, literally, contemporary U.S. society. While music has in some to rescue them – and in the process, to effect real senses become more ubiquitous than ever before, it and lasting changes in the lives of their families and has been increasingly appropriated by the engines communities. “The orchestra and choir are much more of marketing and mass entertainment, and has been than artistic studies,” Abreu says. “They are examples substantially degraded in the process. For many, music and schools of social life. From the minute a child is has become a kind of universal ambient noise, a half- taught how to play an instrument, he is no longer poor. attended-to soundtrack for modern life. He becomes a child in progress, who will become a citizen.” Classical music, in particular, is so culturally marginalized Abreu’s consistent emphasis is the ability of music to as to be barely present, even as ambience, in most heal the emotional and spiritual depredations of poverty. people’s lives. Among my beginning piano students, it “Poverty is not just the lack of a roof or bread,” he has is rare to encounter a child whose experience extends said. “It is also a spiritual lack – a loneliness and lack of beyond the tune of the “Ode to Joy” and the first few recognition. The vicious cycle of poverty can be broken notes of Für Elise. For music teachers who value when a child poor in material possessions acquires the incomparably rich artistic and expressive power spiritual wealth through music.” of classical music, challenging this massive cultural amnesia can feel like an uphill battle. ü Within the context of the United States, such an ambitious and far-reaching vision is difficult to conceive The battle can feel particularly arduous in the context of of, and liable to be met with skepticism – even by the bleak picture that constitutes music education, and musicians and music educators. All music teachers arts education in general, in the United States. In her are convinced that music education can have a potent 2006 book The Wow Factor, Anne Bamford reported impact on individual lives. Many allow themselves, that elementary school children in the United States as I do, to imagine that high-quality, in-depth music spend an average of 46 hours a year in arts education education for all children could turn our cultural life classes – by far the lowest number of any developed towards a more abundant and communal creativity. country, and a dramatic contrast with countries like But few dare to dream of re-creating social life and Japan and Finland, where the average is 300 hours a challenging poverty through music. year or more. And race- and class-based inequity with regard to access to music education seems ever more It is especially difficult to imagine such a possibility, stubbornly entrenched. If indeed music can change and 4 Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music save lives, the very children who need it the most are Fourth Symphony. Jamie is an accomplished musician tragically underserved. and performer in her own right, but that night she was an intoxicated Dudamel fan along with the rest of the These trends have come to seem inescapable and audience. It was Jamie and our mutual friend Margaret unchangeable facts of life. And so for me, as for music Mercer, who as program director of the radio station educators throughout the country, the story of Gustavo WQXR spent many years quietly and expertly helping Dudamel and the system that produced him comes to keep classical music alive in New York City, who as something of a revelation. In the context of an first told me about El Sistema, which they had recently international pop culture that has relegated the traditions witnessed on a trip to Venezuela. You have to go, they of the symphony orchestra to near-obsolescence, here said. You have to see for yourself. is an initiative that has suddenly infused classical music with new energy and relevance. And in the context of It was an irresistible idea. I was ready for new ideas; the many failed attempts at education reform for inner-city issues confronting music education in the United States and at-risk children and youth in the United States, here had begun to feel increasingly real and concrete in my is a re-imagining of music education as social reform own private piano practice. The issue of inequitable on a scale without precedent anywhere. Can we allow access to music education, for example, turns up ourselves to yield our well-earned skepticism and to be daily in my piano studio. Although I live in a vibrantly astonished, inspired, and galvanized? heterogeneous town, a suburb of New York City that is a true melting pot of races and ethnicities, most of my The door to the world of El Sistema was first opened for students are white or Asian and middle-class. me by Jamie Bernstein, whose father Leonard Bernstein was a lifelong advocate for music education as well as Minority and low-income students often lack both the one of the twentieth century’s most beloved conductors financial resources to pay for private lessons and a and composers; his series of nationally televised “Young means of transportation to get to them. The question People’s Concerts” with the New York Philharmonic persists: how can I reach, and teach, children from all arguably kindled an entire generation’s interest in and sectors of my community, not just the most privileged? love for classical music. In the winter of 2008, I went with With the children who do find their way to my piano Jamie to hear Dudamel conduct the Israel Philharmonic bench, the issue of music as a vital and autonomous at Carnegie Hall in a concert that included Bernstein’s art form is also very real. For many of these children, Concerto for Orchestra (Jubilee Games), originally music barely exists as something to be encountered written for this orchestra, as well as Tchaikovsky’s and appreciated on its own terms; it is a groove or 5 Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music “beat” half-heard while watching a movie or television by one to the piano to perform their pieces, gripped by show, while shopping, while socializing. It seems to degrees of stage fright that range from mild anxiety to me that the advent of the iPod and the mp3 file, rather near-hysteria. How much easier it would be for them, I than reversing this development, has accelerated it; always think – not to mention how much more fun, and now that one can carry one’s private musical cache maybe even more musically satisfying – if somehow everywhere and listen to it anytime, music can be they could all play together. a casual accompaniment to almost any activity – exercising or doing homework or chatting online. How These questions about the enterprise of teaching can a piano teacher, or a music teacher of any kind, music were evolving in me with increasing clarity and lead young people toward the possibility of putting urgency when I first went to see Gustavo Dudamel their multitasking on pause, and simply, deeply, paying conduct at Carnegie Hall, and first heard about El attention to music? Sistema. I realized that each of my questions could be illuminated by an exploration of the program that was Finally, I have found myself more and more aware of my so dramatically changing children’s lives in Venezuela. students’ lack of experience with music as a communal The primary importance of wide and equitable access endeavor. This is, of course, an inherent limitation of to music education; the need to revitalize the art of the private lesson format, where teaching and learning music in the lives of children and the culture; the value happens one- on-one and focuses on individual progress of making music in community instead of in isolation rather than group endeavor. And there is a unique and – clearly, El Sistema had much to teach in all of these rewarding intensity in the relationship between teacher areas. and student in the context of the private lesson. At the heart of the inquiry was the pioneering Unlike violin students or flute students, however, my assumption that grounds the Sistema – the assumption students are not likely to find many opportunities to that music can be a means for social transformation. play with others. The satisfactions of the piano as a The stories I heard about the Sistema seemed almost solo instrument are among its great virtues. But the too remarkable to be real: the movement of thousands drawback of its soloistic character is that for most of children from impoverishment to symphonic mastery, pianists, the experience of making music is, by and the youth orchestras who play like professionals, the large, the experience of making music alone. This transformation of a trombone player’s son from central drawback comes into often painful focus at the recital Venezuela to an international conducting star. Even I hold each year in June, when my students march one after years of teaching music in many circumstances, 6 Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music these images challenged my longheld preconceptions A far-flung network of youth orchestras for at-risk about what music education is, and what it might be. I children: it is an unprecedented and unorthodox idea. knew I needed to find out more. But given the pressing need for new and innovative approaches to social and educational reform, the In the years since, I have traveled several times to time may be right for such a leap of imagination. I am Venezuela and to Los Angeles, where “Gustavo” is convinced that the children of the United States and simultaneously winning the musical heart of the city elsewhere, no less than the children of Venezuela, can and leading a Los Angeles Philharmonic initiative to benefit greatly from an educational vision that brings create an El Sistema-like program for underserved them not only skills and training but also community, children. I have visited a number of other U.S. cities artistry, discipline, and hope. where El Sistema-inspired programs are taking root and flourishing. And I have talked to many people involved in the evolution of the Sistema in Venezuela and the spread of its goals and principles to this country and elsewhere in the world. This book chronicles my explorations, and attempts to illuminate the Sistema’s almost magical capacity to inspire artists, educators, and social activists everywhere. It traces my gradual realization that within El Sistema, the guiding ideal of the orchestra as a school for civic community is so strong as to effectively transcend the distinction between musical education and social transformation. And it describes my growing certainty that we in the United States, and elsewhere in the world, have much to learn from the Venezuelan model – and that the fast- growing international movement to replicate this model is one of the most significant social and artistic developments of the twenty-first century. 7 Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music About the author Songs 1994 and 1995 (Bhakti Label) and the children’s educational video series Learning Adventures (produced by Redbook Magazine). Her musical Charley’s Tale Tricia Tunstall is a writer and music educator who hasspent the past several years researching El Sistema in Venezuela and in the United States. She is particularly interested in possibilities for adapting the El Sistema model to the cultural and economic circumstances of the United States. Tunstall’s previous book, Note By Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson (Simon & Schuster, 2008; paperback 2009), was a memoir exploring the distinctive joys and rewards of teaching and learning to play the piano. Tunstall has maintained an active piano studio in the New York area for twenty years. She has also taught general music in public schools, and music history and music appreciation at Drew University and Bergen College. As a writer, Tunstall has published numerous short stories in journals such as the Kenyon Review and the Antioch Review, as well as a wide variety of freelance articles in The New York Times, New Jersey Monthly, Mothers Today, and Fortune Small Business, among other publications. Tunstall is also a lyricist whose songs can be heard on two albums of original jazz songs, New Singers, New was produced at Musical Theater Works in New York. Tunstall earned a B.A. in philosophy at Yale University and an M.A. in musicology at Columbia University, and pursued graduate studies in piano at Manhattan School of Music. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Music Education at Boston University. You can purchase Changing Lives by clicking here.
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