Untitled - ChangingLives

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
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
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
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,
John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma. These world-renowned
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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.