Venezuela’s Music Ed System: El Sistema

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Mark Swed wrote an intriguing article in the L.A. Times recently entitled “What the US could learn from the Venezuela’s music education system.” The state-run music ed program (called El Sistema) is known as “the most extensive, admired, and increasingly imitated in the world. … Foreign visitors who stream into Caracas to observe El Sistema in action invariably leave Venezuela amazed.”

Where many in this country see classical music as moribund, El Sistema is universally supported, admired, and enjoyed. No political party there would even think of opposing music education. For an equivalent in this country, Swed says, “Imagine President Obama demanding a $1.2 billion music education system under the rubric of social welfare, only to be challenged by Ron Paul insisting that Congress allocate an even great sum for socialized music.” (Swed visited Venezuela on the same day the the Los Angeles Board of Education met to consider a proposal that would eliminate arts from the elementary curriculum).

Let’s pause for a moment to bring our jaws up to normal position again.

El Sistema

The founder of El Sistema, Jose Abreu, asserts that music is a human right. People are hardwired to do music – just like language – and we just need to start music education early for everyone to evince musical ability. Music education is available for all there – from the very poorest on up. What attracted Abreu to music was its power as a social activity. Kids learn to play together in youth orchestras. The older children coach the younger ones. They play music together every day and they grow up together like a family.

The system doesn’t try to make everyone a virtuoso, though a few gifted artists emerge from the process. The learning methods used by El Sistema include Orff and Suzuki. Institutions in the US are starting to take notice of El Sistema and adapt it to their own needs.

“The idea is that everyone can make music. The how is up to us, but not the why. We must pick and choose from El Sistema to find out what works for us.”