Educação musical na Venezuela conquista o mundo (em ing)
Paper co-written by:
Ciera M. DeSilva
Gregory L. Sharp
Political Science 4200: Political and Cultural Change
Mount Allison University
Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada
*Originally written in October 2012, the authors updated some of the information in April 2013 to reflect the evolving nature of the program.
El Sistema: Challenging Norms through Music
The sound of orchestral music filtering out of dilapidated buildings in the slums of Venezuela’s capital city might at first seem unexpected. However, this is exactly what El Sistema achieves in challenging the assumption that only the upper socio-economic classes have the right to culture. Founded in 1975, this revolutionary social outreach program aims to instill values of self-discipline, teamwork and responsibility in the disenfranchised youth of Venezuela. Following the success of the program, it quickly spread globally. Here in New Brunswick it has taken hold due to the leadership of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra. This paper will first examine the history of the foundation and expansion of the Venezuelan model of El Sistema. It will then examine the global expansion of the program in order to effectively demonstrate its wider socio-political significance, using Sistema New Brunswick as a case study. Finally, it will elucidate changes in the global flow of ideas, illustrate the phenomenon of glocalization and reinforce the long term importance of investing in people.
History of El Sistema
The program which would come to be known as the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela, or ‘El Sistema’, was conceived by José Antonio Abreu in 1975 in a garage in Caracas. Abreu, who had already received a PhD in petroleum economics in 1961 and graduated as a composer and organist from Venezuela’s National Conservatory in 1964, wanted to develop a unique Venezuelan music education program based on social action. Through music he hoped to improve the socio-economic realities of his country.
In his initial trials Abreu supplied musical instruments to 11 children and, as the majority were from poor socio-economic backgrounds, he did not charge a fee to come to the classes; the only commitment was regular attendance. This came at a time when high crude oil prices were allowing for an unprecedented spree of public spending in Venezuela (Haggerty 1990), yet Abreu noted that many of his fellow citizens had not yet benefited from this economic prosperity.
After initial success, the program was opened to young musicians from Caracas and the interior of the country. Following this expansion Abreu was able to form the first National Symphony Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in 1975. When the orchestra performed brilliantly at an international music festival in Scotland that year, the Venezuelan government began fully funding the program (whereas it had to previously rely on fundraising). Consolidating this support, in 1996 the State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela was founded to promote and develop orchestras across the country. Furthermore, it was charged with the implementation of activities and programs aimed at the education and training of orchestra members (Gobierno Bolivariano 2012).
The turn of the century was an important time for El Sistema. It had expanded dramatically and had approximately 125,000 youth enrolled in its music programs. This can be contrasted to the country at large where 10 % of children were not enrolled in school, over 20 % were failing to reach grade 5 and secondary-school enrolment was only 35 % due to inefficiencies in the bureaucracy (Watt 2000, 69).
Abreu has directed El Sistema through 10 different government administrations and has worked to receive funding from a variety of sources including the Inter-American Development Bank (Terauds 2009). In addition, he has welcomed the documentation of this program and of Sistema-inspired programs by media corporations including BBC, CBS and CBC, which has sparked awareness and interest in the programs on a worldwide level and is linked to their rapid expansion within the past few years. Noteworthy too is the Sistema-inspired birth of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas through the Organization of American States in 2001 (YOA 2012).
Today, El Sistema includes over 500 orchestras and choirs in 280 music schools throughout Venezuela (Wakin 2012). Children begin as early as age two or three and the vast majority continue into their teens (El Sistema USA 2010). Approximately 370,000 children attend its music schools for three to four hours a day, up to six days a week and retreats and workshops supplement their learning. Amongst these students, between 70 and 90 percent are from the most impoverished and disenfranchised sectors of Venezuela (Tunstall 2012, 36). Funding is largely provided by the Venezuelan government and participation remains free for all students. Gustavo Dudamel, a former Sistema violinist and now a world famous conductor, does not expect the public funding to diminish under the new (post-Chavez) administration as El Sistema is now a part of the culture and national identity of Venezuela (BBC News 2013).
The El Sistema approach to music education emphasizes “intensive ensemble participation from the earliest stages, group learning, peer teaching and a commitment to keeping the joy and fun of musical learning and music making ever-present” (El Sistema USA 2010). The majority of El Sistema teachers are former students of the program who understand both the social and musical goals behind it. Many music education projects have been modeled after the Venezuelan program in more than 25 countries in North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia and Africa (Gobierno Bolivariano 2012). Perhaps the most established of the programs can be found in Colombia, Brazil, the United States and Scotland. The Canadian case is a more recent example which is proving to be an inspiring model itself within the North American context.
Creation and development of Sistema New Brunswick
Sistema New Brunswick was launched in September 2009 thanks to the leadership and vision of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (NBYO). Members of the NBYO Board of Directors had visited Venezuela just months before to gain first-hand experience of the realities of the Sistema program in Caracas. Then, Venezuelan conductor Antonio Delgado was hired to participate in the groundwork of starting a Canadian program in conjunction with the NBYO. A small trial program for grade 1-3 elementary school students, the majority of whom came from low socio-economic backgrounds, began in Moncton in September 2009. The program was for 40 children and ran three hours daily, five days a week. While children were expected to attend every day and play in the orchestra, the program was, and remains, free (NBYO 2009).
Sistema New Brunswick was established on the basis of being inclusive of all children regardless of background, means, gender, ability, language, race and religion. Firm objectives included learning from the trial site, conducting research and reporting annually on the outcomes and results of the program and establishing three additional children’s orchestra centres throughout the province by 2014. Perhaps most importantly were the objectives to collaborate with visionary and socially driven musicians from NB, other Canadian provinces, Venezuela and elsewhere and to “be a leading force in Canada having a positive influence on the arts, education and social development sectors” (NBYO 2009).
It is clear that Sistema NB is on track in regards to its original objectives. As of September 2012 it comprised three music centres: the bilingual French-English Moncton program was serving 230 kids; the English-language Saint John program, started in September 2010, was serving 100 and the French-language Richibucto program, started in September 2012, was serving 50. After the initial trial year in 2009, funding for the following four years of Sistema NB is $3.6 million, half of which is provided by the provincial government and half of which is obtained through fundraising (MacLeod 2012). The influence of Sistema NB is notable in that it had garnered enough support to host a national summit in Moncton in 2011, providing information for educators from across Canada on how to set up similar programs. Sistema NB has also attended 12 national conferences. It successfully hosted the 2012 ‘Teacher Leader Conference’ for music teachers and organizers of Sistema programs which attracted attendees from every Canadian province, several American cities and Venezuela (MacLeod 2012).
Throughout this history, what remains so fascinating and inspiring about El Sistema is the manner in which it promotes the sharing of information and resources in Sistema-inspired centres around the world. Significant collaboration is seen within the Americas through the Ibero-American Youth Orchestra, Youth Orchestra of the Americas and Orchestra Program for Youth at Risk in the Caribbean. Regular exchanges between Venezuelan musicians and their foreign counterparts occur to help ensure quality results in Sistema-inspired programs worldwide. While musicians may not speak the same mother tongue, they are all able to understand each other through the music they play.
Global Flow of Ideas
Sistema is truly significant, not only in that it revolutionized youth music programs in New Brunswick, but also for its larger socio-political implications. It is often assumed that, intrinsic to the uneven application of globalization (discussed in detail later), innovation and ideas flow in only one direction: from the headquarters of huge multinational corporations (MNCs) in the Global North out into the world. It is further assumed that the developing world often lacks the expertise or knowledge to fully incorporate this downward flow of ideas and therefore gain little to no advantage from this flow of information (Govindarajan 2011).
This mentality permeates much of the investigation into the global flow of ideas. At the root of the problem is the collective body of literature propagated by the rich educational institutions of the Global North (hence the sobriquet ‘Northern theory’). Inherent in these theories is that they are “monological, declaring the truth in only one voice” – effectively suppressing other non-Northern forms of thought (Connell 2006, 267). These ideas are so puissant that they are often internalized subconsciously.
Then where does the case of Sistema fit in? It certainly does not fit with our “deeply entrenched select reading of the Western canon” that suppresses and dismisses other traditions of thought (Bowden 2007, 1369). Indeed, the case of Sistema completely invalidates these presumptions. Not only did these innovations not originate in the Global North, but they also stemmed from the ingenuity of the most disenfranchised segment of the population in Venezuela. This illustrates how the North, despite what many may believe, does not have a monopoly on innovation, creativity or ideas. This is aptly summarized by Appadurai who states that the North, and in particular the United States, “is no longer the puppeteer of a world system of [ideas] but is only one node” in a labyrinthine web of overlapping ideas and transactions (as cited in Grixti 2006, 107).
Perhaps as the global flow of ideas is turned on its head, and the realization sinks in that it is by no means uni-directional, there will be a change in this narrow mentality. Whereas Samuel Huntington saw a clash of civilizations (Huntington 1993, 1), others see the possibility of an “authentic inter-civilizational dialogue that focuses more on co-operation” (Bowden 2007, 1359). In this sense Sistema is the visible product of larger societal changes.
This global flow of ideas is the direct consequence of globalization which, in turn, generates glocalization. And, as glocalization is intrinsically linked to globalization it is paramount to define one to understand the other. While the phenomenon of globalization is in itself an extremely nebulous and controversial term, it is generally agreed that it is a process of relative deterritorialization in which the importance of time and space are minimized through the use of technology. Moreover, this process of spatial reorganization is extremely uneven with the richer developed countries exploiting their technological superiority to reap a majority of the benefits (Scholte 2000, 23). This process encompasses a vast array of transactions from the purely economic to the dissemination of ideas and knowledge (O’Brien and Williams 2010, 425).
Stemming from this understanding of globalization, glocalization describes the interaction between the local and the global. The term originated from the Japanese practice of dochakuka – literally indigenization – in which giant firms would cater their products to a specific market (Iwabuchi 2002, 94). Despite its economic origins, glocalization can be used to understand the global flow of ideas and, in particular, how they are adapted to local contexts to address local problems.
Given this understanding of glocalization, it is now possible to examine how this applies to the Sistema program in New Brunswick. After hearing about the innovative and revolutionary El Sistema music program in Venezuela, executive members of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (NBYO) travelled there. What they witnessed in the Sistema núcleos (centres) inspired them and prompted them to bring the Sistema concept home to test out in New Brunswick. During the brief trial period the program was met with so much success within schools and communities that by September 2012, it had expanded to encompass three full time centres. This expansion would not have been possible without the dedication of paid staff and volunteers including parents of Sistema students, university student musicians and other community members in conjunction with the staff at schools in which Sistema NB operates.
It is also fascinating to witness glocalization at work in New Brunswick. Sistema was originally designed for disenfranchised urban youth living in a massive city plagued by crime and violence. The NBYO realized it could draw upon this underlying structure – as the circumstances that lead to social exclusion for children are largely the same – and then tailor it to the local context (NBYO 2009). And, although the objective of youth outreach was the same, the approach taken had to account for the vast differences between New Brunswick and Venezuela. More precisely, the problems the NBYO faced were the questions of different languages and different cultures.
In Canada the question of languages has always been a tricky one. Graham Fraser, the official languages commissioner, captured it best when he stated that “language has always been, and remains, at the heart of the Canadian experience” in the same way that “race is to the United States, and class is to Great Britain” (Fraser 2007, 5). This is perhaps even more salient in New Brunswick with its tumultuous linguistic history. This is a challenge not faced in Venezuela where, despite the presence of many indigenous languages, Spanish is the lingua franca (Lewis et al. 2012).
After their initial offering of a bilingual program in Moncton, they further set up unilingual English and French programs in other cities. The opening of a new centre in September 2013 in the Tobique First Nation is currently being planned. It is important to note that “non-English-speaking minority groups have often struggled and even failed to successfully complete their education in North America” due to language barriers complicating acquisition of subject matter (Cohen and Swain 1976, 45). Consequently, the model used in Venezuela had to be adapted to the uniquely bilingual context of Moncton. With participating children of both English and French backgrounds, the staff had to be able to communicate effectively in both languages as well as understand the principles of orchestral music. Perhaps more importantly, it was critical to get the children interacting with each other so that the social exclusion present in school yards did not find root in this program. It is through this interaction that Sistema upholds their guiding values of social inclusion and societal change (NBYO 2009).
Inherently related to languages are the cultures that they grew out of. Unlike Venezuela, New Brunswick has two diametrically opposed Francophone and Anglophone cultures that comprise the majority of the population. Furthermore, there are many visible minorities including aboriginals and immigrants. With many different cultures, and the tendency for these to be geographically separated, an effective ‘one size fits all’ approach would be impossible.
This strong emphasis on Canadian pluralism, where immigrants “have been encouraged to retain their sense of identity with their country of origin,” (Porter 1967, 48) entails that these ideas are not only being glocalized to the province, but also to the very specific groups within it. With the expansion of the program to Saint John in 2010 and then to Richibucto in 2012, Sistema NB entered wholly English and French environments respectively (MacLeod 2012).
In adapting these programs to each context Sistema NB shows an acceptance of the idea that “cultural values are […] significant for learning” (Planel 1997, 349). To elaborate on this, French pupils are more likely to be extrinsically motivated, view the teacher as authoritarian, favour standardized testing and be more predisposed to shared achievements. Conversely, English students are often encouraged intrinsically, behave informally with their professors, exhibit more of an educational “counter-culture” and favour individual achievements (369). This is not to an attempt to classify one system as better but merely recognize the different approaches required in different class rooms. For example, French students may require more encouragement to deviate from what is considered ‘normal’ behaviour in a class, whereas English pupils may need to be reminded that the orchestra is a shared project and not an individual one.
This acknowledgement of differences does not, however, necessitate completely distinct systems. Instead, a program emerges from this interaction of local values and the international structure provided by El Sistema that is mutually intelligible yet adapted to the local circumstances. And as the Sistema program in New Brunswick reaches out and connects with other programs around the world, it becomes a node in a transnational network that is “local in spirit but global in character” – the essence of glocalization (Hong and In Han 2010, 660).
Investing in People
It has been proven that, “under-investment in health and education is a brake on growth, and slower growth means that fewer resources are available to invest in these public goods” (Watt 2000); rather than allowing his country to become trapped in this violent cycle, Abreu realized the mutually reinforcing effect between social investment and growth. Since its beginning, El Sistema was designed to be a social program built around togetherness. In addition to its well known orchestral programs, El Sistema also runs choirs, with some specially designed for the hearing and/or visually impaired. Furthermore, traditional Venezuelan instruments and national music are incorporated into the repertoire, as is the Latin spirit for playing music in a way which many describe as more jubilant and spontaneous than the methods typically taught in the Global North.
The primary focus of El Sistema is to create a daily safe haven of joy and fun which allows every child to build their self-esteem and a sense of self-worth, which in turn impacts school attendance rates. In Venezuela, teens who attend El Sistema have a 6.9 % high school drop-out rate compared to 26.4 % of their non-participating peers (Tarauds 2009). This is of particular importance in many cities in which Sistema programs operate, such as Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, New York, Baltimore and Miami where gang cultures of drugs and violence are rampant. Additionally, El Sistema is also running orchestras in prisons within Venezuela, with the social and musical skills being learned having positive social, emotional and psychological impacts on prisoners both within prisons and once they are released (Grainger 2011).
Although Canada has its own unique social realities, as it quickly transitioned from a modest welfare state to a more market-oriented society, the poor, including women, indigenous peoples and immigrants, have been among the hardest hit (Lightman 2009, 200). Simpson’s study “Social Investment: It’s Time to Invest in New Brunswick’s Children, Families and Communities” (1999, 3-4) highlighted the social and economic exclusion within the province, still one of the poorest. While once part of the economic core of Canada, NB is now part of the semi-periphery and notable outmigration is a pressing reality. Additionally, immigration to the province is booming; between 2000 and 2007, the number of foreign permanent residents increased in Moncton by 74 percent (Stadel 2008, 5-6). This year, 21 immigrants hailing from 13 francophone countries are now active Sistema students in Moncton. While living conditions and job prospects are often far less than ideal for new immigrants, parents of some Sistema students have intentionally chosen to remain in Moncton for one reason: their children are thriving in Sistema. This is heart warming evidence of the opportunities for social inclusion, independent of financial means, which Sistema NB is providing (MacLeod and Matheson 2013).
Sistema NB provides a valuable opportunity for children to develop self-discipline, teamwork and improve in a multitude of areas. Within New Brunswick, parents of Sistema participants report that since beginning in the program their children show more respect, have improved behaviour, are more willing to concentrate and are happier (Savoie 2012). These attitudes are important in all aspects of life; they immediately improve family well-being and cohesion and will continue to serve the children throughout their lives, regardless of whether they choose to pursue music in their adult careers. Most importantly, they contribute to the positive growth of communities.
While El Sistema remains a social program at its core, it is; however, something more. Artscience, a phenomenon elaborated upon by Edwards, is innovative combinations of the arts and sciences facilitated through technological advances. This is, in a sense, what Abreu has done by hybridizing a sound economic model with a social program emphasizing creativity. Through this the program has become largely self-sufficient economically with stable future incomes, as well as artistically through the progression of Sistema students to teaching positions. Furthermore, students are encouraged and trained to become instrument makers, combining demanding artisanal skills, mathematical precision and an appreciation for the beauty of music (Terauds 2009).
It should be noted that orchestral programs have been tools of change in other contexts as well. A prime example is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, now based in Seville, Spain after being founded in 1999 by the Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said for young musicians from Israel, Palestine, other Middle Eastern countries and Spain. While Barenboim believes it will be impossible to bring about peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by means of an orchestra, he and Said were both passionate about conceiving a project “against ignorance”, in which the orchestra serves as “a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives” (Vulliamy 2008). Just as El Sistema plays a vital role in the non-violent societal development of Venezuela, so too does orchestral music in this more targeted case.
Orchestral programs such as El Sistema, through its ingenuity and adaptability, have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of students around the world while simultaneously challenging accepted norms on the global flow of ideas and who has the right to culture. On top of all this, it emphasizes how a program can be both local and global through glocalization, the importance of community as well as the role of investing in people. At its heart, however, is the notion that Abreu captured well in saying that “art […] has become a social right, a right for all the people.” This idea resonates as a hush descends over the slums of Venezuela, the sun setting while the students file home. Chattering amongst themselves, all of the students are excited about coming back tomorrow. They know that they are part of something bigger than themselves and that music may take them beyond the familiar streets of Caracas, out into the wider world which they are already connected to, via Sistema.
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