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Helping deprived children in Venezuela and elsewhere through music

In 1975, a musician and economist called José Antonio Abreu decided to help children in Venezuela from very poor and deprived backgrounds through music.

He acted as the inspiration for a programme called ‘El Sistema’, which provides free musical instruments and involves deprived children in youth orchestras and classical music training. From 1977, El Sistema was adopted by the Venezuelan government and since then, the scheme has been funded by the state.

Surrounded by poor and often violent neighbourhoods, where drug-use and crime can be high, for many children the orchestras provide a safe and constructive environment. The orchestras also provide a way for youngsters to express themselves through music and see an alternative way of life. With greater confidence and a sense of belonging, children involved in El Sistema frequently do better at school.

The scheme has been so successful in Venezuela, it is now being adopted in other places, even in Western countries such as the USA and UK. In an interview in the Independent, the UK’s organizer spoke about the latest research concerning the children involved with the ‘Big Noise Sistema’ in Scotland. This revealed that 100% of parents felt their child had become more confident, 93 per cent that their child was happier and 79% said their offspring were more willing to concentrate.
One of the scheme’s biggest proponents and stars is the famous conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. The Venezuelan-born Dudamel was himself a product of El Sistema, which fostered his musical talent from the age of ten. Now based in Los Angeles, Dudamel is the Director of the LA Philarmonic Orchestra. The orchestra’s Disney Concert Hall is also used as a base for the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA).

YOLA was created in 2007 for children from a poor LA neighbourhood, where 80% of the population is Hispanic. It provides free instruments and musical training to more than 500 children aged between 2 and 16. LA was the first city to adopt El Sistema. But similar projects have now been set up in more than 20 cities across the USA. A special report on the BBC’s website shows Dudamel in action with YOLA.

When interviewed by the Independent about how El Sistema translates to other countries, Dudamel was quick to say the scheme was not only relevant for Venezuela “because of the specific social situation”. Though every country “has its own needs”, ultimately the conductor said “it’s about youth, it’s about the future, it’s about the children”.

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