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Classical Notes

"It felt much better in my hands than a gun."

Posted at 10:19 AM on June 24, 2008 by Gillian Martin (5 Comments)

Think what you will about Venezuela's current government, the country does have a remarkable music education system (that's survived the last several governments there). It's called El Sistema, and it has given hundreds of thousands of poor children something to do, something to take pride in.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the next music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the current poster child for El Sistema. There's a description of it on his website, including this anecdote:

Lennar Acosta, now a clarinettist in the Caracas Youth Orchestra and a tutor at the Simón Bolívar Conservatory, had been arrested nine times for armed robbery and drug offences before the sistema offered him a clarinet.

"At first, I thought they were joking," he recalls. "I thought nobody would trust a kid like me not to steal an instrument like that. But then I realized that they were not lending it to me. They were giving it to me. And it felt much better in my hands than a gun."

As the foster mother of an "at-risk" teen myself, I wish we had something like that here.

A new development is that now Venezuela has introduced El Sistema to adults in prison. Read more about that here.

How good do some of these kids get? Check out this video of El Sistema's flagship ensemble, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, taking a romp through some Bernstein at the BBC Proms last summer. That's Dudamel conducting.



Comments (5)

I enjoyed reading this article and was drawn to it because of the captivating title. What is the current orchestra scene like in South and Central America? I know Caracas has a few orchestras. How about Mexico. Good good stuff.

Posted by David Miller | June 25, 2008 9:49 AM


Hey Gillian, thanks for posting the update to this program. I'd first heard about this, like many Americans, on this 60 Minutes segment .

And I read this week that the UK is trying to use this kind of program for their own at-risk kids. Maybe this means a US verison isn't far behind?

Posted by Blythe Staley | June 25, 2008 3:03 PM


Here's a link to an NPR story about a dance company in Colombia with a similar focus. It sounds like it's just one company, not an enormous program like El Sistema.

Posted by Gillian Martin | July 1, 2008 10:38 AM


Yes! It is all about MUSIC - not guns. Let's get our politicians to know this important bond in humanity - music heals, brings harmony to nations and souls. Lydia holsten

Posted by lydia holsten | July 2, 2008 9:04 PM


We're having amazing success bringing our often-divided community together with a program modeled after El Sistema. We offer free walk-in music lessons to anyone at one of our locations. Sometimes, with lessons on several instruments happening all around me, with differences in class and race ignored by all, I feel the power of Jose Abreu's idea. We're out to change Birmingham--and it's working!

Posted by Jeane Goforth | July 8, 2008 4:27 AM