In 1974 Dr José Antonio Abreu began a music education programme in Venezuela with the aim of providing music education to children of all social backgrounds. This also included free instruments and transportation.
He describes this as helping "the fight of a poor and abandoned child against everything that opposes his full realisation as a human being". Thirty six years later this is now a flourishing and world renowned education system visited by some of the world’s leading educationalists and musicians.
Sir Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic, swore that the country's youth orchestras were doing the most important work in classical music anywhere in the world. Plácido Domingo cried when he saw the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra perform. The world-renowned opera singer confessed that the concert evoked the strongest emotions he had ever felt and former Berlin Philharmonic director Claudio Abbado invited the Venezuelan youth orchestra to play in Germany after seeing only one performance.
El Sistema has inspired over twenty five countries worldwide to implement music education strategies based on its unique teaching method. The most recent of these was Scotland who launched its own version of El Sistema in August 2007.
The youth orchestras’ first performance was in 1975 and comprised only 11 young musicians. In 2009 there were over 200 orchestras nationwide with at least one professional orchestra in each state although Xavier Moreno, secretary of El Sistema explains that “Our first goal is not to create professional musicians. Our goal is to rescue the children”
The most famous product of El Sistema is conductor Gustavo Dudamel. At age 28 he has already achieved incredible success as the conductor of major orchestras worldwide such as the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin and Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras, and the Israel Philharmonic to name a few. In 2008 he was awarded the “Q Prize” from Harvard university along with Dr Abreu for extraordinary service to children.
The system is free to students and sees parents of prospective students camp out overnight prior to enrolment to ensure the acceptance of their child into the education programme. 90% of the 250,000 children in the programme are from poor socio-economic backgrounds with the Caracas neighbourhood of Sarria being typical of these statistics.
The Sarria school director Carlos Sedan explains that "In Venezuela, we broke the myth that you have to be from the upper class to play violin."
Mr Sedan also goes on to explain that “the young musicians at the Sarria school are not allowed to take their instruments home due to the risk of being mugged and some come to school with headaches as their families cannot afford food, yet when they perform they become the pride of their neighbourhoods and inspire their parents to learn about the great classical composers!”
In June 2007 the Carlos Bonell album “Queen Guitar Rhapsodies” was recorded in Barquisimeto, home of El Sistema. This is the first time that British or European musicians have travelled to Barquisimeto to record with a Venezuelan 0rchestra rather than bringing an orchestra from Venezuela to Europe.