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El Sistema, Musical Utopianism, and Social Change in Venezuela

Have you ever wondered how to fix an unfixable mess?

That’s the question that faced José Antonio Abreu, of Venezuela, except for one thing: he didn’t regard the mess that Caracas was in as unfixable. In 1975, he decided that there had to be a way to get kids off the street, away from the innumerable dangers vying for their attention, energy, and lives. He realized that there had to be a way to wake up families, to form communities, to give the handicapped and the poor a chance to be respected and shine.



I kid you not. El Sistema is now a nationwide, massive program that provides music education to several hundred thousand children–many of them from poorer backgrounds–throughout Venezuela. It has inspired similar social programs in other nations, and has had the support of governments from the far left all the way across to the right.

A few weeks ago in Australia, I heard Kim Stanley Robinson speak multiple times (but especially in his talk at the Utopias 4 conference — hear the MP3 here) about utopianism, for example about how Antarctica hosts an essentially utopian-like community of scientists, and how science itself seems to be a very utopian sort of project.

Well, perhaps Snow’s “two cultures” aren’t necessarily so different after al, for as it is nicely put on Wikipedia,

Abreu has dedicated himself to a utopian dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in that environment, the better for all.

There have been two documentaries made about El Sistema, and if you’re in Seoul, you can see the latter — unfortunately with Korean subtitles only, and it’s in Spanish, but you know, I suspect you’ll understand most of it with minimal Korean or Spanish. I knew a little about the project before, and had only a few bits explained to me during, but I was still blown away by the film and very inspired.

The documentary is very much worth the while, if you’re able to get to the Dongsung Art Center in Hyehwa at one of the times it’s scheduled. So to that end, the info I posted on my other website (where I have stuff for my students):

The film is showing at Hypertheque Nada, which is part of the Dongsung Art Center (동숭 아트 센터). There are schedules for Sept. 16-22, and Sept. 23-29.

Here’s a map, and I think this is the location on Google Maps.

However, I think the easiest map to use is on this map to the nearby Robot Museum: it shows the location of the Dongsung Art Center, the subway exit (#1) and the road much more clearly. Just remember to go to the Dongsung Art Center, not the Robot Museum! (Or, go to both!)

Warning: the cinema is pretty close to the subway station, but if you’re more than 10 minutes late for the film, then they won’t let you in, so don’t be late!

Also: there are no drinks or snacks in the theater–it’s one of those artsy repertory cinema places–and the café in front of the cinema is quite expensive, so make sure you have either eaten before or have something in your bag to sneak in.

For those of you living outside Seoul or Korea, the film is out on DVD and I recommend it very highly. Also, an earlier documentary called Tocar y Luchar has been made and apparently is viewable online at Google Videos for free (though I’ve not seen that yet, and it, too, is lacking in subtitles.)

Here’s a trailer for El Sistema:

On a pedagogical note, I saw a number of interesting things that formed part of the musical education in El Sistema, and which I think ought to be part of music education — and education generally. I’ll note one here: when a kid received music lessons, he or she didn’t do so alone. Each lesson involved at least a trio: a student, a teacher, and another student (perhaps junior to the one getting the lesson, but I’m not sure). This is a pretty mind-blowing approach to me, since it means kids would learn about techniques and practices — would be aware of them — long before being called on to master them themselves. I bet that’s like rocket fuel for the younger kids’ musical development.

Likewise, I noticed that a number of the instructors were at the lessons with instrument in hands, such as the trumpeter who paused a student when he had a passage wrong, and played it correctly for him. What a difference that would have made for me — to have a saxophone instructor who took seriously the process of imparting the skills of performing.

I half-remember some of the people I took lessons from in high school did this, including the pianist I took jazz theory lessons with, but during all of my three years of saxophone lessons in university, I think I had the experience once where one of the two instructors I had actually had his own saxophone and played something for me in an exemplary fashion. It’s like having an English teacher who refuses to teach English. Which, here in Korea, we all know doesn’t really work all that well… even the English teachers who never speak English.

Anyway — while I can’t speak for Tocar y Luchar, not having seen it yet, El Sistema is absolutely wonderful and inspiring, not just in the awwwwww, how nice sense but in the sense that something you really don’t expect could help fix a hell of a mess somehow sometimes can. Music lessons–and, I’d argue, other artistic, creative, collective endeavours–can save lives and uplift a significant part of a society most in need of help, for example.

Utopianism deserves a better rap, if you ask me.

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