The Venezuelan Orchestra System’s Influence Spreads Across the U.S.

Besides the presence of superstar Gustavo Dudamel as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, several programs have been inspired by the organization created by José Antonio Abreu, building opportunities through music education

Something all Venezuelans can be proud of.

Photo: BRAVO Youth Orchestras

When we delve into the world of classical music, Venezuela is an example of excellence, innovation and activism. It isn’t a coincidence that the conductors of the LAPhill, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra or La Fenice in Venice are all Venezuelan, since our country is the cradle of one of the most innovative musical education methods in the world: the Sistema Nacional de Orquestas y Coros Infantiles y Juveniles.

Founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, it’s been a topic of conversation for its unique approach in musical education and social development. Its teaching philosophy is based on these principles: all children and teenagers, no matter their socioeconomic status, have the right to access musical education; and musical education is capable of developing skills and sensitivities which are fundamental for personal growth and civil performance. In Venezuela, because of the support by governments and that of international organizations for the last 40 years, these values served as the foundation for a network of youth orchestras and choirs which has spread all over the country and it’s worldly recognized for its success at making music education accessible and using it as an instrument to provide integral growth.

The United States is one of the countries that helps us understand the impact this teaching method has had in the world’s classical music panorama.

It All Started in Boston

To better understand the history of how the Sistema’s idea spread across the United States, the key person is Mark Churchill, Dean Emeritus of the New England Conservatory in Boston. Churchill has had a decades-long relationship with South America and he was one of the first endorsers of the Sistema’s ideas in this country. I was able to talk to Churchill on a video conference call on the subject in late August.

Churchill said that his experiences in Latin America were of short tours with a chamber music trio, the Trío Panamericano, and lived in Brazil for a year doing research for his doctoral thesis. However, his relationship with the continent strengthened when he was appointed as Dean of the Department of Preparatory and Continuous Education in the New England Conservatory, or NEC, in Boston, Massachusetts. There, he was tasked with establishing and encouraging relationships with other music organizations all over the world. Churchill had experience setting up orchestras formed by people from several Asian countries and the next step was a similar project in Latin America.

After several tours throughout the continent, including a successful Venezuelan stint in 2001, Churchill was “deeply captivated by all the work that was being done in the country” and considered that the best candidate to create a youth orchestra in the Americas in collaboration with the NEC was the Sistema de Orquestas de Venezuela and his director José Antonio Abreu. A few weeks later, in a meeting with Ana Milena Gaviria, First Lady of Colombia, and Hilda Ochoa-Brillengburg, a Venezuelan businesswoman and Chief Investment Officer for the World Bank, the NEC and the Sistema de Orquestas sealed a mutual collaboration agreement. This was the start of an institutional relationship and a Friendship Agreement in 2005, which entailed student and teacher exchange programs, joint concerts, and research projects.

Abreu & Churchill: Masterminds of music.

Photo: Frank Di Polo

This agreement with the New England Conservatory was key for the Sistema Nacional de Orquestas to gain popularity in the international music scene. In 2009, the Sistema de Orquestas’s methodology and images of the Sinfónica Juvenil Simón Bolívar, playing a high level repertoire, captivated the world of classical music. In the midst of international tours and after Churchill’s recommendation, the TED organization gave José Antonio Abreu the TED Prize, given to those with innovative ideas who want to change the world. Part of the award included calling on organization members to fund a wish by the recipient. Abreu decided to create a program for graduate studies to educate and strengthen the ideas of the Sistema in the United States: the Abreu Fellows of the New England Conservatory. All fifty original members travelled around Venezuela learning about the education methods of the Sistema and founded the first group of programs in the Sistema, in the United States. With this historical context, it’s necessary then, to explore some of the programs that expand the Sistema’s ideas in the U.S.

You have to understand why this sparked in Boston. Due to the close relationship between the NEC and the Sistema de Orquestas, the city counts with several programs. Mariesther and Mariaelisa Álvarez, Venezuelan violinists, lead the Boston String Academy, a music education program which specializes on string instruments. It has served the Allston and Chinatown communities since 2011 and it maximizes access to music education using elementary school facilities in the area. Mariesther Álvarez comments that beyond having access to music, a key element of these programs inspired by the Sistema is the commitment to excellence. This academy maximizes access to music adjusting the cost of the program depending on the economic and social status of the families that are in it and their students are often accepted into national programs by organizations which have been inspired by the Sistema and have been invited on multiple occasions to collaborate with Gustavo Dudamel, both in his residence at Princeton University in 2019 and also in 2018, at an Inter-American orchestra meeting in Mexico.

On the other side of town, Jorge Arturo Soto leads the Sistema’s Side-by-Side program, which belongs to the Longy School of Music of Bard College. This one was created to provide students in other music programs inspired by the Sistema to create a complete musical experience. Many branches in the area, Soto explains, only have wind or string instruments available in their programs, not integrated. Therefore, we had the opportunity to create an educational experience where students could play in full orchestras. Musicians travel from all corners of the state and work with Longy students in the orchestra repertoire. This program not only focuses on training students, since it collaborates with music students from the university, it also trains future teachers with ideas based on the Sistema. In fact, Longy is an institute committed to the development of educators influenced by the Sistema. The institution recently created a Master’s degree program for professors where the teaching ideas and the social impact of music are studied, key to these types of initiatives.

From Coast to Coast

The impact the Sistema has had in the U.S. isn’t limited to Boston. The Abreu Fellows, which are now known as the Sistema Fellows, helped put together programs everywhere in the U.S. An example is Stanford Thompson, a trumpeter graduated from Curtis with a profound civic duty, who started a program in Philadelphia, Play on Philly. In a video conference interview, Jessica Zweig, who runs one of the centers, said that the project came from the youth orchestra in the city, but its fundamental focus is based on the idea that “children from vulnerable communities deserve to have the same access to music education as any other child.” Musicians like Sir Simon Rattle, conductor of the London Symphony and former conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic have collaborated in the program, it being the center of one of the first formal research projects on the Sistema’s impact and methodology in education. In 2017, the organization worked with Steve Holochwost and other researchers from Johns Hopkins University and found evidence linking the education method inspired by the Sistema with high academic performance and high development of behavior and social skills.

Building bridges… through El Sistema.

Photo: Sam Fritch

On the West Coast, in Portland, Oregon, Seth Trubyn is heading the Bravo Youth Orchestra (BYO) program. Trubyn wasn’t one of the Abreu Fellows, he mentioned in an interview. But David Malek, one of his best friends, was. Malek introduced him to the world of the Sistema. Trubyn said: “When I saw the videos of the orchestras, I told myself: this is the world I want to belong to.” BYO is based in elementary schools in the north of Portland, one of the most vulnerable areas, where music education was almost non-existent. Just like the Sistema in Venezuela, admission for students is free of charge. Trubyn believes that the ideas of the Sistema present a solution to the problem of classical music access in the U.S. According to Trubyn, there are excellent orchestras and music institutions of high prestige, but there isn’t a link connecting them to the entire population, and he thinks the ideas from the Sistema are becoming a solution for this equality problem. Trubyn is very aware of the impact and the social responsibility organizations inspired by the Sistema have. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in collaboration with other entities in the community, Trubyn created a meal plan for the families of those in the program who began to have financial problems during the lockdown and helped them solve some of their issues.

Abreu Fellows continue to have an important impact in the expansion of the Sistema outside of Venezuela. However, another key factor was the arrival of Gustavo Dudamel to the artistic direction of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Since he arrived, the Philharmonic has created the most famous program in the U.S., the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA). Angelica Cortez, manager of the organization, comments that the program wasn’t started directly by Dudamel. Deborah Bordah, president of the Philharmonic, was inspired to put it together during a visit to the Sistema in Venezuela. But Dudamel’s arrival to LA encouraged the efforts and solidified a program that caters to over one hundred students in four centers, constantly collaborating with several organizations like eHarmony or Heart of Los Angeles.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of YOLA is that it focuses on the artistic and social development of its students and seeks to give them the ability to decide which role they want to have in the music world, instead of following traditional patterns alone. Besides, the organization also looks to increase access not just by taking music education to different communities which historically haven’t received it, but also by taking these communities to the world of classical music. YOLA tries to mirror the culture and identity of its members in the repertoire they study, which is important in order to enrich this orchestra’s playlist through diversity.

Sam Trevethan, who runs the Kids’ Orchestra in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, works with a similar idea. Trevethan says that in his program there’s an important emphasis on joining the diverse cultural history of Baton Rouge and New Orleans with the world of orchestra music. Trevethan also said that the development of his program was inspired by the arrival of Dudamel to Los Angeles. The Kids’s Orchestra works at elementary schools and, just like YOLA, has a unique idea about the access to music. This program is integrated with Louisiana State University and believes that the ideas put out by the Sistema shouldn’t be pointed only at students, but also to future music instructors who don’t know about this teaching philosophy. The Kids’ Orchestra not only educates musicians, but also teachers, who will expand on these ideas in the future.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of programs inspired by the Sistema in the U.S., let alone the world. However, it proves the impact of this teaching philosophy, which started in Venezuela and has become a symbol of innovation and excellence in the world of classical music.