There's not much talk about music education these days.
With all the budget crises, education cuts and Republican candidates — none of whom seem terribly supportive of the arts — you couldn't be blamed for thinking music programs aren't exactly a social priority right now.
So you might be surprised to learn that, despite all the austerity, music education is undergoing a major revolution — perhaps its most important in generations, as chronicled in the new book Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music.
Fans of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's high-visibility music director, Gustavo Dudamel, probably know much of the story already. The curly-haired conductor whose face adorns nearly every bus and street-lamp in Los Angeles County is the most famous product of Venezuela's El Sistema, the far-reaching network of youth orchestras and local music schools — hundreds of them — that has already provided 700,000 young, mostly poor Venezuelans with a comprehensive music education.
At first glance at least, El Sistema seems to have sprung up in the most unlikely of places. Caracas is notoriously violent, rivaling Ciudad Juarez and even Baghdad in sheer number of homicides. And the crushing poverty of the poorest Venezuelans is all too apparent to anyone touring the hillside barrios, where electricity and running water — to say nothing of steady employment — are anything but guaranteed.
But it's not just in spite of the endemic violence and poverty that Caracas has become today's mecca of music education. It is in large part because of it.
“The guiding principal of the Sistema is that music has the power to change people, to change society and communities for the better,” says Tunstall. “The Sistema is more than a musical education — it becomes a way of understanding and transforming yourself.”
That's why, when handing over financial responsibility for his fledgling program to the Venezuelan federal government, El Sistema's charismatic founder, José Antonio Abreu, insisted that the system become part of the state's Ministry of Youth rather than its Ministry of Culture.
In Changing Lives, Tunstall writes that this is at the core of the Sistema experiment – that music education in Venezuela is a “linchpin, even if an unorthodox one, in the fight against poverty.”
Indeed, in a country where access to rule of law, economic opportunity or a reliable democracy are by no means a given, El Sistema has fast become one of the South American state's most reliable services. “It certainly seems to be one of, if not the most functional things about that country right now,” says Tunstall.
And today, the El Sistema methodology is poised to become one of Venezuela's most important exports — second, of course, to oil.
To see its impact, you needn't look very far. Here in Los Angeles, Youth Orchestra L.A., which provides free instruments and instruction to children in the toughest parts of town, was modeled largely after El Sistema.
And these last few weeks have brought a slew of Sistema-inspired events to this city, including a talk by Tunstall at the Los Angeles Public Library, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Take a Stand Symposium on music education, and several performances by El Sistema's crown jewel, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela, as part of the Philharmonic's “Mahler Project.”
On a global scale, music educators are focused on adapting the El Sistema philosophy of social change through music to disparate cultures around the world.
“All over the place, programs are starting up spontaneously,” says Tunstall. “But it's when a youth orchestra becomes a community — that's when real learning begins to take place.”