Glenn Gould Prize Laureate and El Sistema founder, Dr. José Antonio Abreu, delivers The Promise of Music to arts educators from around globe in one-day symposium at The Royal Conservatory Music

By Penny Johnson, GGF Contributing Author

Photo by Chris Young

For the four hundred and fifty people in attendance at The Promise of Music, a one-day symposium on music education held on October 28, 2009 at The Royal Conservatory of Music as part of The Glenn Gould Foundation’s Celebration of Music Week, the highlight of the day was hearing Dr. José Antonio Abreu speak about how music transforms young minds and lives.  Garnering the prestigious Glenn Gould Prize just two days earlier in a gala event held at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the retired economist and founder of the Venezuelan musical miracle known as El Sistema delivered an address in which he spoke of how he has worked with the Venezuelan government to provide all children with free access to music education. 

Held at the spectacular new Koerner Hall and throughout the Conservatory’s new TELUS Centre, the symposium was organized by a joint partnership between The Glenn Gould Foundation and The SOCAN Foundation.  Distinguished guests included host Murray McLaughlan, Linda Ronstadt, Dr. Daniel Levitin, Senator Tommy Banks, The Honourable Kathleen Wynne, former Ontario Minister of Education, and the Mully Children’s Choir from Kenya, as well as various leaders of El Sistema-inspired programs from around the world.  The day began with a performance by members of Pentacorde, a Venezuelan folk ensemble, and concluded with the Canadian debut performance of the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble featuring members of what has come to be regarded as one of the most popular orchestras in the world, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (SBYO).

Throughout the morning session, key concepts emerged during the course of each guest speaker.  First and foremost is the idea that music has always played an important social role in the fabric of humanity.  Whether we are singing along at a ballgame, or participating in solemn ceremonial rituals, the act of creating music together – whether it’s choir or orchestra – is an act that creates a bond, or a sense of kinship.  Music also has a practical value given its ancient origins, and as Dr. Levitin explained, “while human beings have been writing things down for 5,000 years, our species has been around for a much longer period of time (perhaps 100,000 years) and so, in order to remember important information pertaining to survival, data was transmitted through song, much in the same way that we use a short melody nowadays to remember the alphabet.” 

In a society where, as Dr. Levitin explained, “music is largely relegated to professionals,” it is vital that we not forget that music is a part of daily life.  From singing along with the radio, to joining in a pep rally, and even down to a baby uttering it’s first musical sounds as it seeks to emulate that which it hears in its early years, music is woven into the fabric of everyday activity.  “We are a musical species,” said Dr. Levitin, “it’s in our nature."

In her introduction to the keynote address by Dr. Abreu, American singer-songwriter, Linda Ronstadt – an advocate for arts education who has lauded El Sistema as a critical model for the United States – offered some critical words on the importance of music education as a means of social development and change:

“Increasingly, people’s experience with music is passive.  We delegate our musical experience to professionals.  Music cannot be learned without both listening and playing.  We need to teach our children to sing their own songs and play their own instruments, not just listen to their iPods.

“No school curriculum would be complete without the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Why then would it be complete without a working knowledge of Mozart, Beethoven, or George Gershwin?

“In the United States and Canada, we spend millions of dollars on sports because it promotes teamwork, discipline, and the experience of learning to make great progress in small increments.  Learning to play music together does all this and more.

“I’m continually stunned and deeply concerned when I hear groups of school children trying to sing something as simple as Happy Birthday, and they are unable to match pitch.  Many recent school children’s performances that I have observed sounded like a gray wash of tone deaf warbling…not the children’s fault.

“Recently I have been invited to sing at several schools in the northern California Bay area where I am currently living.  I agreed on the condition that I not sing from the stage to a large school assembly, but rather to the classrooms of first and second graders, so they can hear unamplified music in a more natural setting the way I experience it in my living room.  Most of them had no experience with anything but recorded music.  They think music comes out of their television or computer screens, not out of people’s hands and mouths.”

Minister Wynne spoke of the power evoked at the Gala concert held two days earlier, where the SBYO rocked The Four Seasons Centre with their outstanding performances of masterworks from the classical literature as well as Latin American works.  “Not only were they playing beautifully,” she remarked, “but they were up out of their seats twirling their instruments and it was just a heart-swelling experience.”  Members of the 250-piece SBYO represent the most advanced players of El Sistema, a system that has changed the lives of over one million at-risk children since its inception thirty-five years ago.  Minister Wynne went on to say that “the question is how do we make sure that every child in Ontario has the opportunity to be touched by music and arts education, because it’s so important academically and it’s important for our souls and our social fabric.  El Sistema is a rejuvenation of that energy.”

The highlight of the morning session was the keynote address by Glenn Gould Prize Laureate, Dr. Abreu.  Speaking in an interview with RCM President, Dr. Peter Simon, and with the aid of an interpreter, Rodrigo Guerrero (International Affairs Officer El Sistema) Dr. Abreu spoke about the early beginnings of El Sistema and the plans it has for continued development around the world.  The following represents selected highlights from Dr. Abreu’s address:


On the beginnings of El Sistema:

“When we started in the city of Barquisimeto in Venezuela, there was a very modest music school in a small house outside of the square where a lady who had studied piano opened up her school for children to learn piano, mainly from the middle class.  I was one of fifty students and since the beginning I felt very compelled to her because she gave so much of her time to us.  This was a great pedagogical experience for me.  She also charged very little for her lessons, and especially the children who were the poorest in the town, she received them for free in her school.  I noticed the children that were very poor, that lived a very lonely and sad life, were looking forward to their piano lessons as quickly as possible, because it was there that they found happiness and the possibility to expand and explore their feelings that they didn’t have at home.  She cultivated this for the remainder of her life and she gave all of her house and all of her instruments and all of her books to the following generation of creators.  This is the generation that founded the youth orchestra of Venezuela.  Her name was Doralisa Jiménez de Medina and I’d like to honour her name before you as one of the great Venezuelan women of all time.

“My tenure as a government officer was immensely useful, to know the procedure, the methodology, especially because we needed a new structure.  We had music schools in Venezuela of course, but there was no systemized music education.  This was a product of a single mentality that was very extended throughout South America and Latin America at this point, a mentality in which arts and music in general, were not a priority for society.  Priorities were economic development, financial growth, and technological development.  Arts culture was centered outside, almost exhiled.  Arts education was completely excluded from the educational system for many decades.  This caused tremendous damage to the country, as many great talents never had the chance to show their potential, never had the chance to realize themselves as professionals in the arts.  This was the reality that we lived in for the entire nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.  The fundamental challenge was getting the state to realize that arts education needed to be a priority within the educational system.  We needed to do this not with speeches, but with scripture, showing clear results.  I understood this as my challenge.”


On receiving the support of the Venezuelan government:

“Once the orchestra returned from a very important youth orchestra meet in Scotland, we had a very successful performance of the orchestra in Aberdeen which was acknowledged by the press and it gave me the chance to go in front of the state and have it realized that they needed to take the responsibility of this commitment and they did.  We constituted a structure that is called the State Foundation for the National System of Youth Orchestras of Venezuela.  We started to extend ourselves through the centre of the country, then through the years, the south.  Thirty-five years later, we’re now in all twenty-four provinces of Venezuela.  We’ve consolidated a national network of youth orchestras.  We have a parallel orchestra for vocalists, for their choral and singing formation and it’s now the principle social program of all the Venezuelan states.  At the moment, this program incorporates more children in all of Venezuela then all sports programs.  It becomes a true tool for social development.

“Fortunately the Venezuelan state has acknowledged a fundamental fact.  Music is a social right.  Therefore it’s the state’s responsibility to guarantee the exercise of this right.  This is why the state, since the very beginning thirty-five years ago, guaranteed this exercise by providing the resources so that instruments could be bought and facilities be built to incorporate the communities.  This has been the case, and should always be the case.  Music education is now a right that is consecrated in the constitution by the educational law and by the minor protection clause.” 


On the international expansion of El Sistema:

“We started with our closer neighbours in Trinidad and Columbia, and through the years we have already developed a very wide network of orchestras through Latin America and the Caribbean, and we’ve managed in every country to have the state to support them, not just financially, but recognizing and acknowledging them.  When music is done in a collective practice, through choirs or orchestras, every choir and orchestra is a joyous community.  The happiest moment of the day is the time of rehearsal, and every achievement of the orchestra is an achievement of the neighbours, the family and the children.  Those children who may be materially poor, become spiritually wealthy, because a child that has an instrument and who plays an instrument is no longer poor.  More so, the culture for the poor should never be a poor culture.

“We have twenty buildings under construction for one million students and this is why we’ve come to Canada.  This country has been a friend to Venezuela for many years, and one whose musical level we all know very well.  I dream that we can establish an agreement with Canada.  I loved hearing Minister Wynne speak.  I think she’s a visionary woman who understands very clearly the sense of her mission.  You have my congratulations!  I’ve already proposed that we should sign an agreement to choose one project, the Venezuelan-Canadian Youth Orchestra.  I invite every music teacher in Canada, starting with the ones in this conservatory, every member of the symphony orchestras in this country, to join this project, to give their support to the children of Canada, so that every child in this country has free and full access to music and so that we can turn our countries into a fraternal bond that will remain eternal.  I aspire that in one year, we can premiere this orchestra in Toronto. 


On the social benefits of music education:

“In Venezuela it’s very important that the choirs and the orchestra take the child away from the streets.  Families apply a lot of pressure to get their children involved within the orchestra because this becomes a very important help in keeping them away from the daily temptation of drugs and violence.  This is very important not just in Venezuela, but in all of Latin America.  As the country gets poorer, it becomes a great priority for the family to find a good use of leisure.  All studies in Latin America regarding drug use conclude that the main factor that leads a child to drugs, is the perverse use of leisure.”


On El Sistema engaging handicapped children and adults:

“Our system has engaged for a very long time now, the children with several handicaps.  There are children who are visually impaired, or hearing impaired, or those born with Down Syndrome.  We rehabilitate increasingly their lives within the bosom of the orchestra.  Music’s vigorous therapeutic effect is enormous, and in those children who are living on the streets, those who come under the custody of the state, we go into those shelters as part of the rehabilitation process and it is there we can see great transformation within the child.  And the last example is our new entries into the prisons.  The four principle jails in Venezuela are getting every day, a group of our teachers.  In one of the women’s prisons, the most joyous time is the moment in which they begin to rehearse.  Every woman in the prison is already engaged in the program, and it has become the number one rehabilitation program for the Venezuelan state.”


On government financing:

“Financial resources for us come basically from the state, but the state will only provide resources for that which it considers important.  The state considers relevant that which has a social impact, which is why there’s a very simple chain of events.  The orchestras and choirs will develop the community, and once those results are visible to the state, they become relevant to the state policy.  Then it’s not difficult to ask for resources to continue the program.”


As his keynote address came to a close, Dr. Abreu added: 

“If we were to follow one of our children with a camera for a day, I would say with no exaggeration, that outside of school time, the rest of the day will be dedicated to orchestra and choir.  Even holidays.  When we’re not demanding their presence, they will be there.  They adore the physical place, because they identify with something that fills them with joy.” 

Dr. Abreu was heartily received by the morning audience and was acknowledged with a standing ovation for his ongoing commitment to improving children’s lives around the world.

Following the morning mainstage presentation, the afternoon consisted of discussion sessions led by leaders in music education, as well as breakout sessions for attendees.  The subject of “El Sistema Around the World: Unlocking the Secrets of Success” was moderated by Mark Churchill, Dean and Artistic Director, Preparatory and Continuing Education, New England Conservatory and Director of El Sistema USA.  Special guests included: Tina Fedeski, Executive Director, The Leading Note Foundation, Ottawa; Anne Fitzgibbon, Founder/Executive Director, The Harmony Program, New York; Helen McVey, Musician, Sistema Scotland; Rodrigo Guerrero, International Affairs and Development Officer, FESNOJIV.  A discussion titled “Personally Speaking: Music Education Champions Speak Out”, presented by the Coalition for Music Education in Canada was moderated by former CBC host, Eric Friesen with special guests, Linda Ronstadt, Dr. Heather Ross, Director of Cardiac Transplantation at Toronto General Hospital, The Honourable Tommy Banks, Senate of Canada and Boris Brott, conductor, educator and motivational speaker.