Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music
When was the last time The New York Times ran four major articles, including one front-page feature, on arts education?
I can’t remember the last time that happened…before a few weeks ago, when suddenly El Sistema, the vast children’s orchestra program in Venezuela, was front-page news. The program has been growing steadily for 37 years, but only recently has it become a hot topic here.
Why has El Sistema made its unlikely leap over the media’s tacit barriers to news coverage for arts education?
It’s partly because Gustavo Dudamel, the Sistema’s most famous product, has become a celebrity conductor in Los Angeles, the crucible of celebrity. In fact, the first article in the Times series last month focused on Dudamel and his star status.
But I think it’s also because El Sistema is not a strictly “arts ed” story. At the very heart of this extraordinary program is a convergence of musical and social goals—a conviction that musical excellence and social transformation can be fused in a single mission.
The real news about El Sistema is that it has given new life and hope to hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s neediest children, by following the precept of its founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, that “if you put a violin in a child’s hands, that child will not pick up a gun.”
It’s this vision that captured my own imagination and inspired me, as a lifelong author and music educator and a sometime social activist, to write the first book on El Sistema — Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music.
As I discuss Changing Lives with people across the country, I sense that there is a real hunger for this news here—a hunger among musicians and music educators, who see it as confirmation of their long-cherished belief in the vast power of music and art to change lives, and a hunger also among social activists who have grown dispirited by the failure of conventional approaches to poverty and inner-city education.
We must be hungry! Consider that in just a few years, more than fifty El Sistema-inspired programs have been launched in the United States, most of them as large in optimism and ambition as they are modest in scale.
The new El Sistema movement in the U.S. hasn’t made big news yet, but I was thrilled to capture the urgency of its momentum in Changing Lives (writing as fast as I could, but never able to catch up with the pace of new developments).
Here’s how it looked to me as I wrote the conclusion of the book, a few months ago:
The idea that bringing joy, love, and orchestras into children’s lives can be a key element of social reform is far removed from the ways we are used to thinking about both music and social change. Jose Antonio Abreu has combined these two spheres of understanding to create a vision of combustible force. “Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense,” he has written, “because it transmits the highest values—solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings.”
I have seen the truth of Abreu’s idea, in very concrete ways. I have watched Esteban in Caracas, DeeShay in Baltimore, and Martin Luther King Aubrey, Jr. in Los Angeles, in the process of discovering that they are valuable, talented, skilled, and loved. Unquestionably, these children’s lives will be transformed by their discoveries, as will the lives of their families. “You cannot imagine,” Dudamel has said, “how it changes the life of a kid when he is given a violin or a cello or a flute. You feel you have your world. And it changes your life. This happened to me.”
In fact, we can imagine it. Now let us try to imagine an El Sistema movement in the U.S., grown so large and strong that a national youth orchestra emerges and makes its debut at Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center or Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Finally, let us try to imagine three or four or five orchestras of children and teenagers in the ghettos and forgotten neighborhoods of every city in the United States, working and playing together every day, teaching and learning from one another, and discovering “the huge spiritual world,” as Abreu says, “that music produces in itself, and that ends up overcoming material poverty.”
If we can imagine that, persistently and tenaciously and creatively and even joyfully, perhaps it can happen. We owe it to our children to try.