Public School 129 in Harlem, New York, has a name straight out of the bureaucrat’s bottom drawer, and its street frontage is pretty dreary too. But inside, something beautiful and inspiring is going on. Kids who live in what can politely be called challenging neighbourhoods and who struggle with reading and basic maths are learning to play orchestral instruments, staying for two hours after school every day to do so, and then going home to practise.
It’s the same at PS-152 in Brooklyn. Both schools have embraced a music programme called Harmony that serves about 80 children from mostly low-income families in New York City. They featured in a PBS broadcast last month when the great Placido Domingo came to conduct an orchestra of 35 of these youngsters, fourth and fifth graders, at a black-tie fund-raiser.
The PBS video gives a glimpse of this marvellous programme that puts a smile on the face of one boy almost in spite of himself (“[W]hen I finish school and come into Harmony, when I just hit that first note, it makes me smile… I try to hide that smile, but I can’t, because it’s — it’s amazing”) and makes parents happy and proud of their children’s achievements. Scraping on a violin or blowing a trumpet at home on nights and weekends boosts practice time to at least 500 hours a year. All the instruments and tuition are free.
Lexy Ramkissoon comes home every day and tells her mom: “We learned this note. We know how to write music now…” — something new every day. “I can’t imagine my life without music, especially on my violin. Me and my violin is, like, best friends,” she says with a contented smile. The dad of Julian Deshommes’ — the boy who can’t stop smiling when he picks up his violin — describes his son’s playing as “excellent”. There’s a look of bemused wonder on his face that someone would give his child three years of free tuition.
And the kids in the concert orchestra, well-scrubbed and dressed up, are clearly thrilled to bits at starring in the posh turnout where the famous tenor will conduct them in a rendition of the Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It is, indeed, thrilling to see these children from fragile and struggling families and inner city schools shine at a cultural pursuit usually reserved to the elite.
“It’s first about the child. Second about the music”
So is this the music world casting its net very wide to catch latent Mozarts and Bernsteins? Or simply giving poor kids a taste of classical music to broaden their education? Neither, really. The Harmony Programme, launched by its executive director Anne Fitzgibbon in 2008, is inspired by a highly-successful model in Venezuela, El Sistema, whose aims are primarily personal and social.
“It’s first about the child. It’s second about the music,” Ms Fitzgibbon says. It’s a serious effort to “serve the children who are least served in the city … to discover something positive about themselves through music.” And again, “What I want people to understand is that music is so much more profound than standing on the stage and blowing air through a horn. It’s about learning to commit yourself to something and learning that if you invest your time and efforts in something, it’s worthwhile, that something really positive will come out the other end.”
Her comments echo those of El Sistemo’s founder, Venezuelan musician and economist Jose Antonio Abreu, in a speech he recorded after accepting the TED (Ideas Worth Spreading) Prize in 2009. In it he stressed the potential of music to forge bonds of social solidarity as well as individual character:
In its essence, the orchestra and the choir are much more than artistic structures. They are examples and schools of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That’s how they build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self-esteem and foster the ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its senses. This is why music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility, in the forging of values and in the training of youngsters to teach other kids.
Abreu launched his visionary project in 1975 with the 11 kids who turned up to his first session. Today the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras, as it is formally known, reaches over 300,000 children, the majority of them from the poorest sectors, and with government funding supports about 500 orchestras and other ensembles. Tours of the United States and Europe by the leading youth orchestras of “the system” have fired people like Anne Fitzgibbon, not only in the US but also in the UK, to establish similar programmes in disadvantaged areas. There are around 50 of these in the US.
“The spiritual world that music opens up”
Poverty in developed countries, as in Venezuela (around a third of Venezuelans live below the national poverty line — despite the country’s oil wealth) has cultural as well as economic causes. Abreu argues that his musical movement can help overcome material poverty through the spiritual resources (goals and identity, virtues, self esteem) it opens up to children who feel deprived not only of possessions but, more importantly, of personal worth.
But that is not the end of it. The child, with his new sense of worth and responsibility, of hope and possibilities, becomes a role model for his parents and helps the whole family strive for a better life, setting in motion “a constructive and ascending social dynamic”. Furthermore, as the families “join with pride and joy in the activities of the orchestras and the choirs their children belong to” there is an effect on the surrounding community. Music is transformed from a luxury item into something that opens up new sources of creativity and social exchange, says Abreu.
The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself, which also lies within itself, ends up overcoming material poverty. From the minute a child’s taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress heading for a professional level, who’ll later become a full citizen. Needless to say that music is the number one prevention against prostitution, violence, bad habits, and everything degrading in the life of a child.
Heady stuff, but it all makes sense when you watch the children and their tutors at work, and listen to their parents.
Fame, politics and daring
Since excellence is a goal the system holds up to children, and given its spread and decades of activity, it is not surprising that some musical careers have been made from El Sistema. The most famous of these talents is Gustavo Dudamel, a 31-year-old who has conducted the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and has been musical director of Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2009. He features prominently in a new book, Changing Lives, by New York Musician Tricia Tunstall.
Abreu himself has been honoured by UNESCO and other groups since the early 1990s, but according to a recent report in the New York Times it is only with the “meteoric rise” of Dudamel in the past five years that the original maestro’s humanitarian work has become widely known.
With success and fame, of course, there also comes suspicion, if not outright criticism. The Times devoted a longer article last week to a profile of Abreu that depicts him as a cultish figure running a tightly controlled organisation “with a similarity to organised religion and, more specifically, the Roman Catholic Church”. There is no doubt that Abreu is a religious man and that he takes a spiritual as well as material view of the person — and that these things would arouse suspicion in certain quarters.
Part of the suspicion seems to come from Abreu’s ability to attract funding from different governments over the years (he was been an MP himself in the 1970s and Culture Minister briefly in the early 1980s) including the current regime of Hugo Chavez, who has placed El Sistema under his office and claims it as part of his “Bolivarian revolution”. The government currently spends US$64 million a year on the programme but some supporters are unhappy with Chavez’ patronage.
Such political tensions have not, apparently, damaged the international reputation of El Sistema, which continues to inspire many people around the world with its founder’s vision of art at the service of society, and his faith in the power of music to reveal the beauty and nobility of life. Would that there were more people who could see that the solution to poverty is not just material and political, but cultural and spiritual. It’s a vision that can be translated into any culture where there are individuals daring enough to try it.
“What I love about this whole movement is that it’s inspiring so many people,” says Anne Fitzgibbon in a profile on the Juilliard website. “Really, anybody can make a difference, even one person, with one hour a week. You can have an impact. You can do something. I always tell people, ‘Don’t be scared. Be bold.’”
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.