Each year, American parents and students spend billions of dollars on music school tuition. Here in the states, a free classical music education seems too good to be true.
But with Venezuela’s free music education program “El Sistema” as a model, El Sistema USA hopes to create programs across the United States that will offer kids from all demographics a chance to study classical music.
El Sistema started small in Venezuela, with 11 students assembled in a Caracas parking garage. It aimed to provide the nation’s at-risk youth with an alternative to a life on the streets.
Now the organization supports 180 free music centers, called núcleos, across Venezuela. The system’s 400,000 pupils, ranging from curious toddlers to virtuosic young adults, spend 4-6 hours a day learning about music.
El Sistema has produced stars like conductor Gustavo Dudamel, now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The organization’s premier ensemble, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (SBYOV), has performed under Dudamel at the BBC Proms and has recorded three CDs for Deutsche Grammophon.
Spearheading the US movement is José Antonio Abreu, who also founded the original El Sistema in 1975.
After winning the TED Prize in 2009, Abreu began awarding graduate fellowships to American students who would go on to set up núcleos of their own across the United States. Some Abreu Fellows have already been successful, with one recently opening a free music center in Queens, New York.
Originally, the New England Conservatory served as a home base and source of funding for El Sistema USA. Recently, the two organizations officially parted ways, partly due to a conflict of interest when it came to fundraising.
The split, though amicable, raised questions about how well El Sistema USA would work in a country already densely populated with successful music conservatories and youth symphonies.
El Sistema USA’s goals are unique, primarily targeting youth below the poverty line, but the system would still be competing for funding with these other organizations. And although 80% of the Venezuelan Sistema’s money comes directly from the state, that level of government funding would be nearly impossible to attain here.
If El Sistema USA does take off, however, its network of núcleos could transform the landscape of American music education.