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El Sistema in L.A.

The Venezualan approach that the maestro has introduced focuses on learning instruments in groups, engaging interest before instruction, playing with joy, and developing community.
Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel

When Arianna Huffington asked me at an Obama fundraiser to write for her and I drafted my first Huffington Post piece, “President Obama’s Arts”, I never would have anticipated that a little less than a year later, John Abodeely would invite me to participate in this Americans for the Arts blogging event. I feel honored to write alongside esteemed arts and arts education advocates and practitioners, including Arnie Aprill and Jessica Mele – both of whom I featured in a later Huffington Post piece, “Why Arts Education is a Matter of Social Justice and Why it Will Save the World” (Part I and Part 2). The latter post landed me – a humble actress and political activist – the keynote address at the Yale School of Music’s biennial Music Educators’ Symposium, thanks to the interest of Associate Dean Michael Yaffe. And here I am.

Since the Yale experience ignited in my heart a renewed passion for classical music, I have become obsessed with Venezuela’s El Sistema, founded by the great Jose Antonio Abreu, which teaches even that country’s poorest children to play instruments from the time they can talk.

The other morning, I attended a rehearsal of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), the brainchild of classical music wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, who himself was a student in El Sistema. In fact, one of the ways in which the Los Angeles Philharmonic wooed Mr. Dudamel to the position of Musical Director – according to Gretchen Nielsen, the L.A. Phil’s Director of Educational Initiatives – was by assuring him that he could help start something like El Sistema here in Los Angeles.

Previously, the L.A. Phil’s educational initiatives were more traditionally “American” – in other words, focusing on one-on-one instruction. The Venezualan approach that the maestro has introduced focuses on learning instruments in groups, engaging interest before instruction, playing with joy, and developing community. “The orchestra,” Ms. Nielsen states, “is a microcosm for community.” She sees it as a model of concentric circles, positively influencing the child, then the family, than the larger community.

The young musicians come from within a 5-mile radius of the Expo Center, in which L.A.’s Department of Parks and Recreation has donated a number of state-of-the-art rehearsal rooms to YOLA and the small not-for-profit Harmony Project (which donates free instruments and teaching artists to YOLA kids). The center positively shimmers in the midst of its humble surroundings in L.A.’s South Central and is guarded with impeccable security. It has top-notch Olympic swimming pools, basketball courts, tracks and other facilities, and offers a wide array of classes to the local community, which is predominately minority and predominately poor. Except for three weeks off in August, the children learn and rehearse classical music at the center three days during the school week, for an hour at a time, and for three more hours starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings.

Recently, Susan Siman, the head of El Sistema’s biggest nucleo and the former teacher of Maestro Dudamel, rehearsed the kids for their big concert at the Hollywood Bowl on October 3, during which Dudamel will conduct their performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Ode to Joy. During her hour with the kids, before she had to rush to LAX to fly back to Venezuela, Senora Siman shouted affectionately in Spanish at the children (who range from about 7 to 16), while Paloma Udovic of the Harmony Project interpreted for the few non-Spanish-speaking kids. “More pressure on the strings!” Siman emoted. “It’s okay if you break them – I’ll pay for them. And what if the camera catches you with ugly bow hands? Nice hand position makes beautiful music. And clean your instruments for the Hollywood Bowl concert. Everything needs to be shining on that day – your shoes, everything!”

Tentative and tired at first, the children eventually rose to meet Senora Siman’s level of passion, intensity and alertness. They had clearly internalized her message of artistry and pride in self, as they sat forward in their chairs, the feet of some not even touching the ground. Several kids had decorated their instrument cases with stickers and colorful patches. Their mothers, women from places as disparate as Ethiopia and El Salvador, sat on the perimeter listening carefully, some holding crying babies.

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One mother, Mirna Quintanilla, raises her three daughters, Adria, Arian and Amy, 16, 13 and 10, respectively, on her salary as a medical assistant. All three girls have learned and performed in YOLA since its inception two and a half years ago – and all three play two instruments each, which requires that they attend classes and rehearsals at least 5 days a week. Senora Quintanilla said, “My girls never watch t.v. There is music everywhere in the living room.” Adria, the eldest, chimed in, “I can play Michael Jackson on my cello. ‘Beat it’!”

While her girls rehearse at the Expo Center, Senora Quintanilla avails herself of the track downstairs for her newfound hobby, jogging. She also participates in the parent programs that the LA Phil has set up, which include teaching parents how to listen to and appreciate classical music, how to create a positive practice environment for their children, and even how to play the recorder.

“I am a single mother, “ says Quintanilla. “But my children are so busy now, they don’t have time to think about missing anything.” She added that she finds the parent programs a really positive way to develop community, allowing everyone to socialize and pull for each other. She also added, “We don’t pay anything. Instruments, lessons, extra time with teachers – it’s all free. It’s a quality education. With it, my girls will be able to do anything. Adria wants to be a dentist. Arian wants to be a lawyer. The little one doesn’t know yet. But this program will help them prepare for college, help them get scholarships, if they stick with it for five years.”

When I asked Arian, the middle girl, how she felt about performing at the Hollywood Bowl, she gave me the thumbs up.

Senora Quintanilla expressed only one concern: “With the economy, I hope this program can keep going.”

Both Ms. Nielsen of the LA Phil and Ms. Udovic of the Harmony Project seem to believe that there exist sufficient funds at this time for YOLA to continue, with rigorous financial plans having been drafted for the next 10 years. However, they would need more funds in order to expand. To that end, the LA Phil is courting at least 40 other arts, arts education and community organizations to try to create a network that will replicate throughout the Los Angeles area what is happening already in places like the Expo Center – and begin to develop a uniquely American version of El Sistema.


Lucia Brawley

Lucia Brawley is an actress and activist, based in Hollywood, California.

Published originally on Americans for the Arts Art Blog. Republished with the author's permission.