Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and El Sistema in Venezuela


Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and El Sistema in VenezuelaThe Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, is very well known across the world. Coming from South Africa, a country that also struggles with high levels of poverty and related social problems, I am fascinated by the incredible achievements of the Venezuelan El Sistema with social upliftment through music. I have shamelessly copied excerpts from an article that appeared in The Strad of September 2010. It was written by Jonathan Govias. I am hoping someone in South Africa will read this and get inspired...

In April 2010 an orchestra gathers for the first time to work through Mahler’s Symphony no. 1, and acquits itself honourably. This by itself might not be noteworthy, but the orchestra in question is comprised of 337 musicians, all of whom are under the age of 16. Is it necessary to say that this is in Venezuela? El Sistema has been alternately described as 'the Venezuelan music miracle' and 'the future of classical music' by various luminaries, its orchestras have performed across the world, and its musicians are joining the ranks of the most storied ensembles in the industry. And yet the questions remain. What exactly is El Sistema? How does it work?


It's such a simple idea, obvious on one hand, but quite radical when considered against the vast industry of conservatoires and schools fine-tuned to produce excellent performers. The social agenda permeates every aspect of El Sistema's operations, is a core element of its advocacy and thus sustainability, and influences at the most fundamental level its practical activities.

El Sistema is first and foremost an ensemble programme, with the symphony orchestra, and increasingly chorus, the focal point of the participant experience. Students are assigned to groups from day one, regardless of their level of ability, and are expected to contribute as best they can. The larger facilities (núcleos) generally boast multiple orchestras of varying levels of ability, so the learning curve can be quite gentle, but the practice is maintained consistently even at the smallest núcleos with only one orchestra. In these the curve may actually be less steep, since the student can benefit from the ongoing support and guidance of the more experienced players. The results of this can be extraordinary. At the núcleo in the small town of Acarigua, a young man named Samuel Vargas joined the only orchestra at age eleven, and rose to the position of concertmaster within three years, without the benefit of a regular private instructor.

The de-emphasising of the individual represents a complete inversion of the established music training paradigm in which private lessons constitute the primary learning experience, with ensembles added much later. Each method has its value, but the Venezuelan model would have little or no effect were it not paired with a level of frequency virtually unheard of outside the country. Children arrive at the núcleos after school and proceed to spend four to six hours a day, five to six days a week in rehearsals, sectionals, and group or private lessons. The immediate advantage of this intensity is the extensive contact with students, but at the cost of time for individual practice. As a result, significant amounts of rehearsal time are used to teach and reinforce notes and reiterate musical concepts.

If this sounds frustrating, it isn't. The benefit of this structure is that instructors can oversee much more effectively their students' activity and progress, which means that lapses one day can be corrected before they become ingrained bad habits in the days after. What then emerges is a rare longitudinal window to cultivate and model both practice techniques and work ethic, two qualities that often emerge through such intensive contact. Private lessons are then introduced much more strategically and resource-efficiently for those most able to benefit.

As a matter of principle, no one in El Sistema is ever turned away because of lack of financial resources or on the grounds of proficiency. Offering financial aid based on a combination of merit and need, as is often the case in North America or Europe, can create a vicious circle in which a student with all the necessary motivation still cannot afford the instruction required to earn the scholarship. El Sistema is committed to inclusivity and accessibility, and strives to give every child an appropriate opportunity to participate.


The national body's role is not to dictate curricula or standards, but to build connections from the smallest of núcleos all the way to the largest and most sophisticated. These connections create a network of orchestras that forms a continuous 'conveyor belt' of service and opportunity for musicians from the time they first start an instrument all the way up to the national orchestras. The best illustration of this is the person filling the concertmaster's chair of that 337-member leviathan of under-16s: none other than the same Samuel Vargas, now aged 14, of Acarigua.


Does El Sistema work? The programme's motto is Tocar y Luchar, or 'To perform and to struggle'. The word 'struggle’ is imbued with multiple meanings here, encapsulating the idea of the programme as social venture, but also asserting the principle that any social benefit derives through both the pursuit of musical excellence and performance. It is the struggle, the attention to notes, intonation and phrasing, the striving towards an unattainable perfection that brings people together and unites them into a community beyond all considerations of age, socio-economic status and ethnicity; and it is the performance that gives meaning, purpose and direction to the struggle, and allows accomplishments to be celebrated communally.


On the night of the concert the temperature was 34°C, and the only relief came from an occasional breeze that, while cooling, also sent music flying. The lack of a sheltered stage made it nearly impossible for the musicians to hear each other, and a large part of the programme was performed to fighting dogs and 'drunkard obbligato'. Despite all these challenges, the evening was very special, something I'll never forget. This was it - this was Tocar y Luchar. We had struggled together, we had succeeded together, and thus our achievement was made meaningful and profound, and we were connected forever. El Sistema works.


Contact details

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