Monday, December 17, 2007

El Sistema

In the violent slums of Venezuela, free classical music lessons have transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and created an unlikely production line of virtuosos. For 32 years El Sistema (the System) has tackled the “spiritual poverty” among some of South America’s poorest street children by teaching them to play Bach, Beethoven and Mahler in orchestras. The Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, El Sistema’s dazzling standard-bearer, played recently at Carnegie Hall in New York and reading about this event sparked the thinking for this blog entry. What my thinking is that the model of this program would be a worthy venture within the city of Detroit. Detroit could use a few success stories. The city has slowly progressed to a vast waste land of decay, shells of houses and urban blight. One has only to drive down Jefferson Avenue from the Grosse Pointes to downtown Detroit to experience the sharp demarcation from cultural advantage to depravity. The recent declaration by national media that Detroit is once again #1 in the country in murders underscores the need to turn this around. More than a half a century ago as a child I played with my friends and classmates in the streets and parks of Detroit's east side and now parents are scared to let their sons and daughters outside. A local organization, SOSAD (Save Our Sons and Daughters) has formed to attempt, apparently without success, to deal with the loss of life of young people throughout the city through the vehicle of homicide. In Venezuela, El Sistema embraces more than 200 orchestras, reaching 250,000 children. It attracts millions a year of government funding. It started humbly, with a handful of children playing in a garage. I think that Detroit is ripe for a project of this type. Music has been dropped from the curricula of Detroit schools while it thrives in the suburban environment where parents can afford lessons and instruments. There is a ready made resource already in existence as a springboard for a project of this type. I know of at least three community bands in the area in which musicians of all ages and experience meet weekly to enjoy the beauty of creating music. While the mechanism would need to be worked out, this resource could be tapped to include the kids of the inner city in a meaningful way such as to enrich their lives and guide them gently down a different path. If anyone reading this has any ideas on this topic, I would appreciate hearing from you.

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