El Sistema: Where does all that passion come from?

One of the issues I explored during the recent trip to Venezuela organised by In Harmony Sistema England was the astounding passion with which players in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and other El Sistema ensembles usually perform. This is a subject that has been discussed by Sistema-inspired organisations in other countries, who are trying to ignite a similar sentiment among their young performers.

A couple of months back I had the chance to raise the issue with Ron Davis Álvarez, former head of the Guatire and Guarenas núcleos, about 30 miles East of Caracas, and who now leads a Sistema-inspired project among Inuit orphans in Greenland. According to Ron, passion is something that –just like music theory or practice– you can teach.

No 4-year-old child is sitting at home dreaming of becoming a violin player, says Ron. The children that join a núcleo in Venezuela are initially as dispirited and even perplexed as the ones in any other country. But their teachers quickly light their passion through a mix of games, competition, rewards and positive reinforcement. To the children, every lesson, rehearsal or performance is not only a lot of fun, but it is also a chance to prove how great they can be. Teachers in El Sistema are experts in persuasion, concludes Ron.

Like many things in this System that is not a system, there isn’t a magic formula or a single explanation. Eugenio Carreño, head of the La Rinconada núcleo, doesn’t really believe passion can be taught. He thinks it is rather transmitted. And he is convinced that most of the passion comes straight from José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, and then it flows through the núcleos, academies and ensembles, like a benign virus. When I ask Maestro Abreu where this passion originates, he mentions two things: first, from the faith he has in the Sistema project; second, from the positive transformation he has already seen in so many children and young people.

In Barquisimeto, a city 300 miles West of Caracas, I discuss the subject with Jhonny Gomez, the director of the Vicente Emilio Sojo núcleo, a place that absolutely exudes passion. He agrees that this feeling is the product of the pride and the joy for the social work they are achieving. When you play music to save someone’s life –be it your own, or someone else’s– you cannot do it in an indifferent manner. And this passion naturally moves from teacher to student, then among the students themselves, and finally it touches the audience and the community.

Back in Caracas, I speak to Lennar Acosta, the director of the Los Chorros núcleo. When I ask where his passion comes from, his eyes fill with tears. He talks about growing up on the streets of Caracas, among violent criminals and drug dealers, and of eventually trading his gun for a clarinet and discovering a world that until then had been denied to him. “How can I not feel passion when I am playing or, even more, when I’m helping other children discover this world?” he asks.

If I had to choose one explanation, it would no doubt be Lennar’s. From 2005 to 2007, I had the opportunity of working in barrios (slums) and neglected rural areas across Venezuela. I met many young Lennars and their families, and it was obvious that someone who has nothing and is all of a sudden included (in an ensemble, a classroom, a society) will, as a result, be filled with passion (for music, for progress, for life).

The challenge for programmes like In Harmony and Sistema Norwich, or any other being developed in countries that fortunately do not suffer from the atrocious level of poverty of Venezuela, is how we can still make our children and their communities understand that music is not just another extracurricular activity, and that it is actually helping save their lives.

Reynaldo Trombetta is Director of Communications of the In Harmony Sistema England charity.