England's Sistema-inspired projects visit Venezuela's El Sistema

Tutors and staff from the six In Harmony projectsSistema in NorwichArts Council England, Southbank Centre and the In Harmony Sistema England charity travelled to Caracas to have a close-up look at El Sistema, the social programme that has enriched the lives of more than 2.5 million children and young people in Venezuela.

The trip, organised by In Harmony Sistema England, was possible thanks to the generous invitation of Fundamusical, the organisation that runs El Sistema in Venezuela, as well as sponsorship from the CfBT Education Trust, with the collaboration of Air Europa.

The group included Gerald Sterling, head of In Harmony Lambeth; Rebecca Walsh, head of In Harmony Leeds; Rod Skipp, artistic director of In Harmony Liverpool; Emma Carney, a teacher at the Faith Primary School where In Harmony Liverpool is delivered; John Connolly, music tutor at In Harmony Newcastle & Gateshead; Ian Burton, head of In Harmony Nottingham; Ian Thomas, head of In Harmony Telford & Stoke-on-Trent; Althea Efunshile, chief operating officer at Arts Council England; Laura Gander-Howe, head of learning at ACE; Marcus Patteson, head of Sistema Norwich; Steven Copley, musical director at Norwich; Tabby Estell, in charge of learning and participation at Southbank Centre; Richard Hallam, trustee at the In Harmony Sistema England charity and Reynaldo Trombetta, head of communications at IHSE.

The members of the group left snowy England early on 27 January and reached hot and sunny Venezuela 12 hours later. On the next day they kicked off the visit with a guided tour through the Centre for Social Action Through Music, in Caracas. This high-tech spacious building houses performance, rehearsal and teaching spaces for the Simón Bolívar and Teresa Carreño orchestras, as well as other ensembles and individual students in El Sistema.

In the afternoon they visited the La Rinconada núcleo, where 1,800 children and young people aged 3 to 17 from the most at-risk communities in the West of Caracas receive up to four hours of music tuition per day, five days a week. The group watched early years children being introduced to musical concepts, a performance by 8 year-olds with the cuatro and bandola Venezuelan folk instruments, symphonic sectional rehearsals, the local youth orchestra and a children’s choir. At the end of the visit, the conductor of the choir shared some of the music scores with the group, while the núcleo’s director discussed practical issues and proposed some insight into what makes the El Sistema musicians perform with such passion.

On the 29th, the group met with Maestro José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, who offered some advice on how the Venezuelan and English programmes could remain engaged. A committee was established to secure immediate and concrete collaboration activities.

Later that day, the group visited the Guarenas núcleo, which works with 4,000 children and young people from a community with a high incidence of poverty-related difficulties. The relatively small building, bursting with children and music, is located high on a hill about 25 miles to the East of Caracas, surrounded by tattered brick houses. The group watched lessons and rehearsals with children of various ages, including a brass ensemble and a wind band, and they were treated by the Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Guarenas to a performance of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. In the evening, the group had dinner with British ambassador Catherine Nettleton, and staff from the British Council in Caracas.

On the 30th, the group visited the Simón Bolívar Conservatory of Music, in Southern Caracas, which offers formal music studies to 1,200 students from age 12, and feeds most of its students to several dozen professional ensembles across the country, including the Simón Bolívar and Teresa Carreño symphony orchestras. The conservatory’s staff discussed how they work with the núcleos to create a career pathway for children and youths that wish to pursue music professionally. At the end of the visit, they committed to sharing their syllabus and repertoire with the English projects.

In the afternoon, the group visited the Los Chorros núcleo, which serves almost 1,000 children and young people, and is located in Northern Caracas, on the grounds of what used to be a child reformatory. Its current director, Lennar Acosta, was confined there as a child, after a growing up in the streets among drug dealers and violent criminals. “El Sistema saved my life; I actually handed in my gun in exchange for a clarinet, and years later I am helping other children have a better life”, said Acosta. After watching musical theory lessons, sectional rehearsals, a choir recital and an amazing performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 by a group of children aged 8 to 12, the group met with Acosta to discuss everything from the social aspects of El Sistema to the specifics of music education.

On the 31st, the group headed out to Barquisimeto, a city 250 miles West of Caracas. The birthplace of renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel, it is also a great example of how dynamic and advanced music education is in Venezuela’s countryside. More than 3,000 children and young people attend the Vicente Emilio Sojo núcleo every day, from Monday to Saturday. This includes more than 400 students with various levels of disabilities that include blindness, hearing impairment, limited mobility, autism and other conditions. The group saw performances by ensembles and choirs that allow these children to express themselves –including the White Hands Choir, which has hearing-impaired children singing in sign-language. The visit also included demonstrations of El Sistema’s Alma Llanera programme, which focuses on Venezuelan folk music, and the núcleos symphony programme. Afterwards, the núcleo’s staff discussed issues like how children are identified for the young conductors programme, and how El Sistema engages with parents and the communities.

The group finished off the week at the Centre for Social Action Through Music, with a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and a private recital by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Choir. During the weekend they attended a private recital by the Los Llanos Percussion Ensemble, composed of children and young people aged 6 to 22, and then a demonstration of how El Sistema is transcribing the songs and rhythms of Afro-Venezuelan peoples, in order to teach those folk genres in the 300 núcleos spread out across Venezuela.