El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music

Bob Simon On Venezuela's Groundbreaking Musical Education Program

This segment was originally broadcast on April 13, 2008. It was updated on July 16, 2008.

What comes to mind when you mention Venezuela? Hugo Chavez probably, or oil, or baseball? What probably does not come to mind is classical music.

And yet, Venezuela is the home of a music program that's so extraordinary it has been hailed as the future of classical music itself.

As correspondent Bob Simon first reported in April, it's called "el Sistema" - "the system" - and it's all about children, about saving them - hundreds of thousands of children - through music.

In the world of classical music, the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra is unique. The musicians, kids mainly, are not graduates of some conservatory or music school - they're alumni of the school of hard knocks in the slums of Venezuela. And their orchestra is about the exuberance of youth.

It recently made its Carnegie Hall debut with Gustavo Dudamel, its celebrated young conductor.

Carnegie Hall was the last stop on the orchestra's first American tour, and a long way from its home in Venezuela. Many of the kids come from neighborhoods which are so poor, desperate and crime-ridden, that hope is often extinguished in children at an early age.

Instead, these kids travel the world, playing to sell-out audiences. The National Youth Orchestra and hundreds of others are the brainchild of Dr. José Antonio Abreu.

Asked if he remembers the night he first started, Dr. Abreu, told Simon through a translator, "We only had 11 children - rehearsing in cramped conditions. But I had the feeling that this was the beginning of something very big."

Abreu, a 69-year-old retired economist, trained musician, and social reformer founded "the system" in 1975 and has built it with religious zeal, based on his unorthodox belief that what poor Venezuelan kids needed was classical music.

"Essentially this is a social system that fights poverty," Abreu explained. "A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides."

"So, music actually becomes the vehicle for social change?" Simon asked.

"Without a doubt," Abreu replied. "And that is what's happening in Venezuela."

Every afternoon, small children line up for free music lessons at their local branch of "the system."

Raphael Elster runs one of the branches. He told Simon children join the music program as young as two years old.

Two-year-olds start learning the basics, like rhythm, and the language of music. By the time they're four, they're being taught how to play an instrument. By the time they're six or seven-year-old veterans, they're playing in orchestras.

"A regular kid who will play in two or three years, we make it happen in three, four months," Elster told Simon.

Asked how that's done, he said, "We work hard. And they love it."