El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music

Bob Simon On Venezuela's Groundbreaking Musical Education Program

Hard work is an understatement. Every day after school throughout Venezuela, you can see kids practicing. Fifteen thousand trained musicians work with them, but the system also uses gifted kids to teach other kids. After eight hours of school work, it makes for a long day.

"So, a kid is here from 7:00 in the morning from 6:00 in the evening?" Simon asked.

"Twelve hours, almost," Elster said. "Every day from Monday to Saturday."

"They only have Sunday," he added.

"Only Sunday to get into trouble," Simon remarked.

"To practice at home," Elster replied, laughing.

Home, for most of the kids in Elster's branch, is called "Sarria," one of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Caracas. "These people, they don't have almost anything. So they decide to build a house here and it's like five people per room," he said.

The worst section of Sarria is a labyrinth of illegal shacks and alleyways, built into the side of a ravine. "And 80, 90 percent of our kids come from here," Elster said. "You can see the kind of construction. This is really bad. It's really poor."

Asked how dangerous it is there, Elster told Simon, "Oh, pretty dangerous. So you cannot be walking around here by yourself."

"Not even you?" Simon asked.

"Not even me. No one. No one," he said. "Even the people from the neighborhood can get robbed here. But it's part of the poverty."

In the midst of that poverty, the system uses classical music to instill in the kids self-esteem and confidence. Popular music, Rafael says, wouldn't work.

"What they have on home at the radio is popular music all the time. Their father, who drinks every day, he get drunk with that music," he told Simon. "So you have to give them something different. When they sit in one of these chairs in the orchestra, they think they're in another country, in another planet. And they start changing."

Their sound might be a little rough, but what they lack in experience the kids make up for with enthusiasm. Trumpeter Paola Chistoni says the system teaches kids a lot more than how to play an instrument.

"Kids who are poor wouldn't be able to join an orchestra on their own. It's really good because not only do they learn a daily routine - but they also learn another culture," she said.

Paolo first chose the violin when she joined the program, but decided the liked the trumpet better.