How Will Gustavo Dudamel Improve Your Neighborhood?

Last night’s live broadcast of a free performance of two major orchestral works performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Hall conducted by the 28-year-old Gustavo Dudamel brought in a new wave—an electrifying wave of music and awareness that will pour over and affect even the most ordinary, the most musically uninitiated. This new conductor of the L.A. Phil, a former child prodigy who has already been professionally conducting orchestras for over 10 years, is a product of the music education program of his native Venezuela, known as El Sistema, the life work of Jose Antonio Abreu, a musician and Dudamel’s mentor. Venezuela’s state of musical affairs, 30 years ago, in the words of Abreu, was similar to how arts is and has been treated in this country:

"Music and art education were at that time confined to families who could afford to buy instruments. I felt that music education and art should be part of the patrimony of the whole country. From the beginning, I had the idea of inserting strong teachers in classrooms in sectors with dire social needs.

"In those cases, it's not just the lack of a roof or of bread, it's also a spiritual lack - a loneliness and lack of recognition. The philosophy of the system shows that the vicious circle of poverty can be broken when a child poor in material possessions acquires spiritual wealth through music. Our ideal is of a country in which art is within the reach of every citizen so that we can no longer talk about art being the property of the elite, but the heritage of the people."

Venezuela has had all the problems of children of poverty who are deprived with few opportunities for enlightenment. Does that sound familiar? Due to the initial and continuing work of Abreu, government backing and funding of $29 million supplies the funding for a program that involves children everyday in learning classical music from 2 pm to 6 pm, the prime hours our children are left alone without supervision and to get into possible trouble.

Other countries, including the UK, are introducing similar programs. California, its legislators and its schools, need to stop pushing away music education and the arts, they need to stop viewing them as a secondary and insignificant form of unnecessary learning. The mutuality in the Venezuelan system, the emphasis on achievement involving "team" support with parental involvement, providing a lot of opportunity to be the best you can, not necessarily a prodigy, seems to be producing confidant and high achievers in the Venezuelan system whether inside of or away from the field of music. In the words of Jose Antonio Abreu, we too have many children with a lack, a lack of recognition, a lack of identity, and whose loneliness is preyed upon by those who lead gangs and recruit for them, where the end result is crime and more money spent on a large prison population. The study and performance of music and the arts is not for the isolated few, it should be an opportunity for everyone. Right now, gang involvement is an equal opportunity factor in every public school for most, if not all, children in this country, with a tremendous social and financial cost to its citizens. This country, and California, now needs to give other forms of learning and advancement equal opportunity to its masses. It needs its own El Sistema.

While there is no space here to include a full discussion of the postive effect of music on learning, and on the brain, be rest assured it does. The study of music encourages and requires physical and mental coordination, enables poor readers to read better, requires certain math skills, and then gives that music student a worthy goal for which to strive. Wouldn't you like to have that child growing up near you, knowing he or she is living with a productive purpose and the means to do so?

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