04 May 2012

You can't stop the music

Both personally and as Chairman of Australia21, I am disappointed to hear that there is to be a spill of full-time positions at the Australian National University’s wonderful School of Music, so that the 32 full-time staff have to apply for positions in a reduced establishment of 20.

Disappointed because I think we as a society should be moving in the other direction – more engagement with music as high art – and I have begun considering how to frame an Australia21 project that could examine the social wellbeing benefits of the Venezuelan program known as El Sistema (“the system”) and how the lessons from that might be applied in an Australian context.

El Sistema is a publicly financed music education program in Venezuela, founded in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu under the name of Social Action for Music.

El Sistema is a state foundation which watches over Venezuela's 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras and 270 music centres, and the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. While the organisation has 31 symphony orchestras, its greatest achievement is the 310,000 to 370,000 children who attend its music schools around the country where it is estimated that 70 to 90 percent of them come from poor socio-economic backgrounds.  The program is known for rescuing young people in extremely impoverished circumstances from the environment of drug abuse and crime into which they would likely otherwise be drawn.

Interestingly, it has always been located under the wing of social services ministries, not the Ministry of Culture, a fact which has helped it to survive several changes of government, and political persuasions of government, over a period of more than 30 years.  We are talking about classical music as a positive force for personal development and a benefit to society, not simply as recreation, important as the enjoyment aspect is.  As Abreu himself puts it:

Music has to be recognized as an ... agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values -- solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.

A detailed account of El Sistema’s achievements and history, including its spread to the United States and the United Kingdom, may be found in the relevant Wikipedia entry.  A video of Abreu talking about El Sistema on the TED website on the occasion of being awarded the TED Prize may be accessed here, and a June 2010 TED Blog post on the graduation in Boston of 10 young musicians from the the El Sistema USA program at New England Conservatory may be accessed here. These young musicians were to spread out to seven centres across the United States and establish “nucleos” – programs and centres that will “teach children to play music, believe in themselves, and reach for their dreams”.

I would like to see Australia as one of the next to take up El Sistema, but sadly, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. To mix the metaphors, we seem to see music as the icing on the cake, not as core business.  But for people “doing it tough”, and especially their children, music offers great benefits and opportunities.

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