Notes from the Chair

October 2007

Do we need “the system”?

The system or El Sistema was new concept to me until August of this year when I was fortunate enough to catch the BBC Prom on BBC4 with theSimón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, enthusiastically performing in their first Prom. What a shame the BBC, in their infinite wisdom, chose not to broadcast this on the main channels in a peak time slot.

The orchestra of nearly 200 players were conducted by the amazing Gustavo Dudamel ( ) , himself a previous member of the Orchestra, as they performed Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony and Bernstein’s West Side Story, followed by vivacious South American music in which they clearly excelled. Their encores were spectacular, changing from formal dress to jackets sporting the Venezuelan flag, dancing and twirling their instruments in obvious joy of performing to a packed house. Such enthusiasm was enlightening, emotionally moving and a gift for television entertainment.

Founded in 1975 with the slogan ‘Play and fight!’ by the extraordinary social crusader Jose Antonio AbreuEl Sistema grew with a simple idea that in the poorest slums of the world, where the pitfalls of drug addiction, crime and despair are many, life can be changed and fulfilled if children can be encouraged to play music. Abreu described this as “the fight of a poor and abandoned child against everything that opposes his full realisation as a human being”.

270,000 young Venezuelans are now playing music across a land that has 220 youth orchestras from the Andes to the Caribbean. Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, describes El Sistema as ‘nothing less than a miracle… “From here, I see the future of music for the whole world.” Sir Simon added: ‘I see this programme not only as a question of art, but deep down as a social initiative. It has saved many lives, and will continue to save them…the country’s youth orchestras were doing the most important work in classical music anywhere in the world.”

Six years ago the Principal Clarinet of the orchestra, Lennar Acosta, had been remanded at the Caracas correctional facility for the ninth time, after a history of heavy drug use and armed robbery. The youth orchestra took him on as a student and gave him a scholarship. He is now teaching at the Caracas Music Institute and performing regularly in Venezuela.

So do we need such a system here? In Scotland (Sterling) the council have decided to embrace the idea of El Sistema, realising that scheme shows impressive results in improving children’s confidence, learning, employment and future prospects and has delivered wider benefits to local communities.

Lets hope that others follow this splendid example of how music can change life in all communities.

In the coming months we are planning a series of events to encourage players to get together (many for the first time) for a Play Day in several areas of the country. We need your help to advertise these future events to help expand our membership and encourage more involvement from everyone. Music really can help change your life!