Sharing the Gift – A remarkable music education program from Venezuela spreads its inspiration to NYC

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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.”

– José Antonio Abreu

Upbeat NYC. (Photo: Illir Bajraktari)

The importance of providing arts education – including music – for our children is immeasurable. And until recently, music education was accessible to every public school student in the United States. Sadly, this is no longer true. With the erosion of arts education, many parents are forced to find alternatives if they want to expose their children to music lessons. The good news is that free or low-cost options do exist. Local youth orchestras such as the New York Youth Symphony provide free instruction for highly-talented, well-trained students. The newly formed National Youth Orchestra, organized by Sir Clive Gillison at Carnegie Hall, auditions the crème de la crème of music students from around the country to perform and tour with different international conductors, again free of charge for the students.

But both of those youth orchestras are geared to students with families who understand the importance of music education and who also have the resources to give their children every opportunity available. Many kids don’t have those same advantages, but they still deserve the chance to learn music. There is an alternative for these students – youth orchestras based on the El Sistema model.

In 1975, José Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan economist and musician, had a vision – a regional youth orchestra for underprivileged children from the inner cities of South America. Abreu believed that his orchestra would not only be a shining example of the formative power of music, but could eventually initiate social change. His vision was realized when he formed the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, made up of children from the urban slums of Venezuela. And so began “El Sistema” (which means “The System” in Spanish).

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