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El Sistema Founder Dies by Josephine Gray

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Jose Antonio Abreu
1939 – 2018

El Sistema Founder Dies

by Josephine Gray

Changing the trajectory of children’s lives: Music education and its benefits.

I want to pay tribute to a personal hero, a dreamer, a visionary, an economist and most importantly a music teacher and conductor.

José Abreu, the award-winning founder of a project that saved thousands of Venezuelan children from crime and poverty through music, has died aged 78.

Abreu founded the globally acclaimed El Sistema, or The System, in 1975 in an underground parking garage with nine musicians. From those humble beginnings, the network expanded, according to official sources, to 400 choirs and orchestras and 700,000 students. El Sistema has participated in exchange and cooperation programs with Canada, Spain, the U.K., Latin American countries and the United States. Their motto is “Music for Social Change” Their most famous alumni is Gustavo Dudamel, but there are countless other musicians who are teaching and working worldwide.

Abreu’s genius was not only structuring such a successful program but being able to persuade 7 or 8 successive governments in his country to fund it and acknowledge its power of social change.

In a way, it is a blessing that Abreu passed away now, as Venezuela is in the throes of a crisis of apocalyptic proportions, with millions of citizens fleeing to Colombia  unable to stay because of  shortages of medicine, food, water and electricity. The funding for El Sistema has certainly been affected.

It would be heart breaking for him, or any Venezuelan who had dedicated their life to public service, to witness this.

El Sistema had started to introduce its music program into the Venezuelan public-school curriculum, aiming to be in every school by 2015 and the project had been extended to the penal system.

Abreu is the genius behind the complex system of regional núcleos, their unique pedagogical approach, and the team work of many dedicated individuals, of which special mention must be given to its 6.000 exceptional teachers.

“Our pedagogy is based on individual creativity on the part of the teachers,” says Maestro Abreu. “They are very inventive. They have adapted the European methodology to our culture. And research has shown that music has changed the lives of the children, of their families, of entire communities here.”

Research on the benefits of music education, was presented to me at a lecture I attended in 2013 at UCSF by Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor of Communication Sciences; Otolaryngology Neurobiology and Physiology at Northwestern University. In a nutshell, she studies how the brain becomes more developed in people who have played an instrument and/or studied languages in childhood. These neural changes last throughout the lifetime, warding off declines in older age, even if they only played as a child and never picked up the instrument again. Dementia affects cognitive function, and musicians learn to discern between speech and noise, improve reading, auditory attention and auditory memory skills. Therefore, Dr. Kraus’s research shows that the skills you developed as a musician, bolster your brain against the deterioration of cognitive skills as an adult.

Dr. Oliver Sacs mentions this “brain development” in his book “Musicophilia”, where he describes an autopsy during which the researchers were able to determine that the person had been a musician, by examining how the brain was developed.

Dr. Kraus and her department, partnered with the music program in the Chicago Public School system and the Harmony Project in L.A.  which were modelled on El Sistema. They were programs that got music education into the hands of at-risk youth in gang reduction zones. Children of low socioeconomic status are offered the opportunity to play instruments. Over the course of many years studying these students, assessing listening and learning skills by using a research tool that permits the examination of neural activity in response to speech and music sounds, they were able to discern changes in neural activity brought about by music training, and they used the results to argue for the establishment of group musical education in school-based settings. Dr. Kraus also found that the students’ academic achievements increased in both Math and English, while also improving their self-esteem.

It seems so ironic that music programs are so often cut in favor of math and reading, when it’s the music education that improves both indirectly!

It should be a source of solace and pride that the majority of our members who are teaching or have taught at some point in their lives, are actively changing the trajectory of those children’s lives and their brains! Abreu and Kraus have provided us with the data to show how music education changes lives.

“For many of the children that we work with, music is practically the only way to a dignified social destiny. Poverty means loneliness, sadness, anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration to success. It is a big family which is dedicated to harmony, to those beautiful things which only music brings to human beings.” José Antonio Abreu

Sources: The Guardian, Wikipedia, Polar Music Prize website