For my first post this week, I want to point you to this video on the TED website (click on the image to launch the video):
[If you can’t watch the whole video, I would highly recommend the following segments: from 5:00 to 6:15 – explains the rationale for El Sistema, and from 7:52 to 14:22 – goes into more detail about the model]
TED is an invitation-only conference that brings together some of the leading thinkers in the fields of technology, entertainment and design. The best thing is that they make most of their presentations available online for free, so you can watch people like Al Gore, Bill Gates, Jane Goodall and many others talk about the complex problems we face and their innovative solutions. Each year, TED makes a series of awards called the TED Prize to ” a leader in his/her chosen field of work, with an unconventional viewpoint and a vision to transform the world.” Each recipient gets $100,000 and a wish they want the TED community and the thousands of people watching the videos to help them with.
This year’s recipient, Jose Antonio Abreu, is a retired economist, trained musician, and social reformer from Venezuela who founded El Sistema (“the system”) in 1975 based on the idea that what poor Venezuelan kids needed was classical music. After 30 years and 10 different political administrations, El Sistema is now a nationwide organization of 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras and 270 music centers.  Here’s what he had to say about the importance of music in children’s lives:
“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.” 
Jose Antonio Abreu’s TED prize wish: “I wish you would help create and document a special training program for at least 50 gifted young musicians, passionate for their art and for social justice, and dedicated to developing El Sistema in the US and in other countries.”
As Dr. Paul has stated several times, the field of special education tends to be very self-referential. I would add that this statement describes education in general in the U.S. There is so much that we can learn from other countries and yet we remain fixated on one way of doing things (“our way”). Jose Antonio Abreu’s organization works with some of the poorest children in Venezuela (a lot of the students in our inner city schools would seem middle class in comparison), but he has been able to transform some of them into some of the best conductors in the world of music. One of his students will soon become the leader of the Los Angeles Philarmonic. Jose Antonio Abreu believes in using youth orchestras as a way to give poor children an alternative to the drugs and violence that surround them in their communities. He believes that “an orchestra is first and foremost about togetherness, a place where children learn to listen to each other and to respect one another.” 
As he explains in the video, the idea is to get children to feel better about themselves by giving them a creative outlet, then to get their parents and the community involved (through concerts, etc.). Now, I am not naive in suggesting that music will cure everything that ails our inner city schools and communities, but it can help enrich the lives of our students and bring them in touch with their creative abilities while giving them an alternative to the bad influences they are exposed to on a daily basis. Instead of seeing these possibilities, we are continuing to eliminate music programs because they “take time we should be spending on FCAT”. I hope Jose Antonio Abreu’s efforts to create a demonstration project in Boston will be a success and lead to other implementations of El Sistema in other cities.