Recent Reads: Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

As a former administrator of symphony orchestra community engagement programs, I have thought a lot about why becoming fluent in the language of music matters.  But on a Thursday evening, when my 11-year-old asks me again why she has to keep taking piano lessons if she’s not going to become a professional musician, I sometimes find myself searching for a way to express exactly why.  For anyone grasping, like me, for more nuanced language about why making music makes us better humans, I highly recommend you pick up Tricia Tunstall’s new book “Changing Lives” about Venezuela’s remarkable El Sistema, Gustavo Dudamel, and the transformative power of music for young people. 

Founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abrue, Venuzuela’s El Sistema is a national music education system of orchestras and more for youth that is available to any child (no matter musical talent or socio-economic situation) who is interested and commits to attend the daily after-school program.  Unusual for an arts program, El Sistema is funded by the social service ministry, not the culture ministry.  Abreu says:

 “Poverty is not just a lack of a roof or bread, it is also a spiritual lack – a loneliness and lack of recognition.  The vicious cycle of poverty can be broken when a child poor in material possessions acquires spiritual wealth through music.”

One of the most remarkable stories of El Sistema is Gustavo Dudamel, now conductor of the LA Philharmonic, who started out as a child violinist and rose through the Venezuelan music education program.  For Tunstall, Dudamel represents the almost too remarkable truth about El Sistema:

“the movement of thousands of children from impoverishment to symphonic mastery, the youth orchestras who play like professionals, the transformation of a trombone player’s son from central Venezuela into an international conducting star.”

While I’ve deeply admired El Sistema since the music community first started buzzing about it a few years ago, I always thought it was mostly inapplicable to the USA because our systems and values of education, family, property, and individuality simply wouldn’t support the Venezuelan model.  It wasn’t until I read Tunstall’s thoughtful and thorough telling of the El Sistema story through her eyes as an American music educator that I felt a stirring of hope that there are lessons that can be applied to our wealthy (yet very poor) country.

Tunstall shares stories of educators and students who are a part of El Sistema, including Gabriela, a fifteen-year old violinist who enjoys taking part “because of the beauty of the music, and because I’m always working with my friends, working in a team.”  Conductor Lennar Acosta says:

 “the aim of the orchestra is to raise and develop human beings and citizens.  It’s not always easy.  Sometimes it’s very hard… But it cannot be done separately from making music.  You have to work on both things in parallel: making music and making citizens.”

Here in the USA, we have struggled to create programs that don’t prioritize one value over the other, say excellence over access. It was exciting to read Tunstall’s beautiful stories of El Sistema making music, building community and creating citizens in “Changes Lives.”  They demonstrate that we don’t have to choose between excellent music making and access to anyone who wishes to learn.  Both can be accomplished at the same time.  But in order to do that, arts and education leaders will have to shift their assumptions about who can make beautiful music and how people of all backgrounds relate to each other.  Turnstall says,

 “I have to conclude that it’s a mistake to underestimate the capacity of the Sistema to shape the way these young people feel about and relate to one another.  Competitiveness is an element of the human condition.  But the Sistema’s alternative model of cooperative interdependence seems to be so deeply satisfying that it is sometimes able to trump even such elemental emotions.”

The book left me wondering, how might we create programs that foster accessible participation, create beauty, and teach perseverance not through competitiveness but through mutual support and learning from each other?

I urge you to read it, to share it with influential people who can make new, experimental programs happen in your community, and to reach out to the “El Sistema” network that is growing in the USA.  Share your gratitude, hope and belief that communing to learn and create beautiful sounds is one of the strongest ways that we can give our children, our citizenry, richer lives.

Gustavo Dudamel El Sistema
Gustavo Dudamel conducting
Melissa Dibble is the Managing Director and Lead Facilitator at EmcArts, bringing over two decades of experience in cultural administration and development of new strategies in organizational innovation within the arts sector.