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May 1, 2006

Making a difference one violin at a time

How Venezuela has turned classical music into a vehicle for personal growth and opportunity among low-income children and youth

By Norah Sullivan

While walking down Sabana Grande, Caracas’s raucous pedestrian boulevard, it is impossible not to be bombarded with the competing beats of reggeton and salsa blasting from CD vendors’ booths along the way.

This cacophony characteristic of the bustling urban environment of Venezuela’s capital lies in stark contrast to the sounds encountered at the city’s Montalbán music school, the heart of the celebrated State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela (FESNOJIV).

Founded 30 years ago through the pioneering vision of Venezuelan economist, politician and musician José Antonio Abreu, FESNOJIV seeks to improve the lives of low-income youth by offering artistic and intellectual opportunities that they normally would not be exposed to.

While Caracas is home to most of Venezuela’s youth and children’s orchestras, the foundation has nationwide reach, incorporating nearly 250,000 children in both rural and urban areas in each of the country’s 24 states. Venezuela has 125 youth orchestras, 57 children’s orchestras and 30 adult professional symphony orchestras, in addition to a vast network of núcleos, or music schools, located throughout the country.

Music as a development tool. While FESNOJIV has produced a number of world-renowned Venezuelan classical musicians, cultivating musical talent is not the foundation’s central goal. Instead, its overarching objective is to foster social and human development through musical education, teaching children from the day they enter the music school about responsibility, hard work, respect and sacrifice. These qualities can be translated into all other aspects of their lives, from enhancing performance in school to improving future earning potential.

The orchestra can be a dramatic intervention in young people’s lives, especially for those coming from juvenile detention centers, life on the street or broken homes. It can simply represent a creative outlet for departing from the daily grind of life in the barrios. Whatever their background, the orchestra offers young people a way out of marginality, and its general impact on their self-esteem cannot be underestimated.

Because of its inextricable connection to human development within poor and marginalized communities, FESNOJIV is part of the Venezuelan Ministry of Health and Social Development, which funds the foundation to the tune of US$29 million per year. Similarly, the IDB has been supporting various aspects of its activities since 1997, including building construction, music teacher training and institutional strengthening.

No experience necessary. While musical experience is not a prerequisite for playing with FESNOJIV, a genuine desire to participate and learn is essential, since rehearsals generally last three to four hours a day, six days a week.

FESNOJIV accepts anyone wanting to join, starting with children as young as two, and demand has grown so great that hopefuls are routinely put on waiting lists. Kids are given free instruments and begin to play in small orchestras from their very first day. If the violin doesn’t suit them, they are given a viola, and so on, trying out various instruments until they find a good match.

Eliecer Sánchez, FESNOJIV’s musical coordinator, likens participating in the orchestras to a process of natural selection, though he stresses that students still gain from the experience, even if they don’t enter the orchestra imbued with musical talent.

Former children’s orchestra members Luis Ibarra (r.) and Anthony Vivas now teach music at Montalbán school.

For those with a natural musical gift, FESNOJIV can open previously unimaginable doors. Take Luis Ibarra and Anthony Vivas, both of whom started playing violin with the children’s orchestra as youngsters and are now music teachers at the Montalbán music school. Now 27, Ibarra is also studying music education at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.

An air of exuberance. FESNOJIV’s organizational structure is highly decentralized, with núcleos spread throughout the country, some more makeshift than others. In order to better consolidate the foundation’s activities, the construction of a new headquarters building is underway in Caracas with partial funding from the IDB.

To be called the Centro de Acción Social por la Música (Center for Social Action Through Music) the state-of-the-art facility will boasts rehearsal space for up to 4,000 students, several theatres, including an outdoor performance space, and hallways full of soundproof rooms. The modern facility is also equipped with the technology to hold virtual workshops, discussions and rehearsals with people around the world.

Nearly 10 years into its relationship with this special Venezuelan music initiative, the IDB has forged a new agreement with FESNOJIV, making the new facility one of the six new projects included in the IDB’s 2006 lending program for Venezuela. For its part, FESNOJIV´s managers intend to continue expanding the system’s coverage, creating more regional centers like Montalbán throughout the country. Also, plans to integrate the music program into the public school system are being studied.

In the meantime, children from Venezuela’s barrios will continue to join orchestras, some becoming first chairs of the strings section and others simply enhancing their lives through music.

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