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Making a difference one violin at a time

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 the many CD pirateers’ booths along the way.

This cacophony characteristic of Caracas’s bustling urban environment 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 represents an ongoing effort to improve the lives of low-income Venezuelan youth by offering artistic and intellectual opportunities that they normally would not be exposed to. Considering that three-quarters of the country’s 25 million people live below the poverty line, mostly concentrated in the vast expanse of barrios, or slums, covering the mountainside surrounding the capital city, one can see why.

While Caracas is the country’s cultural and population epicenter, home to the most youth and children’s orchestras, the system has nationwide reach, currently incorporating 250,000 kids in both rural and urban areas in all of the country’s 24 states. Venezuela has 125 youth orchestras, 57 children’s orchestras and 30 adult professional symphony orchestras, with 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 in and of itself is not the foundation’s end goal. Instead, its overarching objective is to foster social and human development through musical education, teaching kids 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 music system 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, or 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 system to the tune of $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 in the system, a genuine desire to participate is, seeing that rehearsals generally take place for 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. The bottom line is that everyone is given ample opportunity to succeed and no one is kicked out.

Instead, 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 system imbued with musical talent.

However, for those that have natural gifts, FESNOJIV can open doors previously unimaginable. 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, Luis is also studying music education at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. In the end, music has become a career path for both.

An air of exuberance

As it stands, FESNOJIV’s organizational structure is a bit scattered, 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, part of which is financed by the IDB.

To be called the Centro de Acción Social por la Música, the state-of-the-art facility boasts ample rehearsal space for up to 4,000 students, various theatres, including an outdoor performance space, and hallways full of soundproof rooms. The modern facility is also equipped with the technology to hold digital workshops, discussions and rehearsals with people around the world, capacities that enhance the foundation’s academic side. The Centro is literally a concrete assertion of the program’s success.

When touring the as yet unfinished site, there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm, excitement, and purpose radiating from the various hard-hat-wearing guides, from Igor Lanz, the program’s director, to the various engineers working on site.

Similarly, this aura of enthusiasm is also felt when visiting the Montalbán music school. Whether in classrooms full of kindergarteners who are just learning how to hold their instruments properly, obediently following their teachers’ instructions, or in the larger rehearsal spaces where the teens in the youth orchestra play, this sensation is inescapable.

Looking to the future

Nearly 10 years into its relationship with this special Venezuelan music initiative, the IDB has forged a new agreement with FESNOJIV, making the—“Social Action through Music Center”—one of the six new projects included in the IDB’s 2006 lending program for Venezuela. 

This continued support is a testament to the success of the orchestra system in engendering social development in Venezuela.

From FESNOJIV’s end, one of its main ongoing goals is to expand 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 considered.

In the meantime, kids from the barrios will continue joining the orchestra, some becoming first chairs of the strings section and others simply enhancing their lives through music.

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