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Music with social overtones

In a modest, unpainted house in a working class district in Caracas, Venezuela,
a boy practices a trombone as his mother prepares dinner. Throughout the country, in cities, towns, rural hamlets and fishing villages, young people are running through scales, hurrying off to rehearsals and playing to appreciative audiences in schools, parks and concert halls. Venezuela is alive with music and musicians.

It wasn't always like this. Just two decades ago, only the children of the wealthy received education in the arts. Not surprisingly, Venezuela at that time had but one symphony orchestra, and 80 percent of its members were foreigners.

The event that changed Venezuela's orchestral scene forever was the creation in 1975 of a national youth symphony orchestra. Impressed by its initial success, the government provided it with funding through the Ministry of Family Services. The idea has now grown into a network of 60 centers that offer instrumental and choral music instruction to some 57,000 children and adolescents, many of them from poor families.

Convinced of the need to include more youths in the program, the government called on the IDB for financial help. Last November, the Bank approved an $8 million loan to both improve the quality of the choir and orchestra system and increase their coverage. The funds will help improve teaching, strengthen administration, and construct a training center with rehearsal and performance facilities in Caracas.


Normally thought of as an artistic end in itself, music can also perform a vital service in a society with limited opportunities for social and economic advancement. In venezuela, the orchestra and choir system functions as a social movement, according to José Antonio Abreu, the system's founder and director.

Studying an instrument and playing in an orchestra has some very practical as well as psychological benefits, he says. For one thing, it requires dedication and discipline, qualities needed for success in school. Although the young musicians must practice and rehearse several hours a day, 96 percent of them have good to excellent school records, according to one study. "They stand out as high achievers thanks to their steady relationship with music," says Abreu.

Playing in an orchestra also teaches teamwork. "An orchestra is a very special society whose purpose is harmony and cooperation," says Abreu. It also demonstrates the values of hard work, since leaders are chosen solely on the basis of ability.

Music also strengthens family life, tightening the bonds between the child and parents who must provide the support the young musicians need. And at the community level, music brings together neighbors to celebrate the achievement of local sons and daughters.

Today, members of Venezuela's first youth orchestras play in the country's great regional symphonies. The Anzoátegui State Symphony, for example, is directed by and made up of former Anzoátegui youth orchestra members. When not touring or giving concerts, former youth orchestra members teach the new generation.

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