Extract from The Bolivar Lecture By Dr. Richard Holloway
The Anglo-Venezuelan Society
This is where El Sistema comes in. It gets children playing again, playing arduously. There are three aspects of the method that are instructive. In the classical European musical pedagogy, children learn to play a musical instrument in private tutorials; and after years of solitary practice, if they are good enough, they’ll graduate to an orchestra.
El Sistema turns this paradigm upside down, by placing children in orchestras from the very beginning. I have watched Venezuelan children aged two, dummy-tit firmly in their mouths, solemnly bowing tiny violins with intense concentration. The other two aspects of this revolution are intensity and immersion. Remember, what we have to do here is find a more powerful and dominant social reality for the children than the one that is damaging them: the orchestra offers a complete alternative reality, day in and day out.
It is this intense immersion in the orchestra and in the beauty of music that is the key to its revolutionary success in socialising children into disciplined, co-operative human beings, who discover pleasure in effort and joy in the exultation of music. That’s what I saw in Venezuela and it is what I wanted for Scotland’s children, which was why I was determined to meet the Maestro that afternoon in Edinburgh two years ago. We had created a board and registered ourselves as a charity.
We had raised enough money to hire a gifted young woman as director of the project; and we had found a community in Scotland that was regenerating itself after a difficult history, and was keen to let us try the experiment on them. But I did not want us to be another youth music initiative inspired by El Sistema: I wanted us to be El Sistema in Scotland. Above all, I wanted the blessing of the man of genius who had founded the system.
All of that I got from Maestro Abreu, and more. He announced at a press conference the afternoon of the concert that he would enter a covenant with us to help us deliver in Scotland what they were delivering in Venezuela; that they would share their wisdom with us; above all, they would invite us to become part of their family. All this we sealed that day, and a few months later we sent another delegation to Venezuela to sign the covenant.
A few months after that we sent our newly hired team of musicians to Venezuela not only to gain some training in their approach, but to get the vibe, be evangelised, be motivated by what they saw. We’ve been going for a year in Raploch, and our hearts are warmed and our wills confirmed by what is happening. We are showing that the Venezuelan miracle can work in Scotland, a very different society with a very different culture.
It works because children are children everywhere, and they know in their hearts how to play, creatively, redemptively, if given half a chance: that is the chance we are giving them. But this is only the beginning. Dostoevsky said the world would be redeemed by beauty. José Antonio Abreu has shown us how music can make beautiful the lives of the children who play it. We are thrilled because, through his genius, the children of Venezuela are teaching the children of Scotland how to play again.