El Sistema: Music’s wonders for at-risk kids

By Michael Lashley

Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu with some of his children.
Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu with some of his children.

Every time I hear about “El Sistema”, I am overcome with joy and pleasant memories of how the power of music so filled and inspired the lives of hundreds of at-risk Venezuelan children that, for them, success became a way of life.

This was quite an achievement, since they came from districts where families struggled to earn a living.

The explanation for such a significant transformation is provided by the founder of El Sistema, Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu: “From the moment a child is taught to play an instrument, he is no longer poor”.

The psychology is simple. Once the intensive and carefully structured after-school program instills discipline and consistency into the lives of the youngsters, they are bowled over by the continuous and noticeable improvement of their musical skills. Then, bit by bit, their newly acquired sense of purpose brings on a flowering of self-esteem.

El Sistema now has world-wide recognition, following on their methodology being formally endorsed and adopted by the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and dozens of other countries.

The early stages of that life-transforming phenomenon gave an emotional jolt to Toronto filmmaker Michael Mabbott, who was present to observe the atmosphere when the children of  Toronto Sistema got their instruments for the first time.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ve never seen anything like that, the hope and the joy.” The 160 instruments were donated by Yamaha Music Canada.

I can relate to that joy and expectation because I was present when Toronto Sistema was launched at Yorkwoods Public School in the Jane and Finch area in October 2013 under the leadership of Executive Director David Visentin. I was there at the invitation of Wilma Cayonne, a multi-talented musician who can best be described as a music fanatic.

I needed no convincing to accept the invitation because I had personally attended heart-warming performances by Abreu’s young charges in the 1990’s at Teresa Carreno Theatre in Venezuela’s capital city of Caracas. So I was well aware of the profoundly positive effect of El Sistema on the personal and academic development of many of the poor, school-aged children of Caracas’ underprivileged districts, the “barrios”.

That is why I was recently overjoyed on receiving an update on the impressive progress which El Sistema is making in the GTA. Toronto now has a second program in operation at Parkdale High School, with two more programs scheduled to be launched in Scarborough next year.

For four days per week, the children receive professional training in music theory, note preparation, and musicianship plus classes in choir, orchestra and drumming.

They have performed at Glenn Gould Studio in CBC’s Broadcasting Centre in Toronto and will be featured in Michael Mabbott’s documentary on the first year of Toronto Sistema (at Yorkwoods) to be shown at the prestigious Hot Docs Canadian Documentary Festival this year.

Michael Lashley
Michael Lashley