Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Update from Venezuela

Hi Friends,

I want to write as little as possible and get to videos, so all the background you need is that I have been in Venezuela for a little over week traveling to sites across the country where over 400,000 children are learning the skills they need to succeed in life through music. The program I want to build in Charlotte is based on El Sistema and uses four pillars to give kids the tools they need to change their lives; I talk briefly about them below and share some of the ways those four things have been illustrated for me to this point in Venezuela.

Brain development/skill building:
In the past five days, I have seen more focus, discipline, patience, and concentration from children than I thought possible. Children from age five routinely rehearse three to four hours each day, and the results of such intense work are obvious. In the following video from Montalbán, notice how three- and four-year olds remain focused on their rehearsal in spite of the fact that a group of twenty strangers has just entered the room.

During the concert later that day, one group of children this age performed while another group sat patiently on stage waiting their turn (pictured above). The teachers I have spoken with in Charlotte often talk about how they are unable to spend time with individual students because the rest of the class devolves into chaos. Imagine how much more learning could happen for every child if students were able to exhibit this kind of control.

Relationship development/community building:
When you ask one of the kids why they come to orchestra, he or she is likely to give you a strange look and say, "Because all my friends are here." The positive relationships that children forge with each other, their teachers, and other non-family adults foster better decision-making, increase their sense of belonging, and create a network of support that each child can can rely on. This is a quick glimpse into the community that is being built at Sarria.

The beautiful thing about the relationships these kids are forging is that even while they are making lifelong friends, the way they are interacting--positively, without violence--is teaching them decision-making skills, conflict resolution, and leadership. These social skills are critical to successfully making it through school, finding a job, raising a family, or whatever path they may choose.

Family involvement:
One of my favorite stories so far is from Sarria. Raphael, the former director there, told us that dozens of men and women from age fifteen to twenty-five or so attend class with their children or siblings for two hours every week. They are not paid and do not receive any direct benefit for coming; what draws them there, they say, is the opportunity they see for their children or brothers or sisters to become part of something larger than themselves--to take advantage of opportunities that they themselves might not have had.

The photo below is of an open rehearsal at Montalbán that families were invited to attend. The thirty or so children that performed drew a crowd of a hundred and fifty parents, grandparents, siblings, and many others, most holding cameras above their heads to get a shot of their children performing.

Family involvement is absolutely critical; in the United States, for example, one of the biggest early indicators of high school graduation is parental involvement. If we can find a way to get more parents invested in the education of their kids, more children will graduate high school and end up being more invested in their kids' education. Music is a unique way to engage parents where schools and other programs have failed--and I have seen the proof here.

This is obviously something that we cannot create for kids--I hope instead to build a platform that enables each child to create it for himself. What do I mean by joy? What I don't mean is fun--fun is a superficial, fleeting emotion that can be created easily. Kids can have fun playing video games. Joy is a steadier companion that these kids are creating for themselves by dedicating themselves to learning music with and from their friends, families, and teachers every day. That joy and the hope it brings can manifest itself in a lot of ways,  which brings me to my last video. This is Camille, who I met in Montalbán. All I asked her was why she likes playing the cello, and here's her response:

For those of you whose Spanish is as bad as mine, she says that when she grows up, she wants to play in the orchestra with Gustavo Dudamel--the Simon Bolívar Orchestra. That hope will push her to strive, and--whether she makes it to the orchestra or not--will empower her to live the life she wants and deserves.

Hopefully, these short videos give you a glimpse into what I want to help build in Charlotte and why. Venezuela and the United States are incredibly different places, but the opportunity to help children who are unlikely to thrive is the same. If teaching music to a child in need can improve her academic achievement, build social skills, and engage her family--all while allowing her to create authentic and lasting joy for herself--the opportunity for benefits to children, families, and society as a whole (increased graduation rates, higher civic engagement, decrease in violence and gangs, etc.) is too great to ignore.


  1. Ben that is beautifully written. I absolutely agree with you about the difference between fun and joy. Joy - real joy - seeps into your bones and colours your view of the world and the way you engage with people and life. Abuse and unkindness can't thrive in a spirit that's rich in joy. All the best, Ben. You're doing a phenomenal thing.