It’s a small world. I was one of 150 delegates (and the only one from India) chosen to participate in the first International Sistema Teachers’ Conference organised by Sistema Scotland last November. And when Jesús Morin Duarte from El Sistema Venezuela addressed us on the opening day, I felt I’d seen him before, yet couldn’t think how this could be. It became clear when I introduced myself to him, and told him how the electrifying concert by El Sistema Venezuela’s flagship ensemble, Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra at the 2007 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall London literally changed my life, influencing my decision to give up my career as a GP in the UK and return home to set up Child’s Play India Foundation, inspired by the principles of El Sistema. “I was in the cello section in the orchestra at that concert!” he smiled at me. So that explained it. And here we were, seven years later, but meeting under different circumstances. I was no longer a spectator from the sidelines, but one of the Sistema family.
Duarte acknowledged this large family when he said “El Sistema is a work-in-progress, improvised and developed every day everywhere in the world.” Indeed, here we were, from 27 countries spanning the Americas, Europe, UK, Asia, Africa and Oceania.
El Sistema is a publicly financed music education programme in Venezuela founded in 1975 by educator, musician and activist José Antonio Abreu. It provides free classical music education that “promotes opportunity and development for impoverished children”.
Beginning with 11 children in a basement, El Sistema Venezuela has grown to touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. Their poster boy is undoubtedly Gustavo Dudamel, a conductor with a meteoric career and already at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The 2007 London Proms concert had a deep influence on many others besides me. Months later, the UK government invested £332 million in music education. Julian Lloyd Webber noted that they had “an impoverished South American nation to thank” for their “miraculous” performance. He was appointed chairman of the steering group of In Harmony an El Sistema-based British government-led music education and community development project in impoverished areas of England.
What I saw and experienced first-hand in Scotland is really impressive. Sistema Scotland was established with a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, thanks to its chairman Richard Holloway, for the purpose of breaking the cycle of poverty in the economically depressed area of Raploch, in Stirling. Since then they have expanded to Govanhill, and plans are afoot to go to Aberdeen too.
The Govanhill project should silence critics who believe that people from certain backgrounds cannot take to western classical music easily. Govanhill has a sizeable Pakistani population, and I heard first-generation Pakistani children play with as much gusto as their western counterparts. They could do this in a matter of weeks and months. For anyone to think that our children should be any different from children anywhere in the world is absurd. A hushed silence descended at the conference when I played a video of our kids’ playing to other delegates. The sound of their playing with such confidence and poise drew everyone’s attention. Seasoned teachers marvelled that our children had got to this level so quickly, and with such meagre resources and funding. Imagine what India’s children could do with better support.
India is riding on a wave of national pride. If we truly believe in our children, we have to invest in their future, just as the rest of the world is doing.
Richard Holloway from Sistema Scotland ended his speech with the story of the man who was asked why he was hurling starfish washed ashore on the beach back into the sea, as there’d be tens of thousands more he couldn’t. And the man replied that pointless as it might seem, it nevertheless made all the difference to the starfish that he did manage to return to the sea. “We are all starfish throwers”, said Holloway. “Let us continue to make a difference to as many lives as we can.” Indeed.
After the conference I stopped over in London to play a concert with the London Repertoire Orchestra, and was fortunate to take in four operas in almost as many days, and quite cheaply: Verdi’s I Due Foscari, with Plácido Domingo in the lead baritone role, and Mozart’s Idomeneo (Covent Garden); Donizetti’s Les Martyrs (concert performance, South Bank); and Puccini’s La bohème (English National Opera).