Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How A Venezuelan Program Inspired Massachusetts to Save the Music

December 17, 2014
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How A Venezuelan Program Inspired Massachusetts to Save the Music
Venezuelan Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducts children from Scotland's Big Noise Orchestra, a program inspired by Venezuela’s “El Sistema” movement, June 21, 2012, in Stirling, Scotland. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images
Music education has the ability to improve graduation rates.

Across the country school budget cuts have led to diminishing music programs, but Massachusetts is borrowing an idea from Venezuela to carry on the tune.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) announced plans this week to set aside funding for a program inspired by El Sistema, a free, music-education program founded in Venezuela, making it the first state to do so in the United States. The new program, SerHacer, translates to “to be is to make.”

El Sistema, which focuses on “intensive ensemble participation” from as early as pre-school, was founded in 1975 by Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu to help poor Venezuelan children learn to play music, according to its website. More than three decades later, the program has transformed into a philosophy that’s gaining international traction. In 2009, Dr. Abreu was awarded the TED Prize for his mission to expand the program. Venezuela’s El Sistema reaches more than 500,000 students with plans to increase that number to 1,000,000 annually.

MCC Executive Director Anita Walker began supporting the idea after a visit to Venezuela with the New England Conservatory and Longy School of Music, two higher-education programs that practice the philosophy. The Council plans to award $55,000 toward the initiative, according to Erik Holmgren, who is leading up SerHacer.

The first batch of recipients in Massachusetts include programs such as Sistema Somerville, the Cape Conservatory in Hyannis and the social service Kids 4 Harmony, according to WBUR. The state plans to open free instrument lending libraries to students while also conducting studies on the benefits of music education.

For schools like Springfield High School of Science and Technology, the benefits are obvious. Music director Gary Bernice tells WBUR 99 percent of his 500 students, most of which hail from low-income neighborhoods, had no experience with instruments before joining band.

“It’s no secret that our dropout rate and graduation rate in urban centers is not great. But for students who are in our band…for more than one year, they are almost twice as likely to graduate high school than their peers,” he says.

MORE: Music and Mentorship: How an Austin Org Is Helping Foster Kids Survive the System

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