El Sistema

February 10th, 2011 by Paul Keegan

Through musician Jaime Austria’s efforts, the spirit of a groundbreaking Venezuelan music program for kids has finally taken root in the U.S.

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I was in a Brooklyn nightclub four years ago, killing time with my jazz band between sets, when I was introduced to Jaime Austria. The first thing I noticed were his eyes: warm, curious, full of play and wonder, childlike in the best sense. We exchanged pleasantries, and he began rambling excitedly about a Venezuelan music program called El Sistema that was transforming the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids from drug-torn barrios and creating some of the most moving, transcendent music he had ever heard.  After a few minutes, I was due back  on stage, but Jaime wouldn’t let me go; he gestured, grabbed my arm, and pulled me close to explain how Placido Domingo had cried while listening to those amazing kids play Handel’s “Messiah.” Soon I was on his email list, getting passionate notes about this revolutionary movement: “I HAVE NEVER HEARD A FULL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PLAY A MAMBO LIKE THIS!!!”

Such praise meant something coming from Jaime, who for decades had played double bass with the New York City Opera and the American Ballet Theater. He was so widely respected among musicians that if Jaime said these kids were for real, no questions were asked – you knew it was true. That night in Brooklyn, word of El Sistema was just starting to spread beyond the classical-music cognoscenti, and Jaime was trying to pack a meeting room at the musician’s union Local 802 for a screening of “Tocar Y Luchar,” the award-winning documentary that takes its title from El Sistema’s motto, “To Play and To Struggle.” The film features Sir Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic searching for enough  superlatives (“there is no more important work … in music now than is being done in Venezuela”) and showcases El Sistema’s best-known graduate, Gustavo Dudamel, who became the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 at the tender age of 28.

El Sistema began in 1975 through the efforts of visionary economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, who held regular music classes with 11 children in a Caracas parking garage.  Today, more than 368,000 children in Venezuela eagerly agree to a rigorous schedule of four to six hours of practice per day, five to six days a week. El Sistema now has over 60 children’s orchestras, nearly 200 youth orchestras and dozens of choruses. The top musicians are selected for the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, which tours internationally and has been compared favorably with the best orchestras in the world – incredibly, with players who are just 15 to 25 years old.

Jaime’s mission was to help bring El Sistema to the United States. He wasn’t the first;    Mark Churchill, a dean at the  New England Conservatory of Music, became involved in the late 1990s and  is now director of El Sistema USA, which offers fellowships to help  develop programs based on the Venezuelan system. But Jaime added a major jolt of electricity to the effort. “Jaime was a big force in translating El Sistema to the U.S.,” says Churchill. “His work in New York was very active and impassioned.”

Jaime was a musician, not a bureaucrat, so he contributed the best way he knew how: not by organizing committees and making PowerPoint presentations, but proselytizing for El Sistema in his own inimitable style. He liked working behind the scenes, starting petitions, creating websites, sending out mass emails and calling everyone he knew. “If Jaime called you, you’d be on the phone for a couple of hours for sure,” says Peter Weitzner, a double bassist who teamed with Jaime to create El Sistema NYC, an informal networking organization that encourages the cultivation of local programs modeled after El Sistema. Jaime’s own life was so transformed and enriched by music, he said – a music scholarship allowed him to come to New York from his native Philippines when he was 19 – that he felt a deep responsibility to spread the word.

El Sistema also fit perfectly with Jaime’s view of the arts, articulated on his Facebook page with a quote from the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga: “The arts are not frosting but baking soda.” Thanks to Abreu’s tireless efforts, the Venezuelan government seems to understand this; most of El Sistema’s $80 million budget comes from the government, not as arts funding but from the department of social services. Counterintuitive, maybe, but it has produced astonishing results: Crime and school-dropout rates have declined so substantially in neighborhoods where El Sistema is active that every dollar invested in the program returns about $1.68 in social dividends, according to The Inter-American Development Bank.

As word about El Sistema  spread, more than 25 countries from India to England to Jamaica began implementing their own versions; the Venezuelan government has launched an ambitious plan to reach a million children per year by 2018. But transplanting El Sistema to American soil has been tricky. Churchill says one of the biggest obstacles is the mindset that arts education is a luxury to be cut when times are tough rather than an urgent necessity that saves lives. “That’s the big challenge, making it an essential part of education,” he says.

But there is slow progress. More than 50 community music centers inspired by El Sistema have cropped up across the United States, including a program called UpBeat NYC that serves underprivileged kids in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. The group was founded in 2009 by Jaime’s 32-year-old daughter, singer Liza Austria, and her husband, saxophonist Richard Miller, with substantial help from Jaime’s wife, Chris, and their two other children, pianist John Austria, 25, and guitarist Ruben Austria, 36. All the Austria kids are phenomenal musicians, as I’ve learned firsthand; I’m fortunate to have Liza, John, and Rich play in my band, the Blue Soul Jazz Quintet. We were performing that night in 2007 when Jaime stopped by the club to say hello.

When UpBeat was launched, Jaime was alive and well, encouraging his kids with emails, articles clipped from newspapers and impassioned monologues at the dinner table. In December of 2009, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer; five months later, at age 62, he passed away. Less than two weeks after his death, the Austria kids and their mom, a school teacher who devotes enormous time to the program giving recorder and piano lessons, could be found on the sun-splashed second floor of a church in Bedford Stuyvesant serving fruit and veggies  to more than a dozen school children, ages 3 to 17, enrolled in UpBeat.  Then came a master class led by our band and Makane Kouyate, a master percussionist from Mali. Afterward, the kids took turns banging on drums, dancing and singing schoolyard songs. My 3-year-old daughter grabbed a stick and started pounding away, too. The air was festive, alive with possibility. It was a remarkable scene, but Jaime’s family and friends were simply following the advice he had scrawled on a piece of paper two days before he died: “Impermanence. Transition; not death. Celebrate!”

That’s El Sistema.

Paul Keegan is a contributing writer for Fortune and Money magazines and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ and other publications.