Music education has been an easy budget item for school systems in America to cut in recent decades. But what has the cost been to our society? In an episode of “Tavis Smiley Reports” on PBS this month the US lack of music education is contrasted with “El Sistema” in Venezuela and its most famous product, Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
At 29, Dudamel is not only the youngest conductor of any major orchestra in the world, but he is also being hailed by critics as the most dynamic – appreciated for his unabashed enthusiasm and for his unquestioned musicality. Dudamel credits El Sistema, which has thrived in his native country under both conservative and liberal governments, with changing his life by instilling in him a passion for music at a very young age.
Now, as a high-profile celebrity in LA and throughout the US, Dudamel is pushing for Americans to embrace music education for kids. “I see the music in general, the culture, as a right for the people,” said Dudamel. “This is my dream to have art as a right to the people in the country and in the world.”
Smiley told RBR-TVBR he first heard about El Sistema from Quincy Jones, which interested him in finding out not only about Dudamel, but also the program’s founder, Dr. Jose Abreu, so “Gustavo Dudamel: Conducting a Life,” is more than a personal profile. “For me it’s about Dudamel but it’s more broadly about the notion of what price our society pays, talking about the American society, what price we are ultimately going to pay for abandoning music education for our children. What is the ultimate price do we pay long term for abandoning music education for kids?” Smiley said.
The program Wednesday, December 29th on PBS will air just ahead of a “Great Performances” presentation of the LA Philharmonic, conduced of course by Dudamel. Smiley is hoping that the exposure to both the music and the back story of how music education is changing lives for kids in both Venezuela and with related programs in the US will stir interest in bringing music back to America’s schools.
In addition to the maestro, Smiley’s report focuses on two kindergartners attending a New England Charter School, a 13-year-old boy who plays in the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, and his mother, who is not shy about applauding both the program and her son. Also featured are four of the first 10 graduates of the Abreu Fellows program in Boston, named for the creator of the Venezuelan program.
While the Venezuelan school system is quite different than what we have in the US, Smiley doesn’t think it will be that hard to find the right model for this country.
“I think we have to find the right model for the US but I don’t think the search is that difficult. I don’t think this is not an intractable problem unless we make it so. The answer is at the very least to do what we used to do which is to put music education back in schools, I mean that’s a pretty simple place to start it seems to me,” Smiley said.
When you have some time, listen to the entire interview below. Smiley is interviewed by RBR-TVBR Executive Editor (and, as noted, fellow Indiana University alumnus, albeit about a decade earlier) Jack Messmer.