Using Music To Mentor Venezuela's Poorest Youth Through music education, many children from Caracas' worst slums learn to overcome adversity and go on to become professional musicians. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel, an alumnus of El Sistema, is now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Using Music To Mentor Venezuela's Poorest Youth

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GUY RAZ, host:

There's a star-studded concert tonight at the Hollywood Bowl. Opening acts include Herbie Hancock, Taj Majal, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, David Hidalgo from Los Lobos. And the headliner: Gustavo Dudamel, making his official debut as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The Venezuelan director is just 28 years old, the youngest conductor ever for the L.A. Phil, and may be the hottest name in classical music today. Dudamel is a product of El Sistema or The System. It's a Venezuelan program that teaches classical music to kids; many of them desperately poor.

Enrique Rivera visited the country's capital, Caracas, and spoke with a few of the quarter million young musicians who've come through El Sistema.

ENRIQUE RIVERA: This state-of-the-art concert hall is packed. You can tell the stage cost a fortune. It's enormous and boasts a shiny hardwood floor.

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RIVERA: About 80 Venezuelan teenagers of all sizes and colors, between the ages of 16 and 18, are decked out in the most elegant dresses and crisp black tuxedos.

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RIVERA: This building isn't merely a concert hall. It's a school where young people come to learn and practice playing classical music. The school has 84 classrooms and three concert halls. This one seats 400 people. There's another one that seats 800, and one outside that seats 15,000.

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RIVERA: During the day, this mega-facility is flooded with thousands of young people eager to become better musicians, like 15 -year-old Diana Tardes, who plays the contrabass, an instrument almost twice as big as she is.

Ms. DIANA TARDES (Contrabass Player): (Through Translator) This instrument caught my attention because it's an instrument that most skinny little girls like me don't normally choose. They usually choose the violin, but I wanted to choose something different.

RIVERA: A teenager wanting to do things differently isn't that uncommon, but one of the things that make El Sistema so unique is that 70 percent of those in the program are poor.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

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RIVERA: Many of the young people come from Caracas' infamous slums, some of the most violent in the world. Being surrounded by poverty, drugs and murder is a lot of baggage for a young person to carry.

Ulysis Acano, a principal conductor in the program, helps them carry it.

Mr. ULYSIS ACANO (Principal Conductor): (Through Translator) People without a father, without a mother, with severe problems at home like abuse and the stuff like that. I am like a friend, like a father. You hear their problems and you can help find a place where they can seek help or you can help them yourself.

RIVERA: Kids in the program come here to practice every day after school from three to 7 p.m., and even on Saturdays. When you speak to some of them, you're immediately struck by the maturity they display. And it's largely due to the discipline, Acano says, the program imposes.

Mr. ACANO: (Through Translator) Music has a gigantic amount of mental, mathematic and physical training, and they've understood that message very well.

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RIVERA: Learning to play a classical instrument can be extremely difficult, but Miguel Rodriguez, a 19-year-old clarinet player, says he doesn't get frustrated.

Mr. MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ (Clarinet Player): (Through Translator) I only get stuck, but then I reflect on what I'm doing wrong and I just continue. That's it.

RIVERA: It's an approach he applies to his day-to-day life. Most kids in El Sistema have learned how to overcome adversity well, since they've been doing it since kindergarten. Some were as young as 2 years old when they came to the program.

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RIVERA: Most young people start out in El Sistema singing in the chorus. Then they work their way up: learning the instrument they choose, practicing and playing in the orchestras.

Susan Simon is the director of the Infant Academy in Caracas.

Ms. SUSAN SIMON (Director, Infant Academy): (Through Translator) We put them in contact with success at a very early age. The first thing they accomplish musically is applauded. So they start to learn that that's fun and recognized. They like to do it simply because they have experienced success.

RIVERA: They learn little by little, but the huge amount of musical knowledge these kids display is truly remarkable, like this orchestra of elementary school and junior high kids.

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RIVERA: Most of these young people will become professional musicians when they grow up, but not all.

Maribel Cartellanos, a 25-year-old conductor in the program, says that's not the point.

Ms. MARIBEL CARTELLANOS (Conductor): (Through Translator) My sister also studied music, but she decided on another career. But this left her the discipline, the organization, the constant day-to-day desire to be better. That's why we are here.

RIVERA: They're here together as a clan, a family that is spread out to every city in Venezuela, now that each one has a youth orchestra.

From NPR News, I'm Enrique Rivera.

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