Opening Kids' Minds and Lives to Music

Nat Hentoff on "el Sistema" - an innovative approach to teaching music to young people

Reporting on education is as strong a passion of mine as jazz and the Constitution. In the 1950s, I came upon a public elementary school in Brooklyn where most of the kids were from low-income families. Some needed free breakfast at school. The principal was ahead of his time as an educator, in that in addition to the standardized tests he was mandated to give, he had in his office the names and individual records of each student, whose progress or lack of it he followed.

What surprised me was that he also had all the kids in the second grade learning to play violin. He’d gotten a grant to supply the instruments after he was drawn to a new method in Japan that taught the violin engagingly from an early age. “Of course,” he told me, “they have to be taught the basics of reading, math and all. But having the confidence to speak for themselves in music will help them become lifelong learners.”

I remembered him when I was struck hard by New York Daily News reporter Heidi Evans’ “Power of Music” in early April. In that article she introduced me to el Sistema (“the System”): “saving children who live in poverty by teaching them to play or sing classical music in a youth orchestra.”

El Sistema need not be limited to classical music. It was created by musician and economist José Abreu, who started Venezuela’s first youth orchestra in 1975. As Evans explains, here’s how it works: “Children as young as 2 years old begin to learn rhythm, and as they grow up and learn to play with their peers in an orchestra, they become part of a community outside the poverty that would otherwise destroy them.”

As I’ve often reported, music is surely not the only way to more than survive poverty. But as I’ve been told by a number of jazz musicians who grew up poor and diversely ghettoized, there is much evidence to back up Abreu. As he told Evans, “From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress, heading for a professional level, who’ll later become a citizen.” This may not be how the student will make a living, but he or she will surely gain confidence.

Over the years I’ve found that a child fundamentally has to learn that he or she can learn and even enjoy the satisfaction. Dr. Kenneth Clark, whose research played a significant part in the Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision, told me years later, as so many public schools remain segregated, that “by the time they’re in the second or third grade, too many disadvantaged kids, as they’re called, still learn that they’re dumb.”

The effect that el Sistema can have on kids is taking root in New York City’s Washington Heights, at our Savior’s Atonement Lutheran Church, presided over by Pastor Barrie Lawless. A onetime musician from England, Lawless is now partnered with conductor Armando Chibras, who has been in charge of el Sistema youth orchestras in Mexico.

“Pastor Barrie,” as his congregation calls him, told reporter Evans that his goal is not to produce headliners: “If we get some Leonard Bernsteins, that’s fine, but the main thing is we are trying to help children discover through music who they are, to believe in themselves and to become complete people.”

Pastor Barrie significantly added: “Every time someone goes to jail, it costs us $210,000 a year to keep them there. El Sistema has the ability to transform children’s lives and lift them out of poverty so they never end up there.” That reminded me of when I was doing a story about a New York state prison section containing young inmates convicted of serious felonies. I asked to see something on their backgrounds. More than 80 percent, I was told, were school dropouts.

In October, the rhythms of el Sistema will hit a groove in New York City. “The church,” Evans reports, “will offer free practice space every day after school for 40 kids. Another 40 children will have their lessons at a public school on W. 212th Street.”

I have written many columns for the Village Voice documenting the continuous disintegration of much of the city’s public school system, where “the racial gap” in learning remains wide. Mayor Michael Bloomberg glories in calling himself “the Education Mayor,” but why can’t the next mayor appoint a schools chancellor interested in bringing el Sistema to a growing number of schools? School systems elsewhere could follow New York’s example. Many jazz musicians based in New York would be delighted to be active adjunct educators, demonstrating how this music—even if you never make it your profession—can continue to energize and deepen your life.

Abreu and Pastor Barrie are now raising $100,000 to finance the program for the first year. I’d very much appreciate knowing about any similar ventures, whatever they’re called, in other cities—whether in schools or generated by arts foundations or those prosperous patrons who cannot imagine their lives without jazz. If Norman Granz were still here, I’m sure he’d be supporting and concertizing el Sistema.

Quincy Jones, working so hard to bring music back into the schools, is already a secular inspirational missionary for the power of music—a power he learned about when he was growing up.

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181.

Originally published in June 2011

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