Musically inspired by the Venezuela System

6th April 2007 at 01:00
How is it that our children are continually tested, yet understand less? Why are they swamped by health education, yet more sickly than the previous generation? It is as if we have a piece of educational machinery with which we obsessively tinker, causing unintended side-effects.

The idea struck me during a recent trip to Lucerne, Switzerland. I was watching the extraordinary Simon Bolivar youth orchestra of Venezuela in a rapturous performance of Mahler's fifth symphony. These were children between the ages of 15 and 22, with fashionable hairstyles and unformed faces. They had been rehearsing all day and would continue working the kind of hours that would have conventional orchestras calling their lawyers. The lips of the brass players were chapped and aching. Yet the transforming passion and energy of this orchestra lifted the audience off its feet for a 10-minute ovation.

I spoke to the celebrated 26-year-old conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, the next day. He was hoarse and slightly pale but still charismatic. He said the music was important, but this was really about the human condition. It was the sensibility of classical music which could redeem us. It was the enemy of materialism and banality.

In Venezuela it is classical music rather than sport that is life-changing.

For a generation the "System", a national foundation for young classical musicians, has swept up a quarter of a million young children, many from hopeless backgrounds, and given them six afternoons a week of intensive tuition. The best reach the summit of the national youth orchestra.

In Britain, attempts to give our least privileged children an educational leg-up have been generally disastrous. We have lowered standards rather than raising expectations. We have told pupils and university staff that admissions will be based on social disadvantage rather than academic excellence. Most insane, the Government has promised to reward the worst schools by putting their pupils at the head of the university queue.

Education is not a sacred abstract but a means of Marxist engineering.

Dudamel has an antithetical mission. He says he is class-blind, that he does not care where children come from but where they will go. Dedication to excellence produces clarity and purpose as well as pride and passion.

The System produces world-class performers but just as remarkable is the harvest of teachers. Children are mentors - Dudamel was teaching nine-year-olds when he was 11. Those who do not reach the heights of the youth orchestra take their skills back into the classroom. Respect is assured.

Dudamel talks of playing Beethoven's fifth to a town gymnasium of 8,000 young people. At the first four notes, children screamed with excitement.

Could this happen in Britain? Dudamel says we have better conditions than Venezuela. "Europe has the culture and tradition - it should be easier for you," he says. The Scottish Arts Council is now toying with the idea of the System. All we need are men and women of will and charisma to bring music back into schools. We have taught children how to pass exams, but nothing of the soul.

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