Like the ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s, which helped set the stage for a thaw in U.S.-China relations, the diplomacy of music is redrawing the geopolitical map in its own quiet way.
On that map, there is a direct line from Venezuela, home of El Sistema, the world-renowned music program born in its poorest neighbourhoods, to Ottawa, where an inner-city orchestra program inspired by the Venezuelan model has taken root and is inspiring spinoffs of its own.
During a week in which most eyes have been on the Junos, which are being held in Ottawa this year, another celebration of music has been taking place, somewhat under the radar. On Thursday, José Abreu, the Venezuelan petroleum economist who founded El Sistema there 37 years ago, received an honourary degree from Carleton University. It is the latest in a list of international honours he has received. In a recorded message from Venezuela, Abreu talked about his vision of using music as a tool of social development that can “rehabilitate and rescue” children. Canada, he said, is a partner in that vision with programs such as OrKidstra.
Ottawa’s thriving OrKidstra program, which was begun by Ottawa musicians Tina Fedeski and Margaret Tobolowska with a handful of child-sized instruments six years ago, is proudly on display this week with a visit from Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar String Quartet, the cream of the crop of Abreu’s system of Venezuelan orchestras. The quartet will premiere a specially commissioned piece with children from OrKidstra, among other events.
This musical bond between Venezuela’s world-renowned program and Ottawa has been made through unofficial channels by volunteers who believe that music can be a tool of social development, not just in Venezuela, but around the world.
It’s a grassroots form of diplomacy whose impact should not be underestimated. While music education is relatively low on the radar at many Canadian public schools, supporters of El Sistema believe the program will eventually influence the public school system here, the way it has in other parts of the world.
Ottawa’s program is changing the lives of some of its participants, most of whom would have had no access to music without the program. One girl, whose principal says she has turned around 100 per cent — socially, academically and behaviourally — since joining the community orchestra is a typical example. Among OrKidstra members are children who arrived in Ottawa directly from refugee camps on the Burmese-Thailand border; its 230 members speak two dozen languages. The effect on many of the participants’ confidence and academic skills is similar to the program’s influence in Venezuela, where it has been transforming the lives of underprivileged children for nearly four decades.
According to Abreu and others, the program is not just a positive force for individual musicians, but for society; by improving the lives of the most vulnerable, he believes, you unleash their potential and transform a country’s future.
In Ottawa, the voluntary sector music education program is beginning to influence more formal music education as well. On Friday, members of the Simon Bolivar String Quartet held a master class at the University of Ottawa with university students who work with OrKidstra in a credit course that is jointly offered by the music department, the university’s community service learning department and the Leading Note Foundation, which runs OrKidstra. In addition, a Saturday symposium “on social harmony through music education” will include trustees, administrators, superintendents and arts consultants from Ottawa school boards, as well as Richard Hallam, who is working on a national music education plan for England, influenced by the work of El Sistema.
Read the rest of the article online here: Music has the power to change lives
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