Nehyda Alas, a teacher and director of Venezuela’s Teresa Carreño Youth Symphony Orchestra, believes that when children are exposed to music their behaviour improves.
He should know. Alas has been teaching music education to at-risk youth from Caracas’ poor communities, where children and teens are highly vulnerable to being drawn into the violence and crime that surround them.
In Venezuela, more than seven percent of the country’s 30 million inhabitants live in extreme poverty. Alas’ efforts are part of a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)-backed project that has given poor children in Venezuela the opportunity to arm themselves with instruments, rather than guns.
The project, known as the System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, is a government initiative that has been supported by UNDP since 2002. It targets impoverished young people between the ages of 3 and 29 years, teaching them to play instruments and give musical performances. “The System has managed to reach a significant percentage of children living in poverty,” says Alas.
Indeed, some 350,000 youths have benefited from this music education, which promotes discipline and healthy past-times, thereby setting children on a path to create better lives for themselves and their families.
‘The orchestra is a model and a school for life in society,’ says its founder, maestro José Antonio Abreu. The orchestras system’s curriculum is designed to engender a long-term love of, and participation in, musical study and performance.

During their first three years in the programme, the children receive comprehensive training to provide them with general technical skills and an initial appreciation for music. They then choose a single instrument to study and begin playing this instrument in a children’s orchestra. Those who stick with the programme eventually go on to play in a youth orchestra and begin receiving a stipend along with their training.
The orchestras system’s curriculum is further enriched by the numerous internationally-renowned musicians and directors who have dedicated their time to teach the students. Perhaps the most inspiring example is 30-year-old maestro Gustavo Dudamel, who, having grown up in a modest home in Venezuela, is now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and directs the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.
In order to increase the breadth of support for the orchestras system, UNDP forged a financial partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Together, UNDP and IDB have purchased instruments for the orchestras, including violins, violas, pianos, trombones, clarinets, tubas and drums. According to Alas, 99 per cent of his young students begin their musical training with a UNDP-supplied instrument.
In 2010 alone, more than US$1m was spent on the project, and 178 professional quality instruments were purchased. UNDP support has also supplied the project with audio and video equipment. In total, more than US$14 million was invested in the project between 2004 and 2010.
Through these efforts to support the youth orchestras in Venezuela, UNDP aims to accelerate the country’s achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 1 and 8, which call for an end to extreme poverty and hunger, and the development of global partnerships, respectively.
The orchestras system has been such a success that many countries worldwide, including Switzerland and Austria, hope to replicate the model. “[the system] represents the hope of parents and children alike to get away from crime through music. Mothers feel that they have two choices: either they enroll the child in a programme that will instill values, or they will find him with a gun. Naturally, they choose the values,” says Alas. Gustavo Briceño, who comes from Propatria, a poor section of Caracas, joined the Teresa Carreño Youth Symphony Orchestra 13 years ago at the insistence of his mother. He has not laid down his violin since.
Today he is proud to be a member of the orchestra, and has even managed to persuade other neighbours from Propatria to join the System. ‘You start to be impressed with yourself and to think: if I can do this today, what will I be able to do tomorrow?’ says Briceño.

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