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July 22, 2008

Bach to the Future?

This past Sunday, CBS' "Sixty Minutes" updated a fascinating segment titled "El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music." Bob Simon reported on a groundbreaking musical education program in Venezuela. "The system" is all about saving hundreds of thousands of children—through music. In the words of its founder, Dr.José Antonio Abreu, "Essentially this is a social system that fights poverty. A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides." In Simon's words, "music actually becomes the vehicle for social change."

The thousands of the kids in the program come from the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Venezuela. They are given an early introduction to classical music and musicial instruments. Hundreds of youth orchestras are created as venues for them to learn and perform. "Music produces an irreversible transformation in a child. This doesn't mean he'll end up as a professional musician. He may become a doctor, or study law, or teach literature. What music gives him remains indelibly part of who he is forever," Dr. Abreu said.

Reporter Simon introduced, "Lennar Acosta, who '60 Minutes' first met eight years ago when he was serving time in a juvenile detention center in Caracas. He was 17, had a violent criminal background, and the scars to prove it. When the detention center started an orchestra, Lennar tried the clarinet.

"Ed Bradley asked him about it. 'Tell me what it was like the first time you picked it up to play it?' Bradley asked.

"'It's completely different than when you hold a gun,' Lennar replied.

"Asked if he thought his life was different because of the clarinet and the orchestra, Lennar told Bradley, 'Yeah, a lot. The music taught me how to treat people without violence.'"

At the end of the segment, Simon asked one of the organizers if he thinks the system could work in the United States. The response was, "Yeah, I mean, kids are kids. It doesn't matter where they come from. And if you can help a poor kid in here, you can help a poor kid everywhere. It doesn't matter the culture, it doesn't matter the race. I mean, it's music. Everybody loves music."

Can you envision a day when poor kids in the U.S. have easy access to clarinets and violins rather than Glocks and nines? Music, not murder or mayhem. What a wonderful use of our resources that would be.

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