delivered by His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange
Your Majesty, Dear Maestro Abreu, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Today we are celebrating. We are celebrating the success of a project in Venezuela, a project that aims to give youngsters from underprivileged areas a purpose in life. It is a project with global relevance, whose central principle is to give children musical instruments and teach them to play together. That is, to play together in a symphony orchestra, playing classical music. Not an obvious choice, perhaps, but the results speak for themselves.
The theme of this year’s Erasmus prize is ‘the future of European classical music’.
In making this choice, the Foundation wished to underscore the importance of initiatives aimed at keeping classical music alive and reviving appreciation of this art form. Teaching children to play in a symphony orchestra is precisely such an initiative.
Reiterating the social and cultural significance of European classical music almost seems like stating the obvious – certainly in this setting. Very few people would question the old and rich tradition of this musical genre, the large number of great masterpieces produced and the many renewals the genre has experienced over the centuries. European classical music remains a world of historical and cultural significance that reflects many different values and is interwoven with society in many different ways.
But at the same time, the future of European classical music is less self-evident. As the musical universe of the young – and old – continues to expand, classical music has to share its once prominent place on radio, TV and the stage with many other genres. A visit to a concert hall will reveal that audiences are often neither young nor diverse enough to guarantee a healthy future for classical music. And, crucially, music education no longer enjoys the undisputed place it once had in many families and schools.
Even so, it is still hard to imagine bringing up children today without music and rhythm. Without singing and dancing, whether solo or ensemble. Music is like learning a foreign language: the earlier you start, the better. Young children can master several languages at the same time. And like languages, appreciation of classical music does not always come with age. If you haven’t been exposed to classical music as a child, it is much more difficult to appreciate it later in life.
But is this really so important? I, for one, believe it is! Music conveys emotion, creates structure and brings people together. Over two thousand years ago, Socrates was arguing that musical education was a blessing for the soul and the best preparation for becoming a good citizen. In his view, rhythm and harmony touch the soul directly, so if children were exposed to music at an early stage, they would learn to distinguish between good and evil.
Today many educators continue to argue, along these Socratic lines, that music education should be part of every child’s upbringing, for reasons well beyond music training. They contend that music education is critical for developing intelligence, and for success at school, success in society, and indeed success in life.
Research suggests that arts education, and especially music education, may have positive effects on other forms of intelligence and cognitive skills. But the related effects of music education are at least as important. Learning to communicate through music means learning to listen to others and to play in tune together. Imagination, creativity, empathy, thinking in metaphors and symbols, learning to cope with ambiguity, and developing an open, inquisitive attitude. These are all
On top of these individual benefits, music education also brings important social benefits. Cultural participation in society is not only about individual pleasure or development. It is also about striving to establish a cultural bond with others and attaining a shared cultural experience. Music is a form of communication that can build bridges where other means fall short. This is especially true of playing music ourselves. Playing music together requires empathy, self-discipline and acceptance of others. These are skills that have a much wider application than in music alone.
And finally, let us not forget the simple joy and pleasure that children derive from playing music together. As a father of three young daughters, I have seen with my own eyes that you don’t have to be a maestro or child prodigy to really enjoy playing a tune, and to feel proud when you succeed. Our daughters express happiness through music and our house is very lively because of that!
Several initiatives in the Western world have recently underscored the importance of music education. They suggest that the educational focus in primary schools on language and mathematics – however important – could usefully be broadened. Only three weeks ago, in this very hall, a conference on music education saw the launch of a nationwide campaign to promote music education for children in primary schools in the Netherlands. And I wish them well!
Ladies and gentlemen, Today we are honouring a truly exceptional example of a music education project from Venezuela. About 35 years ago, one man developed his vision of using music as an agent for change, to overcome hopelessness and poverty. His aim was to introduce youngsters from poor families to the world of music, giving them alternative prospects in an environment where drugs, disillusionment and crime were rampant.
The Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, or El Sistema for short, is the brain child of Dr José Antonio Abreu. It is also the realisation of his dream.
Over the years, El Sistema has developed
into a major national project, reaching more than one million children. The
government of Venezuela supplies much of the funding and is understandably
proud of the project’s achievements, but El Sistema is not the product of the
state. It is the work of Dr Abreu, who set it up as a social project to offer
an alternative to crime and misery. It is the product of one man’s vision and
the tireless work of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Venezuelans. Thousands
of Venezuelan children have learned to play an instrument; they have learned to
play together in an orchestra; and they are mainly playing classical music.
As founder-director of El Sistema, Dr Abreu has given new meaning to music education, broadening the discourse on music’s benefits beyond concepts such as technical training, extracurricular enrichment, the cultivation of aesthetic sensibilities, or getting children to appreciate the finer things in life.
Instead, in Venezuela, music education is directly connected with a broad vision of youth development and social change. Dr Abreu has claimed that the programme aims at nothing less than ‘social rescue and deep cultural transformation.’ As he views it, when children can play music, they possess a weapon against one of the most destructive aspects of poverty: the loss of human dignity. He speaks of orchestras as ‘schools of social solidarity’, a place where students learn about discipline, responsibility, empathy and citizenship. Mr Abreu’s vision, hard work and entrepreneurship have resulted in a system of music education that has had an immense impact. El Sistema was founded more than three decades ago, and today, according to its leaders, it reaches some 400,000 children, a staggering 70 percent of whom come from families living below the poverty line. These achievements have been a source of inspiration for music teachers and classical music advocates all over the world. Projects inspired by El Sistema have been set up throughout the Americas and Europe.
Similar projects have been initiated in
the Netherlands, albeit on a smaller scale. They include ‘An instrument for
every child’ in Rotterdam and the ‘Teaching Orchestra’ in south-east Amsterdam,
two projects my wife has supported. We also have social projects, which employ
musical skills in the service of a more socially integrated society.
As well as its impressive social impact, the El Sistema project has also shown that it can produce world-class musicians and conductors. Gustavo Dudamel joined El Sistema as an eight-year-old boy. Twenty years later, he was appointed chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra; has reached a high level of professionalism. And the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, which will be giving a concert here in the Main Hall this evening – is another star Venezuelan orchestra that can fly the El Sistema flag with pride. It was the well-known British conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, whom you saw in the introductory video, who first recognised that what started as a social project in Venezuela, heralds a resurrection of classical music. It may surprise you to know that, in his view, we are looking at nothing less than the future of classical music!
Maestro Abreu, you have devoted your life to this work, driven by a grand vision and a great sense of purpose. We admire you for your perseverance in realising this dream. We are impressed by the achievements of the project, and we trust that the example set by El Sistema will continue to be a source of inspiration.