To reiterate where things left off in Part 1, I recently had an opportunity to examine the Fundacion del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestras Juveniles e Infantiles (Foundation of the State for the National System of the Orchestras Youth and Children), which is commonly referred to in Venezuela as FESNOJIV. After my first day’s interaction with some of the musicians and a few of the program’s leaders, I had the following questions:
- How has this seemingly amazing program developed the way it has over the past 30 years and where will continue to grow?
- Would the FESNOJIV program have relevance to the rest of the classical music world?
- Has the 30 year old FESNOJIV course produced musicians capable of delivering an artistic product worth recognition?
The morning of my second day began to reveal some of the answers to the first question as I had an opportunity to sit down with Maestro José Antonio Abreu, FESNOJIV’s founder and director, and talk to him about their program. Abreu is a dignified, soft spoken man who chooses his words carefully but strings them together with a unique elegance that reminded me of the beautiful way people used to correspond 150 years ago in America.
Drew McManus: How did the FESNOJIV program begin?
José Antonio Abreu: From the onset of the first rehearsals 30 years ago, I wanted to design a program which could positively impact the lives of at-risk children. From that perspective, the program grew under the auspices of the Venezuelan Ministry of Health and Social Development as they became aware of our accomplishments on a social level. As such, we quickly became a part of their branch of government.
As the program has developed, music becomes a greater part of our environmental health; it’s an organic part of the country that is has become reserved for orchestras [and classical music]. The FESNOJIV program plays an important role in preventive measures implemented by the Ministry of Health and Social Development. Our dream has always been to provide a situation which improves life for our citizens so we have been very pleased to see how we’ve functioned within the Ministry of Health and Social Development.
Drew McManus: How are you able to draw so many children from such a wide component of Venezuelan society to the education component of FESNOJIV?
José Antonio Abreu: [The Venezuelan] environment has much music already, whether it is popular or traditional; this helps us bring children into the FESNOJIV program. A recent study by the Ministry determined that throughout our eight states, the frontier between pop and classical music in children is easily bridged. 30 years ago before this program existed, we had some difficulty getting people involved, but once they began to experience the results of participating in the program public [support] has been built up so that classical music is much more ingrained throughout the entire society.
30 years ago, Venezuela only had two orchestras and a handful of radio stations which played classical music. The orchestras usually played for audiences of around 1,000, and they were they same core audience which went to program after program. As such, most of those programs were seen by the majority of people as elitist but that has all changed. When the FESNOJIV program began, the majority of the two resident orchestras were comprised of foreigners and I asked those players to help us teach. Due to their participation, those same orchestras are nearly 100% Venezuelan. Now, parents fight to get their children into the FESNOJIV program because they see the real social benefits it delivers.
Drew McManus: Where will the program go from here?
José Antonio Abreu: We plan to open several large regional centers similar to what currently exists here in Caracas as well as expand into the [public] schools programs.
The FESNOJIV program has been highly successful on [numerous] fronts. In social terms we’ve been very successful and the [Federal] government has detected that situation and is willing to increase its support. A very important factor contributing to this is the involvement of the Inter-American Development Bank, a multilateral institution which has conducted its own independent study and analysis of FESNOJIV’s social impact [within Venezuela]. They began examining the program in 1995 and after those initial investigations the Bank decided that it was important to invest in the construction of a new central building in Caracas to serve as the main headquarters for the program.
That building is currently under construction and plans to open between February and March of 2006. But the most important thing is that last January a new agreement was reached regarding a program called Social Action Through Music and that agreement extends our relationship with the Inter-American Development Bank for quite some time. During that period, the other regional centers will be constructed, increasing the beneficial influence of our system throughout our region.
Each of those new centers will receive new teachers from within the current FESNOJIV program and from abroad to develop a pedagogy instruction program. This will help us fulfill one of our greatest needs, which is properly training new teachers. In turn this will help us adequately meet the ever growing demand on the program’s resources.
The new building in Caracas will also expand our artistic offerings into areas such as dance and acting. We’ll be dedicating a portion of the building to a black box acting studio. One of the first programs scheduled for performance is A Midsummers Night’s Dream which will feature the combined areas of study; music, dance, and acting.
Drew McManus: How do you plan to transfer the core of what makes the FESNOJIV program successful into the public school system?
José Antonio Abreu: An important factor is that up to now the system has worked primarily in low opportunity areas of the population, but now we’re going to go into [public] schools (grades kindergarten through nine). For example, we have a [pilot program] at one such [public] school in Caracas and from what we’ve learned through that model we will implement our orchestral program to reach an even larger segment of the population.
The [pilot program] has designed a system which will establish a resident school orchestra, chorus, band, and small ensembles of typical Venezuelan instruments for each institution which will occupy ¼ of each student’s day with involvement in these programs. The children who have participated in this program already have developed a sincere love for traditional Venezuelan music as well as traditional classical music.
What strikes me the most about the initial part of our discussion, is the number of similarities between the way classical music used to exist in Venezuela 30 years ago and where it seems to headed in the U.S. Maestro Abreu described a classical music environment which was perceived as elitist by a majority of the population and only served a small fragment of their society.
However, there was a strong culture of ethnic and popular music which permeated the rest of Venezuelan society. To me, that sounds very much like the situation which exists here in the U.S. on a much larger scale. The problem, naturally, is how do you create such a wide spread interest and appreciation for classical music through a wide range of demographics if you don’t have the same social needs which are the result of the sprawling level of poverty which exists in Venezuela.
At that point, my mind floated toward skepticism. After all, the FESNOJIV program may only be successful because poor children are enthusiastic to use any proven vehicle to get out of their environment. If you take away the poverty, would FESNOJIV be a relevant part of the Venezuelan culture? Is the program more about empowerment and classical music is just “along for the ride”?