TED Prize

How a transformative musical experience came to TED

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In a basement studio in Caracas, Venezuela, three weeks ago, I had the most powerful musical experience of my life. TED Prize Director Amy Novogratz and I were standing five feet away from the conductor’s stand in front of 200 Venezuelan virtuoso musicians — their average age 16. Many of these kids had been born in the slums of Caracas or the poverty-stricken villages outside. They were part of the astonishing El Sistema program that had provided them instruments from an early age and countless hours of individual rehearsal and orchestral practice: a discipline that — as some of them told us — was transformative for them personally and even for their families.

They were known as the Teresa CarreƱo Youth Orchestra, the pride of Venezuela, and we were hoping that they might be able to do an unannounced live-by-satellite performance for TED2009, which was just 10 days away. We were curious as to what kind of impact they might have. The conductor raised his baton. The first three notes had us leaping out of our skins, overwhelmed by a wall of sound. I had heard Shostakovitch before, but never like this. Passion, brilliance, precision and total commitment shone from every face. They didn’t just play the music, they entered it, bodies swaying and occasionally darting to the rhythm. For 15 minutes, though it could have been a second or a lifetime, we were lost.

At the end of the performance, we got to tell them that they were soon to perform to a global audience connected by satellite — and that their conductor that night would be the international phenomenon Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s most famous graduate. The performance was to celebrate the TED Prize being granted to the revered founder of El Sistema, Jose Antonio Abreu. The air crackled with excitement. We got to film some of the kids playing individually and sharing some of their stories and views (and you can see some of them in Maestro Abreu’s TED Prize acceptance speech).

10 days later, standing on the TED stage after Abreu’s inspirational talk, shaking with anxiety about whether the technology would work, and whether the experience could possibly be shared this way, I announced the surprise performance. Unbelievably, it happened again. Electricity down the spine like never before. The a/v team in Caracas live-edited the talk to a quality level that boggled the mind. Dudamel entrancing, magnetic, the children sharing their souls through music in a way that few of us had experienced. And at the end, the longest standing ovation in TED’s history.

And now here it is on TED.com. The same piece, exactly as we saw it … no new editing. If you care about music, I urge you … no I beg you … set aside 20 minutes, connect to your computer the best speakers you own, gather your family or friends or colleagues around, turn up the volume, and accept this astonishing gift from a bunch of kids in another country who might have lived lives of futility … but instead discovered the transformative power of music.