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Remembering Maestro José Antonio Abreu

When Maestro José Antonio Abreu lifted his baton, magic sparked to life. Young people from diverse backgrounds played classical music that could take your breath away, yes, but something deeper transpired too — they demonstrated the skills for both personal and cultural thriving.

Abreu founded “El Sistema,” the network of youth orchestras, choirs and music centers that now stretches across Venezuela, engaging 750,000 young musicians, in 1975. He dedicated his life’s work to one simple idea: that for young people, being a part of an orchestra is not just about learning to play notes and instruments, but about learning key lessons of life — generosity, self-esteem and working with others toward a collective goal. As he said in his talk at TED2009, when he accepted the TED Prize, “The music becomes a source for developing all the dimensions of the human being.”

El Sistema is a great source of national pride in Venezuela, producing incredible musicians like Edicson Ruiz, the double-bass player who became the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic, and Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. With the TED Prize, Abreu wished to spread the model to the United States and beyond by establishing the Sistema Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory. The program trained 50 music educators from 2010 to 2014. Its graduates have since planted youth orchestras in 16 states, from the Atlanta Music Project to Raleigh-Durham’s Kidznotes, teaching more than 5,000 students. Fellow Katie Wyatt heads El Sistema USA, connecting these programs. And the Netflix documentary, Crescendo!: The Power of Music, followed Fellow Stanford Thompson as he established the program Play On, Philly! in Philadelphia. Fellows have created similar programs in Armenia, Colombia and Peru.

We’re sad to announce that Abreu passed away on Saturday, March 24, at the age of 78. But his idea and vision live on. It feels like perhaps more than a coincidence that Abreu passed away the same weekend that youth in the US took to the streets in the March for Our Lives. In the past few years, members of El Sistema have taken part in protests against food shortages, violence and government repression in Venezuela. After 18-year-old violinist Armando Cañizales was killed in May 2017, other members of the orchestra have bravely stepped up, instruments in hand, as leaders of the movement.

“The arts has lost one of its brightest figures. Maestro José Antonio Abreu taught us that art is a universal right, and that inspiration and beauty irreversibly transform the soul of a child, making them a better, healthier and happier human being, and in turn, a better citizen,” Dudamel wrote on Facebook over the weekend. “My commitment to Maestro Abreu and El Sistema is a commitment to the future, to those children who have not yet discovered music and art. To these children, and to the millions touched by Maestro Abreu’s legacy, I would like to say that this is just the beginning of the journey. We will continue to play music, sing and fight for the world that Maestro Abreu dreamed of.”