Korea sees hope in Venezuelan education model ‘El Sistema’
Eighteen-year-old Lee Jeong-wook doesn’t know where he was born. From the first moment he can recall from his childhood, he has lived in Busan Boystown, a children’s shelter where 700 orphaned children from toddlers to high school students live together.
But unlike many other Korean teenagers undecided about their career path after high school graduation, Lee is more than certain about what he wants to do for the rest of his life ― classical music.
Classical music has helped him and his friends fight poverty and also the prejudice that only the wealthy can excell in the art form on the back of expensive musical instruments and top-class lessons.
But he could not have taken on this fight alone, said Lee, now leader of the 60-member Aloysius Orchestra, formerly known as the Busan Boystown Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra consists of students of Aloysius Middle School and Aloysius Technical High School, which are affiliated with Busan Boystown. The name Aloysius comes from the shelter’s founder Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz.
“When we participated in several classical music competitions in the past, I could often sense that people were laughing at us, probably wondering how poor high school students like us would do classical music,” Lee told The Korea Herald.
“And I could see other ‘normal’ music students using much better and more expensive instruments than ours. But sometimes we won the first prize and that really made us confident and proud.”
Not only did they win several competitions but even held a benefit concert at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York last year. Conductor Chung Min, son of maestro Chung Myung-whun, joined them on stage, receiving a thunderous ovation after performing Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5.
Aloysius Orchestra consists of 60 students of Aloysius Middle School and Aloysius Technical High School, which are affiliated with Busan Boystown. (Busan Boystown)
“Since the performance in New York, the orchestra members have started to feel really confident. We’re now preparing for a concert at the Seoul Arts Center in July and conductor Chung Min comes to us every week to practice together,” Lee said.
The Aloysius Orchestra members do not receive music lessons. Senior members teach juniors, and hand their musical instruments to juniors when graduating from high school.
That’s how the system has worked for the past 32 years since the orchestra’s founding in 1979, according to Sister Park Pulcheria, 63, manager of the orchestra. Park has been with the orchestra since its inception.
“They get together after school to practice on weekdays. They practice on the weekends for hours as well. Altogether, they spend about 10 hours a week for group practice,” Park said.
“Although the orchestra has grown very successfully, it is still somewhat heartbreaking when I see a few students continue to become music majors in college with not-so-good musical instruments,” she said.
Most of the funds come from Miracle of Music, a non-profit foundation conceived by conductor Chung Myung-whun, but the orchestra still needs more donations, she said.
When the orchestra needed money in 2000 for purchasing wind instruments for the Aloysius Orchestra, some sponsors Park contacted questioned why poor students needed expensive musical instruments.
“We did receive sponsorship at that time, but I wish people could change their prejudice that classical music is something only rich people can enjoy,” Park said.
The system of the Aloysius Orchestra is similar to “El Sistema (The System),” a music education program in Venezuela dedicated to teaching juvenile delinquents and children from low-income households to hold musical instruments instead of guns.
Jose Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan composer, began teaching classical music to youths living in poverty in 1975 at a garage in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, where crime and drug abuse were prevalent. He later received the Venezuelan government’s support for the music education program, expanding the opportunity to more Venezuelan juveniles and poor children.
The Korean government has started recognizing the positive effect of “El Sistema” in recent years, applying the music-cures-underprivilege formula to welfare and education policies.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare has begun using both classical music education and psychotherapy to help poor children with physical disabilities or emotional development problems, under a program called “Emotional Development Service for Children” since 2007.
Children, aged between 8 and 13, living in a household with an income of less than 3.9 million won a month for a four-member family, are eligible for the music education and psychotherapy service.
Normally, the service involves a 60-minute musical instrument lesson per week and matching 60-minute therapy per week. The music teacher should be at least a university graduate who majored in classical music and the counselor should be certified in either in psychotherapy or music therapy.
Per child, it costs 150,000 won to 200,000 won but the child only pays 10,000 won to 20,000 won. The rest is covered by the government.
In 2010, a total of 2,440 children received the service per month across the nation.
“Local autonomous governments individually develop necessary services and the Welfare Ministry selects services and supports them,” said Paek Young-ha, an official at the social services department at the Welfare Ministry.
“Service providers include community orchestras and music schools, which makes services very practical and effective,” she said.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology joined the move recently. The ministry has decided to spend 5 billion won this year to support practice rooms, musical instruments and instructor recruitment for orchestral music education for 36 elementary schools, 22 middle schools and seven high schools across the nation.
More than 30 percent of the orchestra members should come from low-income households, according to the ministry.
However, Lee of the Aloysius Orchestra said the Korean version of El Sistema, in general, has a long way to go.
“El Sistema fever in Korea? Not yet,” Lee said.
Miracle of Music spokesperson Lee Gyu-rae said continuous sponsorship is more important than one-off donations.
“It’s not always about money. Some sponsors donate their musical instruments, some bus drivers offer a free ride from Busan to Seoul for the Aloysius Orchestra and some people offer to repair instruments for free. The point is what kind of help you’re willing to give,” she said.
In addition, Miracle of Music keeps looking to help hidden musical aspirants who are too poor to get lessons or buy instruments.
“Auditions are always available. We are still looking for more,” she stressed.
By Kim Yoon-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org)