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[Weekender] Changing lives through music

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : Oct. 17, 2014 - 21:44

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Nearly four decades ago, Venezuelan economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu gathered 11 impoverished children in a parking garage in Caracas and started teaching them classical music.

His notion was simple: free music education can lift the children out of poverty and crime, which in turn could tackle social problems plaguing the country.

The initiative ― “El Sistema” or the System ― became hugely successful, so far affecting nearly 2.5 million youngsters mostly from low-income backgrounds and producing some international stars, including conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Hailed as the future of classical music, the Venezuelan program slowly spread to other countries. 
A member of an Orchestra of Dream, inspired by Venezuela’s youth orchestra movement “El-Sistema.” (Korea Arts & Culture Education Service) A member of an Orchestra of Dream, inspired by Venezuela’s youth orchestra movement “El-Sistema.” (Korea Arts & Culture Education Service)

In Korea, the government launched the El Sistema-inspired initiative “Orchestras of Dream” in 2010.

“We aim to offer more opportunities to children from disadvantaged backgrounds to enable them to pursue a musical dream. Through this program, we promote social integration and welfare,” said Kim Jae-kyong, an official in charge of running the nationwide program at Korea Art & Culture Education Service.

A total of 1,920 pupils belong to 32 orchestras across the nation, with 72 percent of them coming from less privileged backgrounds. Many are orphans, live with just one parent or come from a low-income family.

Yet the project is not only about helping the poor. Its membership is open to anyone.

“Everybody is equal in an orchestra,” Kim Kyung-soo, the music director of Anyang City’s dream orchestra said during a practice session held on Monday in the suburban city located south of Seoul.

The 51-year-old conductor underscores the importance of orchestral education as a key to breaking the barriers that divide the society by income.

“All the pupils of different ages and from various backgrounds come together and learn how to communicate with each other,” he said.

Kim, who is also a timpanist at the Seongnam Philharmonic Orchestra, has been leading the orchestra since its establishment in June 2013.

A total of 42 primary school students, aged 8 to 12, attend after-school classes twice a week, where they receive training on such musical instruments as violin, flute and trumpet. All instruction and instruments are free.

Among them is Ahn Hyun-bin, 10, who began playing trombone six months ago.

“I continue playing it because I like to be praised by adults, especially my parents,” he said putting down his one-meter-long trombone.

At the beginning, teaching was tough, Kim recalled.

“There were children who would run around and swear at teachers. Some of them did not even know what cello and viola were. Many were clearly not motivated.

“It is touching to see how much they are willing to work together now.”

Seo Hyo-jin, 11, said that the seven-month experience in the orchestra helped her gain confidence and foster social skills. “In the absence of teachers, I should take the lead in team practice and care about those younger than me.”

“I teach younger kids. And I learn from them. That way, we learn more together.”

After watching how classical music and orchestra experience change young minds, Kim dreams big.

“I hope, one day ‘Orchestras of Dream’ can spread and open up to anyone excluded from our society and who have nowhere to go.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)