When Venezuela was still an undefined territory, it was one of the poorest regions of Latin America. For example, foreign commerce was limited to two ships per year. Agriculture was limited to coffee and cacao, and the population was mainly made up of rural people.
At the end of the 18th century some cities started developing, especially Caracas. Near the city lived a priest who had studied in the conservatory in Rome. Towards the end of the 18th century he brought to Venezuela the first music sheets. This was an important moment among composers in Venezuela, especially among poorer composers.
But after Venezuela attained its independence in 1830, the country had many years of civil war that made the country and the population even poorer than before. When oil appeared in 1917 the country was not prepared to receive this wealth. And an explosion of wealth occurred. At that moment the country realized how backwards it was, educationally speaking.
As a consequence, universities and colleges were created to compensate. In 1930 the first Philharmonic Orchestra of Venezuela was created with 70 foreign musicians and 10 Venezuelan musicians. Until 1975, this was the only symphony that Caracas had. Maracaibo, the 2nd largest city and the oil capital of Venezuela, had a second orchestra made up of 99% Polish musicians.
Meanwhile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico had developed strong orchestras with national musicians. The Venezuelan economy had transformed itself in such a way that a strong industry developed and technification of the county followed.
The artistic career/occupation had no established hierarchy. At that time, youths were urged by their families to become engineers, oil engineers, lawyers, etc., but not artists. I myself had to abandon my musical studies to pursue a university career in economics. I studied from when I was 16 until I was 33; it was 1975.
Then oil prices rose from $7 to $40 per barrel and a whole new possibility of reforming the education system opened up. I left the position I had in the Ministry of Planning to return to music, but not as a performer or conductor but as a musical educator. I also renounced the traditional way of making music, which was a Latin American model that copied the European model of theoretical studies, based on 1-to-1 teaching of an instrument with no orchestra practice, which made musical studies very boring. Many youngsters simply left their musical studies. For every 100 young students, only 2 were left in the upper grades, and the only orchestra that existed had not taken charge of educating new musicians.
I was not willing to follow the educational musical program that was present then, and we started with some musician friends of mine to select some students from Caracas and other cities in February 1975. With those few kids, we started preparing a repertoire. For that I asked some music friends to prepare the musicians in the different parts they had to play; these friends were also professors of their instruments. This very informal group of teachers was already a seed for a new way of teaching music.
The school was for the orchestra, not the orchestra for the school. So in this way there was an inversion of the relation of the didactics of music, and at that moment we dared to give our first concert. It was very important for that first concert to have great impact so that some of the important figures of the country would understand the importance of art.
I didn’t want to give this concert in the concert hall but in the sight of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We invited all the diplomatic core and some ministers. At that time Mexico’s President was visiting our country. I asked to play before the formal gala dinner. When the Mexican President heard the orchestra, he commented to the Venezuela Ministry of Foreign Affairs that he wanted to invite the orchestra to play in Mexico. And that was the beginning of a journey of prestige for the orchestra.
Nobody had expected it, and at that moment music started being socially important in Venezuela as well. It is an essential feature of our project that it is founded on the principle that a youth orchestra is not going to be an mediocre orchestra. It starts with the orchestra members’ self esteem. They must consider themselves sufficiently excellent to represent the country in other countries.
When the orchestra received acclaim outside the country, I was asked, “Maestro, what must we do to continue?” I said, “I don’t want money. I want the state to recognize its responsibility in the music education of its students, and that a state foundation be created dedicated to the youth orchestra. And that this foundation not be considered as part of the Ministry of Culture but as part of the Ministry of Social Development.”
Because it was with the children of the streets– the poorest children and the rural children– that we wanted to make the experiment. That is when the project was born as an experience of making orchestra music on a daily basis. Within the framework of the social objectives of the state. That’s the essence of the project, where it starts.
We finally obtained funds from the state. The first instructors who dedicated their time were the first formal professors of the system. The system of music education was created by the state centered on orchestra practice. Practice that had to be and still is daily. Accompanied by the individual education at the highest level and driven by two elemental processes: first, to be proud to be a good orchestra – self esteem, and second the principle of healthy competition between the orchestras.
Each province hoped to have the better orchestra in the system. Each mayor hoped to have a better orchestra than the other mayors. And then followed the principle of international competition.
Now it’s not only a youth orchestra but a network of youth orchestras, practicing every day. It demands a lot of the students: to play original works, and we nurture healthy competition. We confront the orchestra constantly with trips around the world – we have 3 or 4 tours this year.
We can conclude that Venezuela sees in its orchestras a symbol of the highest things it can achieve. This is not new – it was true in Plato’s Greece. But today it is seen as a new renaissance that we should transplant to all the rest of the arts, and it would be wonderful to obtain the symbol of these orchestras as a symbol of the best of society.
We’re expanding to all other Latin American countries. We’re doubling every year (in the number of youth orchestras). If we consider the academic alliances with the US through institutions like the League, this can become a continental project. A symbol of what the Americas really mean.