When Music Changes Lives

The Youth Symphony Orchestras of Santo Domingo 

By Darwin Aquino

Photo courtesy of Darwin Aquino. 

In 2004, I got a surprising phone call from Santo Domingo on one cold winter night. I was then studying musical composition in Strasbourg, France, a great opportunity for a young Dominican musician. The officials of the recently elected government of my country were offering me a job to lead and reactivate the Sistema of youth orchestras in my homeland. 

Most of you readers will know about El Sistema, the influential social movement created by Maestro José Antonio Abreu in the early 1970s in Venezuela. Without a doubt, the program is a model of altruism, vision and commitment, which brought to all of us the most transcendental change in musical education of the past decades—not only in Latin America, but in the entire world. 

That movement gave rise to countless musicians playing a variety of instruments, as well as to the formation of children, youth and professional orchestras. Perhaps the most emblematic fruit of this movement is one of the stars of classical music, the youthful Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who currently leads both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela.   

At 23 years of age, I had directed some concerts with a small youth orchestra. And I was already a composer and a professional violinist, but I had little experience in managing programs. I wasn’t sure why I had been chosen for the job, but I decided to take it after much deliberation. I packed my bags and said goodbye to France to return to Santo Domingo. I had what was needed to take on the task: youthful energy and a great desire to accomplish a lot. 

Our Sistema had been founded by presidential decree in 1999. It was the result of visits by several Venezuelan musicians in the early 1990s. At that time, we witnessed the creation of the Juan Pablo Duarte Symphony Orchestra of the National Music Conservatory and later the National Youth Symphony Orchestra, the main musical group that gave rise to the beginnings of the Sistema

The lives of many people changed through the Sistema. There are debates about whether this is the appropriate method for teaching music. I believe that the human aspect of this program takes precedence over any technical aspect, whether the method is effective or not. Ten years have gone by and we are now beginning to see the emotional impact that the Sistema has put into motion. Instead of theorizing, I will only say what I have experienced—together with thousands of children and youth and their relatives—throughout the Dominican Republic.  

In early 2005, I traveled to Venezuela, where I met with Maestro Abreu, the founder of the Sistema. In his humble and simple manner, he asked me directly, “What do you need?” I told him that we need to start up the program, the most difficult task, and he talked about our mission as young Latin American musicians to multiply these teaching methods throughout our nations, “because everyone knows the reality of his or her country.” It was the first time I heard the word “multiply” outside of the context of arithmetic. 

On my return home, I took up the challenge. The previous Youth Symphony Orchestra had disintegrated because of political instability. The first step was to recruit the most talented young musicians by seeking them throughout the country. I did not know many of the country’s provinces and often felt like a foreigner traveling in my own country. I knew the works of Pierre Boulez, Edgard Varese and Olivier Messiaen, but I didn’t have a clue about the mountainous province of Santiago Rodríguez in the northeast of the country. 

Youth musicians practices with Aquino. Photo courtesy of Darwin Aquino. 

Wherever I went, I found talent. I will never forget the small boy from the poor southwestern province of Hato Mayor, who arrived with a trumpet in his mouth. He only came up to my waist and the trumpet was almost bigger than he was.  But he could really play, and we found examples of exceptional talent like his throughout our travels. My own life changed because these experiences taught me to value both my identity and my nation. 

We didn’t have enough resources to absorb all these talented youth in our program, so we started small with the idea of reaching out to them in the future. The forty new members of the orchestra came from the provinces closest to Santo Domingo, the capital. We didn’t even have chairs or music stands yet, but the young musicians were motivated to travel four hours by bus to get to rehearsals. Many of them got up at dawn and arrived without having eaten a decent breakfast. Nevertheless, some of them blew their wind instruments forcefully, a metaphor perhaps for the enormous sacrifice they were making to be part of the new Sistema

So I was learning how to direct the orchestra and they were learning at the same time to play instruments—a process of exchange in which distance disappeared between the conductor and his musicians and among the individual musicians. 

Photo courtesy of Darwin Aquino. 

The results of this new form of making music surpassed all expectations. In the summer of 2005, we offered a summer camp for the youth in which they performed Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” in its original version. Previously, the youth groups had performed simplified arrangements. I will never forget the look of satisfaction on the faces of the youth the night of the concert, nor will I forget the pride of their families watching them perform. 

Most of the families had come from the provinces to see and hear their children play. One could see the importance of the support of each family, something the Sistema promotes.

After a year, with the help of the government, we organized more presentations (including an exchange program with a German youth orchestra), workshops, classes, and the establishment of some orchestral “nuclei,” small groups that operated in each locality (province, town or city) throughout the country. 

Gradually, the older and more advanced youth took charge of these groups on their own initiative. The multiplying effect had begun. It was, for me, the unstoppable force of gratitude as a motivating energy.

In 2007, the orchestra that we had received in the exchange program invited us to Germany to perform on a concert tour. Our government paid for the high costs of the trip, a miracle of official largesse in our countries. More than half of the orchestra, which now boasted eighty members, needed to apply for passports since they had never before left the Dominican Republic. 

The emotion was intense and the tour was a success by any standard. Perhaps this was the climax of our ten years of work: the first time these young people got on a plane, experienced another country, language, culture, went to theatres, museums, toured cities and got to perform in foreign venues. After Germany came New York—a further validation for our program.

Inspired once more by the Venezuelan model, we created the Youth Symphony Orchestra Foundation to continue with our expansion. We obtained financing for the orchestra and for others at the provincial level. We bought new instruments, increased the number of orchestra nuclei and held internationally oriented events with the visits of acclaimed maestros

To my surprise, many of these programs run by themselves. This, I believe, demonstrates the power of inclusion, whether it is social, cultural, economic of educational. 

We always want to grow more, of course. Former orchestra members are now conductors and teachers with the orchestral nuclei, and their parents are an essential part of our board of directors. We could say that we are one family spiritually united through music. 

Recently, I decided to pursue a Master’s in orchestra conducting in the United States. The project keeps growing, even though I am not in Santo Domingo to represent the commitment of a new generation. I never expected that. Success is the fruit of the teaching and love that the true Sistema gives our youth.

Darwin Aquino is a conductor, compositor and violinist. He is the Dominican representative to the Jeunesses Musicales International, the Central American Youth Orchestra and the Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA). The youngest member of the Latin American Composers Union, he has received three Dominican music prizes, as well as the Young Artist Humanitarian Award from the Hildegard Behrens Foundation in the United States. www.darwinaquino.com