Music Changing Lives

Cartagena Music Festival courtesy of Julia Salvi. 

The Opportunity to Live a Life in Music

The Cartagena International Music Festival

By Julia Salvi

Children learn to make instruments. Photo courtesy of Julia Salvi.

In the cobbled streets of Cartagena, where the sea meets with a land vibrant in history and beauty, music—in particular classical music—has become a protagonist during nine days of January since 2007. Musicians of all ages and backgrounds stroll around the city day and night, reminding visitors and locals that something magical is taking place. The Cartagena International Music Festival combines artistic excellence and education in benefit of a social cause: promoting the arts as a channel for social integration.   

The Festival supports the development of local musicians, increasing the openings for a life in the arts. It also mobilizes communities from within and outside Colombia around the festival. Thus, we generate an ideal space for human interaction with the aid of a universal language: music. The event promotes social integration along with fundamental values for civic coexistence such as solidarity and respect, assisted by the arts that open up our minds and help us become better human beings. 

The existence of a festival or the mere access to music does not guarantee that the conditions for a better society will emerge and solidify. However, fostering this form of expression in people’s lives does increase the possibilities for this to happen. Through the Cartagena International Music Festival and related programs, Fundación Salvi (Colombia) focuses on mobilizing resources, organizations and people to create the opportunities for the expansion of music, seeking ways for society to find common grounds to coexist in peace. 

Young adults from 18 to 25, as well as adolescents from age 12 up, have been the focus of our didactic work. Fundación Salvi’s leading educational program is its Master Classes, designed to bring international artists of excellent artistic and human qualities together with talented local musicians and professors who seek more opportunities to progress. Each Master Class is characterized by its academic rigor combined with friendly dialogue between professors and students. As a previous participant put it:

“I take with me [the good fortune of] having had the opportunity to be in contact with great interpreters of universal music and of meeting colleagues from other universities with whom we have identified ways of improving the quality of academic music in our institutions”—Robinson Giraldo Villegas, trombone teacher and beneficiary of a 2015 Salvi grant. 

Robinson’s experience as a student, despite being himself a teacher, reflects feelings that other participants have shared with us about their academic and professional experiences. In its ten years of existence, more than 3,500 students have benefited from this program, many of whom have received Fundación Salvi grants. Beyond the classrooms, young adults experience other educational settings such as concerts, conferences and exhibitions. The exposure to live performances, for instance, teaches them much about the connection between a performer and his audience and the joy that a spirited musical interpretation can bring to the people that gather to listen. 

On the technical front, students improve their musical ear, posture and personal presentation, among other abilities, while on the personal side they engage with peers, colleagues and people from different walks of life. This gives them insight into various social contexts, helping to dispel stereotypes and to find more common ground than differences—all essential to reinforcing civic values. As Fundación Salvi’s academic program director Javier Duque  points out, “The Festival complements the regular cycle of formation offered by our teaching institutions, in an environment that is ideal for stimulating learning.”

In this context, social integration and even valuable friendships result from the encounter between national and foreign musicians. Leading international artists who have participated in our program include the violinist and conductor Scott Yoo, Italian baritone Roberto De Candia, and, in 2016, the great Russian violinist, Maxim Vengerov. For the professors too it is an opportunity to teach young musicians, with different backgrounds than theirs, who bring their own visions of the world into the way they interpret music.

A detail of instrument making. Photo courtesy of Julia Salvi.


This artistic and educational experience is complemented by the silent activity of instrument building and repairing known as lutería, a historical craft that is essential to music and its evolution. All year long, separate from the festival but also in preparation for it, Fundación Salvi, in alliance with the Colombian Ministry of Culture and with the support of private benefactors, carries out a lutería program which, in addition to building and repairing services, provides training and education with a focus on young musicians and artisans. 

In its six years of existence, this program has reached four of the country’s major cities and their surrounding suburbs; it has provided 38 courses of formation to Colombian artisans, served 45 municipal bands and repaired 900 instruments. During the festival itself, a total of 136 workshops have been held, benefiting 2,200 participants. Beyond the numbers themselves, what is most important is the overall socio-cultural impact. 

Over the past two decades numerous musical programs have sprung up in different regions of the country, not only to expand the opportunities for the young to live a life in the arts, but also to give young people some tools to face the various threats present in society. Examples of such programs are the Network of Music Schools of Medellín, the youth groups of the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra, the Cartagena Symphony Youth Orchestra, and the various suburban bands that have risen with the support of non-profit organizations such as Fundación Batuta, nationwide, and Fundación Música por Colombia, in the Caribbean region.

In this context, the work of lutiers, that is, instrument makers and repairers, is vital for existing bands and orchestras. Thus, the Lutería and Wind Instrument Centers in Colombia, which began as an initiative of the Ministry of Culture, play a fundamental part in strengthening this craft and its impact on musical development. The centers have grown and expanded their reach thanks to the initial financial and philanthropic support of Fanny and Luis Carlos Sarmiento. In 2015, another local non-profit, Fundación Mario Santo Domingo, took up the flag and became the Centers’ new benefactor, helping us initiate a new entry-level training program, under the guidance of two Italian and one Colombian lutier. 

A girl checks her progress in learning how to make wind instruments. Photo courtesy of Julia Salvi.


The work of Fundación Salvi is an example of the impact of non-profits on society in various fields, in this case, the arts. By bringing the public and private sectors together, non-profits help consolidate projects that in time become mature programs with a long-lasting impact. To be more effective, such impact must be pursued as well through unity among cultural leaders and agents. This is why, in addition to its musical focus, Fundación Salvi has made Colombian plastic artists a key part of the festival, by inviting fine artists to help create the images that will reflect the spirit and identity behind each year’s program. With their participation, the festival exalts the connection between the arts and their contribution to society.  

 As we continue to follow the wise reflections of the thinkers, activists and leaders who have upheld the importance of the arts in promoting progress and well-being, it is insightful to refer to the words of Italian novelist Umberto Eco. In a 2015 column written for Italian newspaper L’Espresso and published in one of Colombia’s leading newspapers, El Espectador, he said: “in a world made up of so many diverse cultures living in constant interaction, our cultural resources are essential to our mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence.” This global idea is a guiding principle in the work of Fundación Salvi and its focus on youth and education. Thus, the best way to honor ten years of artistic and educational work in Colombia is to roll up our sleeves and continue with more wholehearted, hands-on work, taking first the opportunity that these pages give us to thank all of those who have been a part of this journey. 

Julia Salvi has dedicated her life to bringing music and the arts to new audiences throughout the world. As president of the Victor Salvi Foundation, Salvi promotes music education and philanthropic activities in connection to the harp. In Colombia, the Foundation’s most ambitious project is the Cartagena International Music Festival, now in its 10th season. To learn more about Fundación Salvi’s artistic, educational and social programs, visit and 

El Camino Project

Forging Classical Links on an Ancient Road

By Marcela Davison Avilés, Carla Dirlikov and Marisa Canales

Map courtesy of Marcela Davison Avilés. 

With the latest election campaign uproar about Mexican immigrants, the U.S. mainstream media may be paying attention to their political clout, but generally not to the contributions of Latinos to the civic culture of the Americas. 

When the U.S. media does pay attention to Latin American or Latino cultural life, they most often overlook the genre of classical music. Indeed, in the United States, audience attendance at classical music concerts is at an all-time low.  Yet the opposite is true in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

Which makes what happens when Americans hear—really hear — classical music, especially that of Latin America, all the more miraculous. We believe, in fact, we know that the traditional and classical music of Latin America can help American communities avoid the pernicious impact of negative stereotypes. And we have launched a new initiative this year at Harvard and in California with a mission to prove exactly that.  

El Camino Project merges our experience as performers, educators, producers, and advocates with our combined experience of what it means to be Mexicans, Latinos and Americans. We are taking that combination on the road—literally and figuratively—to rebuild a new awareness of Latino culture for a broad audience. The road of our choosing is El Camino Real—the ancient highway linking two continents and hundreds of cultures. It will serve as the central artery of our efforts, providing history, ideas and music—the lifeblood of culture—to map and guide our efforts.

Cathedral at Puebla, Mexico. Common license Flickr via Ronald Woan. 

The path of our collaboration disregards current notions of presenting traditional music in the usual way (in a large hall, with a large orchestra, on a large stage, in front of a tiny audience) in favor of the troubador’s approach—taking the stories and music of our heritage on the road with intimate salons or community gatherings. Our “artesanía de acción” combines elements of surprise, production and entertainment value with thoughtful curation of the Latin American classical and heritage genres and a soupçon of wit and old-fashioned parlor gossip. This paradigm is closer to forum theatre than to traditional concert presentation. The result?

The result is what we call the “I Had No Idea” effect upon an audience and community. “I see people’s faces change during performances,” says Dirlikov. “First one, then a couple more, then it’s like the whole room suddenly lights up.”

“They’re all thinking, ‘I had no idea,’” Davison Avilés adds. “I had no idea that Latin America had composers of classical music. Or, I had no idea Latinos performed classical music. Or, I had no idea the music is so beautiful, ethereal, transformative—all adjectives we have heard after one of our salons.”

“Actually in the United States there was one person who had an idea,” says another of our collaborators, Marisa Canales, founder and principal of Urtext, Mexico’s leading classical music label. “Leonard Bernstein.” 

In his time, Bernstein innovated the popularization of classical music with lively presentations for young people, and filmed lectures that were equally entertaining and educational. He also knew and loved the music and people of Latin America—his wife, Felicia Montealegre, was born in Costa Rica and grew up in Chile. Through her, and his travels in Mexico and South America, he achieved a deep understanding of the power of its culture.

The idea for El Camino Project arose not with Leonard Bernstein—although it might very well have done—but with a policy conference a little more than a year ago. The White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics joined forces with the Mexican Heritage Corporation, Pixar Animation Studios, arts educators, curators and acclaimed international performing artists to discuss creating access to music education for Latino youth. 

The two of us met at this conference (Dirlikov is an opera singer and Davison Avilés is a San Francisco-based impresario and arts advocate). Of Bulgarian and Mexican heritage, Dirlikov became an agent for change, forging an international brand through constant re-invention of her own trajectory as a professional singer. In the process, she has given new meaning to the term “emerging artist,” performing gigs in China, South America, Mexico, and Europe to make up for the fact that in America a career in opera is, in her words, “a challenge.”

“But really, there has never been such a thing as a traditional path to becoming an artist.  And, what’s more, I have always believed that artists can be more than just interpreters—we can be educators and advocates, and researchers.  I was especially interested in researching culture as I believe that art is born out of culture.  I felt that being an artist allowed me a unique perspective to research culture, particularly while singing abroad,” notes Dirlikov.

If Dirlikov is the artistic change agent within El Camino, Davison Avilés is its finance and strategy guru. A Harvard College alumna ’80 with a degree in Fine Arts and a law degree from Stanford, she has combined her knowledge of the law, business and the arts to forge a career in which the tag might be, “production meets advocacy.” “I’m a producer—my job is to raise funds, build capacity, get the show up and do it in a way that creates and amplifies relevance and meaning for an international audience.”

Energized by the conference and policy discussions and by the urgent need to strengthen the financial, artistic and community development capacity for Latino classical and heritage music, we decided to join forces with colleagues Marisa Canales and Benjamin Juárez Echenique on a new strategy to change attitudes in the U.S. performing arts community, which neither understands nor appreciates the true impact of Latino classical and heritage music.

Canales and her husband, Juárez Echenique, have built an international reputation in the world of classical music. Together their footprint spans the worlds of recording, performance, research and academia. Canales is the founder and principal of Urtext Digital Classics, a producer of digital content in the classical music genre and an international concert flutist. Juárez Echenique, the group’s strategic adviser, is a conductor and currently a member of the music faculty at Boston University; he was formerly head of the Music Department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and Musical Director of Mexico City’s Grand Festival.

El Camino Project is not only following ancient roads; it’s carving out innovative paths. Canales will be developing new digital content for El Camino Project.  A good example is the new software application Canales developed through her record label. This app, called En Concierto, brings the audience directly into the heart of an orchestra by creating an experience in which the user can choose to hear the music as the proverbial “fly on the wall” or actually immerse herself in the work of the conductor, soloists or members of the orchestra. This is accomplished through a scrolling score which is synchronized with the audio of the piece and four video screens showing each one of the players, as well as the conductor.

The first version of En Concierto, which presents the music of Mexican composer Samuel Zyman, performed by the Orchesta de Las Américas, is available for android devices through the Google store and was scheduled to be available for Apple devices by mid-October. El Camino Project amplifies the outreach and promotion of this digital content to build audience for the music and composer, and encourage investment in its distribution and development of new versions.

At Harvard, El Camino Project has also partnered with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Adams House, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and the Cultural Agents Initiative at the Latin American Studies Department to voice the impact of Latino culture at a three-day international conference “Beyond Tomorrow: Safeguarding Civilization Through Turbulent Times” in October 2015.

Whether along an ancient road, in the halls of Harvard or through digital media, classical music is a way of empowering Latino voices. Music is perhaps the preeminent human practice for preserving past cultures. Through music we keep the past vividly alive and experience as closely as possible the feelings of our ancestors. By delving into the creative process, our project provides the community with a deep engagement with heritage art forms in danger of destruction, financial collapse or worse—of being forgotten amidst the noise and clamor of contemporary society. 

Marcela Davison Avilés, Harvard College ’80, is Managing Director and Executive Producer of El Camino Project.

Carla Dirlikov is an opera singer and founder of El Camino Project.

Musical Slums

Playing for Your Life in Venezuela’s El Sistema

By Yana Stainova 

Photographer Meredith Kohut paints a portrait of children of all ages who learn how to play music through Venezuela's El Sistema.

View the photo gallery.

The small bus was trudging up the almost vertical hill, swerving sharply to the left to let off the passengers. The street where I got off was littered with electric cords and big piles of uncollected trash emitting an unbearable stench and inviting ominous vultures. I went up an alley of stairs that wound its way between the bare-bricked houses, where some curious elderly women peeped out of the windows. After a couple of hundred steps, feeling the sweat, dust, and strong sun on my arms, I reached the top of the staircase. Below me stretched a vast expanse of houses densely scattered on hills and in the distance, hidden by the afternoon fog, the center of Caracas. But in the background, I heard children’s laughter, the sound of running feet, and the disorderly tuning of a symphonic orchestra. Drawn out of my reverie, I walked into the music school where for a year I taught flute to children living in a Venezuelan slum. 

There are 423 such music schools all over Venezuela. They are part of El Sistema, a state-funded classical music program that provides cost-free music education and instruments to half a million young people between the ages of 2 and 18 across the country. Founded in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema has weathered the volatile political climate of seven changes in government and has been adopted in 35 countries around the world. What started out as a dozen musicians playing together in a garage is today a nation-wide after-school program comprising more than a thousand children’s and youth orchestras and dozens of professional orchestras and ensembles that tour the world. El Sistema aims to lessen socioeconomic exclusion and everyday violence through music, and 81 percent of the program’s participants are from the poorest and medium-low social strata (Inter-American Development Bank). 

 El Sistema’s activities take place daily between 2 and 6 p.m., the first two hours dedicated to instrumental classes and the last two to orchestra rehearsals. Children, some as young as two, begin by singing in choirs, playing the recorder or cardboard instruments in the so-called “paper orchestras.” After a couple of years, they are encouraged to listen to, touch, feel, and play with the real instruments, choosing the one they like best and having the freedom to switch instruments later on. As soon as a child is able to play an instrument, he or she is expected to teach younger children. As a result, El Sistema’s pedagogy is spontaneous and playful, not wedded to centuries of top-down and formal European traditions in learning. As the weather is warm all year round, classes often take place in improvised spaces: in an open patio, under an awning, in the town plaza or under a tree.

When I first found out about El Sistema, I was a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Brown University. The idea that music was practiced on such a wide scale in Venezuela captured my imagination. Born in Bulgaria, on the eve of the revolutions that brought down the Berlin Wall and changed a continent, and having just written an undergraduate honors thesis on the place of poetry in the Chilean transition to democracy, I was committed to the idea that artists could be agents of political and social change. I was a life-long pianist and flutist, and the daily practice of music had shaped my own life. My fascination with El Sistema sharpened my resolve to go to a country which has some of the highest homicide rates in the world and was then on the brink of political and economic turmoil. El Sistema eventually became the subject of sixteen months of ethnographic research and my dissertation.

I arrived in Venezuela without knowing anybody in 2011. The first thing I did was to visit the headquarters of El Sistema, a seven-story building in the center of Caracas where the professional orchestras are housed. It was teeming with activity all day long; individual and orchestra rehearsals, music classes, and in the evenings, invariably, at least one concert. Children of all ages energetically played Mahler, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky, and identified with the personal histories of the composers. Their passion for classical music was fueled by the words, visits and inspiration of their own Gustavo Dudamel, a program graduate who is now the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Famed foreign conductors, such as Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle, as well as professors, were other common visitors in El Sistema

Eager to find out where many of the musicians hailed from, during my next two summer research trips to Venezuela I set out to visit schools outside of Caracas. My travels took me to the Lara region famous for its Venezuelan popular music, where popular ensembles coexisted with the Western classical music conservatories. There, I asked Lucia, a little girl who was a violinist in the local children’s orchestra, what she liked about music. She hugged herself tightly and rocked back and forth, her eyes shyly looking down, a cunning smile on her face. “With music I create my own stories,” she said, telling me of a beautiful princess forced to marry a man she did not love. She told me that her instrument helped her communicate with others: “I am usually shy but when I am holding my violin I feel brave enough to talk to people.” From there, I traveled to the mountainous region of Mérida and visited a school perched at 5000 feet, where the wind instrument players felt dizzy as they drew a breath in the rarefied air. There, Alicia would walk out of the music school with her cello on her back, and sing all the way home. From Mérida, I went to the deserts of Coro, where the wood of the violins cracked in the heat. I met Carlos, a youth who worked over the weekends in his uncle’s liquor store to save up enough money to buy his own trumpet, which he caringly polished and lovingly played. And then I went to Canaima, near the highest waterfall in the world, where indigenous children took music classes under palm trees and later swam in the nearby lake. And where, in the evenings, a mother played the viola in the local orchestra, while her baby daughter played at her feet.

For my year of fieldwork, I was, however, based in Caracas. I taught flute in the largest slum in Venezuela, which has the highest homicide rate in the country. In between gang crossfire, the El Sistema bus came to pick up children and take them up the steep streets to “la orquesta” (the orchestra), as the musical activities were popularly called. As my Ivy League students had been replaced by seven-year-old pranksters, I struggled to make them concentrate on the music class and gain their respect. “You do it then,” Juan, one of my flute students, challenged me on my first class after I corrected his technique. I found teaching to be enormously rewarding because it enabled me to engage with people in an activity that could not be expressed in words. “Let’s just play and you’ll see for yourself,” was what Laura, a bassoon player, replied to my question what music meant to her. Teaching also made me a valued member of the community, and I met my students’ mothers and took part in their everyday lives. They were faithfully dedicated to their children’s everyday practice of music because it kept children away from the violent gangs that permeated the slum. Furthermore, the mothers believed that participation in El Sistema gave their children opportunities they themselves had never had. 

I experienced the thrill of these opportunities when I was invited to join one of the professional orchestras on a tour to Japan and South Korea. Many musicians were leaving the country for the first time, replacing their beds in the slums with rooms in five-star hotels. They experienced the excitement and intimidation of getting to know new countries. Performing for enthusiastic audiences in Hiroshima, Tokyo and Seoul, they cried with emotion or worried over concert mishaps. Some took part in the activities for the children orphaned in the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, where a school inspired by El Sistema was created. They played in binational orchestras, where a Venezuelan and a Korean musician shared a stand and a score but not a common language.  

Today, as Venezuela faces fast-growing inflation, political instability and scarcity of basic goods, El Sistema’s thousands of musicians continue their daily musical activities. 

Yana Stainova, a pianist and flutist, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at Brown University. She earned her B.A. in International Relations and Spanish from Mount Holyoke College. 

Music for Social Change

The Origins of the Danilo Pérez Foundation

By Patricia Zarate and Danilo Pérez

Danilo Pérez with his father and mother, taken in 2013 with some of the foundation children. Photo by Bill Bytsura.

When Danilo Pérez Urriola, a salsa singer in Panama, decided to study pedagogy in the 1960s, he faced a difficult challenge: a teaching internship in Colón, one of the poorest cities of the Republic of Panama. As a young and enthusiastic teacher, he accepted troubled teenagers into his classroom, but soon found they had difficulty learning even the simplest subjects because they couldn’t relate to the material.  

It was after everyone in the class failed a poetry exam that Pérez (the father of one of the co-authors of this article) began to think that maybe the students were not the problem. He decided to change his teaching methods and started to bring music into the poetry class. Once the poetry was set to music, everyone passed the test, so Pérez started applying music to all the subjects taught in the school system. Within a couple of months, every middle-school class started with a song, and the material content of the class was taught through improvisation or by rearranging traditional songs. Math formulas were taught in the form of repetitive songs, geography lists were simple melodies, and history was a complete improvisation in the key of G. Composition, call and response, melodic development, improvisation and singing a cappella while clapping a repeated clave pattern allowed the students to remember their subject matter. Sometimes, Pérez had to tell them to sing softer during test times and some students began asking if it were okay to simply sing through their tests instead of writing them. Students began to learn and successfully graduate.

This experience—more than fifty years ago—embodies the work and spirit of the Danilo Pérez Foundation, established in 2005, and now run by his son, president of the Foundation in Panama and Cultural Ambassador of the Republic of Panama, as well as Artistic Director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, and a Unesco Artist for Peace. Projecting his father’s ideas onto the world stage, Pérez Jr. has expanded the concept of music as an instrument of social change.

The Foundation teaches hundreds of children ages 8 to 14, including many from very poor and crime-ridden areas of Panama City. Like his father, Pérez insists that they receive an education in much more than just music. The nonprofit, housed in a former conservatory building, provides a safe place that the Boston Globe once described as “full of instruments, books, and role models who teach principles like respect and honesty alongside rhythm and music theory.”

Despite his father’s efforts in Colón, Pérez finds that over the past 20 years, the overall situation of poverty has only gotten worse in this small corner of Panama, an hour away from Panama City. Disaffected youth who can’t finish school are most likely to be in jail or dead by the age of 20. His father’s students faced much better odds, and today many of them say they still remember many of their teacher’s songs, which led them into more productive lives. 

His father’s unpublished 1967 thesis, “Influence of Music on Primary Education,” forms a cornerstone of the Foundation’s philosophy today. The thesis asserts, “Music could serve the education of a child, or education could serve the child to learn music.” Each serves a purpose. For example, a music teacher’s goal is to make the child good at the art and craft of music. In this process, Pérez argues, the purpose may not necessarily be for the child to become a professional musician, but simply for her or him to be able to play, compose or better appreciate the musical arts.  Conversely, the use of music to “serve the education of a child” sees music as a universal means by which teachers, parents, community leaders and others can transmit all types of information to the younger generation. In this respect, Pérez recommends that every single teacher in the Republic of Panama should be trained in the study of music sufficiently to use it to teach any subject in the school curriculum. This proposition contends that music holds a pre-eminent place among all academic subjects as the method by which every subject should be taught to make it meaningful for students.

Used in this way, music can bring a sense of coherence to an otherwise disjointed education system. When students are trying to understand why they have to study mathematical subjects they may never use in daily life, they can instantly recognize the essential role of math in music. For example, instead of studying addition, multiplication or division by adding, multiplying or dividing abstract numbers, students can study all this with musical notation, and then can sing or play the math exercise in the form of memorable tunes. Algebraic fractions are physically audible in the form of a whole note that is musically divisible into halfs, quarters and sixteenths. A fractional relationship is therefore directly explained and understood as a component of rhythm, and an elementary example can get as sophisticated as one likes. Thus when a whole note is musically divided into halves, quarters and sixteenths, it can change pitch and form melodic intervals, creating a tune. The same melodic shape can then be enriched with harmony, lyrics and different emotional interpretations, and suddenly a dry mathematical exercise has acquired an abundance of meanings that the student can hear, play and emotionally perceive. 

Pérez’s thesis goes on to describe the problems ingrained in Panamanian public education and suggests that the inclusion of music—both as a subject in itself, and as a general method of teaching—can help in these specific ways: it can develop a sense of national identity, encourage school attendance, help with memorizing subject matter and provide vivid experiences for each academic subject. Music education in a national curriculum, his thesis asserts, develops students in six ways: Music helps construct an integral personality and enriches the lives of young people by helping them function in collectives based on emotional intelligence and self-expression. It provides the healthy experience of unifying mind and body and creates aesthetic awareness while also building intellectual skills and the attitude of scholarship.  On a larger scale, music develops a national folklore and historical identity.

Danilo Pérez Urriola graduated from the University of Panama with a degree in pedagogy (or “education” as it is known in other countries). His thesis was never published and remains in storage on the shelf of the university library, but his teachings live on in the Danilo Pérez Foundation. It teaches music to paying and scholarship students, but it also builds social responsibility and foments Panamanian culture, transforming its students into respected citizens and constructive members of society

We can see the concrete results of the philosophy of Danilo Pérez Sr. in the fruits of Danilo Pérez Jr.: the Danilo Pérez Foundation and the Panama Jazz Festival, which have funded scholarships for countless students, many of them living in extreme poverty. The Festival has brought more than 250,000 people to Panama, creating both cultural and educational tourism.

These large endeavors bear witness to the legacy of Danilo Pérez Sr. But this inheritance is also present in the small, concrete examples of individual success, of a young man named Joshue, virtually the only youth in his rough neighborhood in Colón who has managed to stay out of jail. It was music that saved him. Or perhaps one should say music as a powerful instrument for social change.  

Patricia Zarate, a Chilean-born saxophonist, is the Executive Director of the Panama Jazz Festival and Outreach Coordinator for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Therapy from Berklee College of Music and a Master Degree in Jazz Studies from New York University.

Danilo Pérez, a Panamanian pianist, has received Grammy awards for his musical projects, as well as awards for his philanthropic work. He performs and leads educational and performance projects with students and professionals all over the world experiencing the power of music for the restoration of

Teatro del Lago

Education Through Music 

By Uli Bader

"Puedes Bailar" performers dance with exuberance. Photo courtesy of Uli Bader. 

Teatro del Lago in Frutillar in the south of Chile offers spectacular views of lakes and volcanoes. This natural setting has attracted international and Chilean artists, ranging from Yo Yo Ma to Gil Shaham to the Bamberg Symphony, and the Youth Orchestra of the Americas

When my team and I inaugurated the theatre in November 2010, we saw it only as a performance space, one that would be able to nurture an entire region with creativity and a new quality of life. 

In the original concept, education did not play a large role. However, quite early on, we discovered the importance of educating through music. Teatro del Lago now manages an arts school with musical instrument classes and an extensive ballet program (connected to the Royal Academy of Dance in London).  Five years after its inauguration, Teatro del Lago has become an education and arts center receiving 20,000 students per year through its several innovative and integrative education activities. 

Teatro del Lago has also created an International Orchestra and Choir Academy to bring together students and young professionals from all over Latin America and the world to jointly create sophisticated musical programs. In addition to these formal international programs, Teatro del Lago recently created two community programs “Puedes Bailar” (You Can Dance!) and “Puedes Cantar” (You Can Sing!). 

These programs were inspired by the realization that not every child and every family can easily afford to buy or rent a violin, a piano or any other instrument to bring music into their children’s lives. Inspired by several talks and readings of Sir Ken Robinson, an English author and adviser to arts-in-education programs, as well as by other creative leaders, we focused on the fact that most of us have a working body and most of us have a voice. With that body and with that voice we can dance and we can sing without the need for any other instrument. 

“Puedes Cantar,” like its sister program “Puedes Bailar,” recruits youth of varied social economic backgrounds from many of the region’s schools—one of the essential cornerstones of this program. Real integration does not happen in programs that “only” help vulnerable students.  Connecting children from different social backgrounds is what matters,  especially at an age in which social background is not yet important.

Teatro del Lago’s Choir Movement, which began six years ago, now has 120 participants and incorporates a children’s choir, a youth choir and a choir for young and older adults. The choir performs traditional music, as well as more contemporary forms. 

The benefits of a choir in education reflect the values of our society in general: listening while singing requires multitasking, coordination, discipline, teamwork, expression and learning how to read music as an additional creative world-language. The incorporation of one’s own voice into the sound of a choir is a sensitive multitasking act; the tuning of the voice is a corporal feeling, steering the voice in a controlled and coordinated way. We work in teams, thus fostering the sensibility that enhances community and social understanding. Combining those techniques with the emotional activity of music, like singing or dancing is proved to be more effective than learning without emotion. 

Neuroscience tells us that all emotional activities are stored and remembered in the amygdala, the oldest part of the evolution within our brain. That means learning certain procedures or skills in combination with an emotional experience will make them firm and last forever. Tests with people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease have proved that though the patients forget the lyrics of songs early on, when the melody is played the memory of the text returns. 

All these scientific discoveries should be applied in simple ways at an early age: in education. 

In addition to the “Puedes Cantar” program, “Puedes Bailar” brings together about seventy teenagers from twenty schools in seven communities each year. These youngsters, between 14-18 years of age, would normally never meet, and the reality is that they would probably never dance. Teenagers in Chile move within their one-and-only social group, that of the school. Creating an additional social horizon by making new friends from different social backgrounds and communities enhances social ability, connectivity and communications skills. 

In addition, learning modern dance teaches these students discipline, stamina, artistic creativity, presence in front of others and presence on a big professional theatre stage, as well as communication (also corporal silent communication!) and coordination, teamwork and friendship through the arts. Shy children or those with low self-esteem transform their personalities and acquire leadership skills. 

In November 2014, the group performed in the Annual Gala’s special program with choreography by New York-based Christopher Huggins. The Chilean youth shared the stage with dancer-“colleagues” from Philadanco/Philadelphia. I created “Puedes Bailar” and “Puedes Cantar” after reading extensively in the field of neuroscience. I tried to apply this knowledge in the arts.  Today, Teatro del Lago trains a young generation during after-school activities. This is the generation we want to foster and nurture. This is the power of quality arts education programs, and it should be the goal of all education to re-focus on the essence of human value before sophistication of technical skills. 

Dancing and singing are small steps in every life but are huge steps for society’s future. 

Uli Bader is the creative director, co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of Teatro del Lago, Frutillar, Chile.  Born in Germany, he studied music and arts administration and worked in several positions in the arts field in the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Philharmonie Koeln, National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and Teatro del Lago in Chile.

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.