Friday, February 6, 2009

Youth Symphony Orchestra in Medellín

Youth Orchestra of Medellin: Founded and directed by Juan Guillermo Ocampo, after 7 years of existence the System of Music Schools and Youth Orchestras of Medellín has become the leading social and musical organization in Colombia. Realizing that education can be the single most important way to transform individuals and societies and adapting the Venezuelan model—a world leader in the field of youth orchestras—the program of youth orchestras in Medellín has transformed the lives of 3,000 children, offering a valuable alternative to life in the streets.

Back in 1999, when Medellín was known as the most violent city in the world, no-fee music schools began popping up in the poorest and most crime-ravaged barrios. These were part of the Amadeus Foundation, a social initiative where children are encouraged to sing, play instruments and appreciate classical music. According to its choir director, John Fredy Noreña, once you put a violin in the hands of a child and teach them how to play, they will never pick up a gun.

We bring classical music to children who would otherwise never be able to access it. With the help of the local mayor and private donors and businesses, we work in 27 marginalised neighbourhoods across Medellín. There we have set up free music schools that provide high-quality music education, run by dedicated teachers who are often picked from top conservatoires.

Around 4,000 children, aged from five to 23 years old, are involved in the Amadeus Foundation, and from this group we have selected 1,400 children for our two orchestras and choirs. We provide free buses to collect kids from all the neighbourhoods and bring them to rehearsals. Fernando Botero, the famous artist who was born in Medellín, has donated several instruments and they are available to use for free. The children choose which one they want to play. The violin is the most popular.

Before we founded Amadeus, people living in the poorer neighbourhoods had little idea what classical music was; they had no points of reference. No one had heard of Beethoven or Mozart. It was quite a risk as we had no idea whether the project would succeed.

It was very difficult to convince community leaders that classical music was fun, and more importantly that it could have a social benefit. People were skeptical. They were more interested in rap, or wanted their children to be taught the electric guitar. During one meeting with the local community, a parent stood up and said: "Classical music is not for us poor who live on top of the mountains, but for the rich who live below."

Over time, as our concerts in the city became a regular feature, we had more support from the local community. They came round to classical music, and in some families, Mozart and Beethoven have now become household names. Some of our pupils now make a living from music, either as music teachers or professional musicians who perform with the Medellín Symphony Orchestra.

But there is a lot more to this than just playing an instrument or turning children into professional musicians. Our aim is our slogan: "Making people better human beings". I believe that music can teach you about life. Playing in an orchestra means commitment, respect for the person sitting next to you, teamwork, discipline and being organised. It also improves mental agility. I’ve seen young people change their attitude towards themselves, their family and community since starting with us.

Being part of an orchestra and practising hard almost every day gives children a sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging. Parents come to concerts and feel proud. They are also grateful to Amadeus because their children are involved in something positive and not just hanging around on the street. A young child involved in the programme is far less likely, if ever, to commit a crime. Children participating in the music classes tend to do better at school and they are also less likely to drop out of school.

Kids in local gangs leave our kids alone. Amadeus students have gained themselves a certain kudos and respect. They don't pose a threat to any of the gangs, and they're not in competition with them, so they're left alone. Some of them are even allowed to cross over gang territory lines.

There have been a few occasions when gang violence has affected us – when children get caught in the crossfire and aren't able to attend school. But that rarely happens nowadays.

I see the children as seeds of peace because they go home to their families and talk about the values they've learned and the positive experiences they've had. We talk a lot during rehearsals, and every month we choose a different value to focus the discussion on, like respect, humility or equality. We have a special manual that contains the rules and values the children are required to follow.

Some of our former pupils now teach in our schools, others have become professional musicians, one girl won a scholarship to study music in Italy. So the young students have a lot of positive role models. In the past, so often their only role models were drug-traffickers.

Before a concert we rehearse all weekend and for nine hours during the week, including most evenings after school until 9pm. It's a demanding programme and our biggest challenge is persuading the children to put in that many hours, especially when their parents want them to get a job and earn a living. But I haven’t come across a single child who says that all the hard work hasn’t been worth it.

• John Fredy Noreña was speaking to Anastasia Moloney in Medellín.

Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil de Antioquia

Mozart Requiem

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