Article by Ken Davies in China Daily, Hong Kong edition on November 22, 2013
The Greeks were right — children need to be educated in music so they can learn to live in harmony with others. This principle is starting to be applied here in Hong Kong.
Over the past four decades, José Antonio Abreu has developed El Sistema, a tremendous program of music education for children of all social backgrounds in Venezuela. This program has resulted in performances of masterpieces performed by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, worldwide, including Hong Kong and even at the Promenade Concerts in London.
El Sistema does not patronize children by allowing low-quality music or low performance standards. It organizes full — often huge — orchestras, with each child learning an instrument properly at frequent rehearsals. They play symphonies by Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovich, as well as less-well-known but exciting, works by Latin American composers that will get you dancing in the aisles.
The aim is not merely to teach music, but to develop social and learning skills that can be used to live life as full human beings. It is based on inclusiveness, so there is no form of social discrimination — all children are welcome. This provides a unique opportunity for some of the world’s most poor and culturally deprived children not only to leapfrog into the world of good music but also to gain confidence in a wide variety of social skills — and in their own, often previously underrated, abilities, motivating them to excel at other subjects, not just music.
The international fame of El Sistema has caused it to be emulated in other countries, especially in the Americas, but also in inner-city areas of Europe, notably by Sistema Scotland, whose orchestra is jovially named Big Noise.
Like Scotland, Hong Kong is not in South America, but its children can derive huge benefits from adopting El Sistema, adapting it to local society and culture.
The good news is that Hong Kong has already started! Although still in its infancy, Music for a Growing Mind, the Hong Kong version of El Sistema, has the potential to spread throughout — and beyond — the SAR. As you read this, think how you can join in by learning more about it and introducing it where you live.
After three years of preparation, the first school in the program was opened in Hong Kong with the help of the Hong Kong Southern District Orchestra. There are 62 children aged six to eight learning to play orchestral instruments (starting with violin, viola and cello). The instruments are provided free, as is the musical training, and also transport and administration.
This is just the start. Next year, another school will be added to the program across the harbor, probably in the New Territories. As it builds a head of steam, demand is likely to develop not only in the HKSAR, but also across the border on the Chinese mainland, where there has been surprisingly little emulation of El Sistema so far. Satisfying this demand is an essential component of Music for a Growing Mind, which is explicitly committed to working both in Hong Kong and the rest of China.
If you want to see Music for a Growing Mind in action, come to the free Christmas concert in the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts Concert Hall in Wan Chai on . And bring the kids!
The author is founder and president of Growing Capacity Inc, a consultancy promoting investment for development. While he was head of global relations in the OECD’s Investment Division up to 2010, he was composer and arranger for the OECD’s music group and also played percussion in three Paris orchestras.