In a recent public ceremony, the Harvard School of Public Health announced on November 10 that the second-annual Q Prize (named in honor of music empresario Quincy Jones), was awarded to Dr. José Antonio Abreu, founder of "EL SISTEMA", Venezuela's groundbreaking national classical music program aimed at children at-risk, and to Gustavo Dudamel, who among other luminaries has emerged from El Sistema as the most phenomenal and electrifying young conductor of our time.
"El Sistema" has demonstrated the incredible power of music in Venezuelan Society, and has now been identified as a public health intervention that fosters healthy child development," according to Barry R. Bloom, Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. Studies have documented the impact of El Sistema in preventing youth violence and drug abuse among young people living in the most impoverished of circumstances. But it has done much more: it has given thousands of young people pride in their accomplishments and a place of honor in their communities resulting from this construction of a system of youth orchestras as a method of inclusion, validation and social benefit. They not only have access, they are purposefully privileged, and considered a matter of national pride.
But Music in Public Health?
The powerful notion of music as an element of public health, is as predictable a truth as it is a groundbreaking idea. We often associate public health with communicable diseases or domestic violence. But to classify music as an element that fosters healthy child development is a pronouncement so shocking that the idea itself indicates how much work we have yet to accomplish. To date, music and health in our society have been disconnected, except in alternative practices. No one goes to Kaiser and receives a prescription for 20 minutes of Vivaldi or Coltrane a day. Health Departments do not require counties to form youth orchestras. No one is fighting for music as a line-item on the state's health budget. At the federal level we've been living in a medieval environment so thoroughly anti-human and anti-intellectual, that there is barely a commitment to health, let alone to the arts. So the very concept of music, specifically to classical music, as a health indicator will need to be understood, digested and integrated into the public conscience, dialogue and sphere.
Fortunately we have the 30+ years of Dr. Abreu's "El Sistema" experience in Venezuela to learn from and value. Further, Gustavo Dudamel has been appointed as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new conductor, creating another 18-million cracks in an institution with a history of pernicious exclusion that would not have allowed its audiences to grow, unless it began to value its future in terms of the real masses of people who live in Los Angeles. This shift has happened in part due to outgoing conductor Essa-Pekka Salonen's vision and he deserves our sincere thanks.
To date child and maternal health are tracked based on indicators such as:
• Child Death Rate
• Infant Mortality Rate
• Juvenile Crime Arrest Rate
• Median Income of Families With Children
• Percent Low Birth-Weight Babies
• Percent of 2-Year-Olds Who Were Immunized
• Percent of Children in Poverty
• Percent of Low-Income Children Without Health Insurance
• Percent of Families With Children headed by a Single Parent
• Percent of Female-headed Families Receiving Child Support or Alimony
Now we can begin to envision the presence of music in a child and a community's life as part and parcel of the concept of "well-being", something essential we cannot do without.
This is nothing less than revolutionary in a society that has given itself a lobotomy by eliminating music and arts in public education particularly since the Reagan Era, placing arts access squarely in the domain of only those who could afford it. And what has this gotten us as a people? Can we honestly say we value our children (or for that matter our adults) more than other countries when we have excluded them from the creative, social and artistic development to which human beings have had access since the beginning of time? We have devalued them. And the bottom line is that our children, as a whole, are too often alienated, dysfunctional and living within the limitations of materialism and other ghetto mentalities that drive them not to care about themselves (why should they?) let alone about the communities in which they subsist.
This is a special time in history in which we have the possibility of making systemic changes long overdue. Along with reversing our wasteful behaviors that have contributed to everything from global warming to the appropriation of water sources, we need to embrace the fact that there is a quickly widening gap between the "have everythings" and the "have nothings", spurred by Wall Street's unbridled corporate greed, at last exposed as obscene and without limit.
Possibly now we will again consider music as a fundamental element of our humanity. An essential life-giving force we cannot do without. Something our children and our communities have always needed as an integral part of existence, ritual, spirit and flow.
©2008 María Elena Gaitán
All Rights Reserved