Happiness Starts in Kids' Orchestra

Successful Venezuelan program El Sistema, which gives youth at risk for crime and violence the opportunity to play an instrument, comes to Israel.

The year is 1975. Venezuela nationalizes its oil reserves and considers ways to invest the new capital. Musician and economist Jose Antonio Abreu proposes a revolutionary idea, a kind of a utopian dream: Every impoverished neighborhood should have a musical education center. Children at risk of being sucked into the whirlpools of crime and violence would begin playing an instrument as early as possible, and join an orchestra - a microcosm of an harmonious society based on listening, understanding and conversation. This wouldn't be merely a cultural project, but also a social one: Music as an agent of social change.

Abreu's proposition was approved by the government, and the country's musical enterprise, known as El Sistema, is today a massive success. Venezuela may be identified above all with Hugo Chavez, but El Sistema is a model praised worldwide and adopted in the United States and the United Kingdom. Now it has come to Israel.

lev - Moti Milrod - May 17 2011
Moti Milrod

On Monday, Prof. Tomer Lev of the Tel Aviv University Music School and Prof. Tami Ronen of the Adler Research Center for Child Welfare and Protection showcased the first fruit of the Israeli adaptation of El Sistema, titled Sulamot (scales ): a choir and an orchestra of several dozen youngsters from three schools for children at risk in Yavne, Migdal Haemek and Neve Michael. They mounted the stage with trumpets, flutes, saxophones and even a tuba, each with the instrument selected for him or her by the orchestra director, Sarah Elbaz. Most of them first touched a musical instrument in October. Now, they sat together and played relatively harmoniously, considering their limited musical experience.

What matters here isn't the quality of the music, but the happiness. Some would say that the program prevents violence and social deterioration, and this is how the Adler Center researchers put it in their funding requests. "We say the aim of the project is reducing violence because if we said our aim is to make children happy, we wouldn't get any funding."

To Ronen, who comes from the positive psychology school, the two terms could not be more different. "For years, treatment of children focused on their undesirable behavior - violence, poor attentiveness, social isolation, frustration and so on," he says. "The conventional talk therapy was effective in changing the children's behavior, but did not bring about significant change in their emotional life." In other words, the treatment didn't make them happy. Positive psychology, by contrast, emphasizes not so much getting rid of a child's negative feelings, as on nurturing his positive ones.

Ronen defines happiness as a feeling of control over ones' life - a feeling that isn't common among traumatized children. Their harsh experiences and lack of ability to influence their outcome led to a feeling of helplessness and a perception of themselves as having no control over their lives. So making a child happy means, to a positive psychologist, to give that child a sense of control. "We see the children as partners," says Ronen.

Research assessing whether Sulamot constitutes a road to such happiness has yet to be completed. But the project is enthusiastically supported by all its partners: the staff of the social work and music schools at Tel Aviv University, Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appel, which donated the instruments and infrastructure, the steering committee, which includes representatives from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and the projects chairwoman, who came from Switzerland to attend the concert - Anette Bollag-Rothschild, wife of philanthropist Sami Bollag.

"Music is a second chance for children at risk to open alternative communication channels to themselves and their environment," says Lev.