Today, more than 400,000 Venezuelan children play music, with more than 200 state-funded youth orchestras and choirs, in a society less plagued with juvenile crime and poor classroom achievement. El Sistema is also blossoming all over Europe, and in many American cities.
So why can't it work in Philadelphia?
It can. Our version, Play On Philly, is a flourishing model for the future. It began with two visionaries - Stanford Thompson, trumpet player and Curtis Institute graduate who inspires the students as CEO at St. Francis de Sales in West Philadelphia, and philanthropist Carole Haas Gravagno, a former teacher who has supported the arts, especially involving children.
They met at a League of American Orchestras in Los Angeles, and they immediately realized they had been waiting for each other.
Play On Philly's after-school program is a laboratory to demonstrate locally what Venezuela has already proven - that music education can be a powerful force for social change.
Older Philadelphia residents remember when high school students had choices of band, chamber, orchestra, ballet, jazz, modern dance, jazz dance, theater, opera, poetry and more, but the arts were stripped from the general public school curriculum for fiscal reasons.
Atlanta-born Thompson was introduced to El Sistema at the New England Conservatory, and became passionate about beginning a version here because of his Curtis ties.
The idea began in 2010 as Tune Up Philly, an offshoot of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, and became incorporated as Play On Philly last year. Rather than engage with the state-supervised public school system, Thompson began the program at a parochial school.
There are 160 students at St. Francis de Sales, with another 85 at Freire Middle School. After their years in these schools, many head to Musicopia, Philadelphia Sinfonia or the Play On Philly youth orchestra, and come back once or twice a week for peer-to-peer mentoring.
At St. Francis, there are about eight students per teacher in most group lessons, 30-40 for string players, and 80-100 in the orchestra.
The students are guided by 27 teaching artists, all professional musicians, with daily practice sessions. Thompson said that this year the program accepted 12 new teachers - out of 83 applicants.
And imagine the thrill of the children when Simon Rattle, Bobby McFerrin, Wynton Marsalis, Marin Alsop, Rossen Milanov, Christoph Eschenbach, and musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute, Temple University and Penn come to conduct and teach.
The Play On Philly youth orchestra has performed at the Kimmel Center, the Mann Center, the Franklin Institute and the Jewish History Museum.
"This is an advance on money, investment instead of spending on prison cells," Thompson said.
"When Settlement School started, it was for social, not just musical reasons, and now we have a hundred years of knowledge about this.
"Success for us is keeping kids out of prison, or from dropping out of school. We have a lot of African immigrants, lots of single parents. It's hard to convince parents who did not grow up with music in their home to support the program, many thought it's just after-school day care. But many now come to hear rehearsals. When kids play Brahms for three hours, grades change."
Thanks to Haas Gravagno, the Knight Foundation and a $1 million grant from the Seed The Dream Foundation, Play on Philly's $2.5 million goal is intended to complete its three-year pilot program. That entails enrolling 500 kids in the program by the end of the pilot, shaping the program to make it easy to replicate, and having enough funds to develop another site, because the space at St. Francis is maxed out. Nineteen public, private and independent schools have already applied.
"We hope this program will become a solution for social services and community schools, a cost half of Lions Clubs or YMCA programs," Thompson said.
"Where is the impact of most after-school programs? When we put kids onstage, we get them to reframe their aspirations, give them pride and self-esteem and better academics.
"A Harvard study proved that noncognitive skills have more positive effect than any other activity. Why shouldn't we invest in a proven cost-effective program?
"Here's what makes this program special. The kids - who have been chosen by lottery - don't have to audition, they aren't kicked out if they don't play well at first, and they have the ability to play in a group.
"It's not about being polished, though it's an intense program, and we've had very few problems with negative incidents or poor grades.
"Not only is the approach different and unique, not only is it a proven solution for the social problems in the city, but it builds pride and helps educators and parents as well as the kids.
"It takes 30 years to be in the Berlin Philharmonic, but some of these kids have played for two years and been conducted by Simon Rattle. So we're going to keep working until this program becomes normal."
Play on Philly receives about a third of its instruments through donations to the Musicopia program (contributors can donate through WRTI-FM) and it buys the others.
Does the program pay off economically? Consider that the program costs about $3,500 per child, expected to decrease to $2,800 next year through economy of scale.
"Music in my childhood was simply part of life," said Haas Gravagno.
"We sang every day in elementary school, and everybody should have a chance to share this world. Seeing these teachers in action is inspiring, because they all care deeply about every child."
Abreu said, "If you put a violin into a child's hands, that child will never hold a gun."