Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

BRAZIL: Music Education Opens Doors to Social Inclusion

Mario Osava *

SÃO PAULO, Aug 28 2009 (IPS) - "It takes us an hour and 20 minutes to get there. We have to walk, because we can't afford the 30-minute bus ride. But the girls never miss their music classes, not even when they have to go without lunch because they don't have time to eat after school," says their mother, Maria da Cruz.

The youth orchestra and choir rehearse at the Guri Project's Julio Prestes centre. Credit: Márcia Zoet, courtesy of Projeto Guri

The youth orchestra and choir rehearse at the Guri Project's Julio Prestes centre. Credit: Márcia Zoet, courtesy of Projeto Guri

That day in June, nine-year-old Jaqueline had a sore throat, which kept her from her violin rehearsal. But she went along when her mother took her 12-year-old sister to the Projeto Guri (Guri Project) centre, so her sister wouldn't miss her drumming class. "Both of them have to come, because I don't have anyone to leave the other one with at home," said da Cruz.

Every Tuesday and Thurday, da Cruz and her daughters make the long trek to the Guri Project centre in Itaquaquecetuba, a poor municipality of 350,000 people on the outskirts of the southern Brazilian city of São Paulo.

Music helps save lost souls

"Through the music, we learn patience," says a teenage girl locked up at the Centro de Atendimento Sócio-Educativo ao Adolescente (Centre for Socioeducational Attention for Adolescents), an institute for juvenile offenders run by Fundação CASA, in Mooca, a São Paulo neighbourhood.

Patience is learned in the rehearsals, a group of inmates explain, because you have to wait a few minutes, paying close attention to the parts played by the others, and come in with your own instrument at just the right moment, in some cases for just a few seconds in an entire piece.

Taught by three music teachers, a dozen girls at the CASA centre in Mooca make up their own small orchestra of flutes, saxophones, violins and percussion instruments. The girls, who come from poor families and never imagined playing an instrument or attending music classes, now read sheet music in their rehearsals.

The Guri Project offers music training in 46 of the Fundação CASA juvenile detention centres.

The Project forms part of reforms implemented since 2006 in the way juvenile offenders are treated in São Paulo, with the aim of making the CASA centres truly "socioeducational."

The CASA centres replaced the large juvenile prisons run by the now-defunct Fundação do Bem Estar do Menor, where riots, escapes and violence were routine. Now the youngsters are held in much smaller units. The one in Mooca has 96 long-term inmates and a few dozen short-term ones, who are in for a maximum of three months.

There are around 6,000 inmates in juvenile detention centres in the state, the large majority of whom are boys. Besides their regular schooling, they take music classes and are engaged in theatre, dance and sports activities.

Among the young female inmates, the most common offence is drug dealing. But Celina (not her real name), a brawny but shy black 19-year-old, is in for homicide. She says she killed a man who was trying to rape her niece. She'll be out in a few months, after three years in the CASA centre – the maximum sentence that juveniles can serve.

Described by the other girls and the employees as "the most musical person and best singer" in the group, where she is the lead percussionist, Celina's dream is to take care of her mother, return to her evangelical church, and tape an album of religious music.

"Guri" means child in the language of the Guarani Indians. The project, launched in 1995 by the state of São Paulo Secretariat of Culture with the aim of fomenting "the sociocultural inclusion of children and adolescents through musical education," gives free classes to around 40,000 mainly low-income youngsters.

Although that number is a record for initiatives of this kind in Brazil, it is equivalent to just 0.5 percent of the state's primary and secondary school students.

The programme serves as an unprecedented source of work for musicians, offering 1,800 posts to teachers and their assistants.

The classes are given in 362 centres scattered around 302 municipalities, which are financed by the Guri Project Association of Friends, mainly with state government funds, as well as contributions from sponsors and from partners like city governments and institutions that offer facilities.

Improving learning

"My children dream of becoming musicians, they play their instruments and sing all day long," says Eliana Mendes, who takes three of her four kids to the Guri Project. But whatever their future may hold, she is pleased with the immediate results. Her oldest son, a 12-year-old, greatly improved his speaking difficulties thanks to choir, and her daughter, who is studying guitar, is overcoming her excessive shyness.

For her part, da Cruz says drumming has helped her daughter become less aggressive and forge a better relationship with school, which she used to complain about having to attend, arguing that "it's enough just to know how to read and write."

But the mothers lament that the Itaquaquecetuba centre, which has 428 students, stopped offering lunch early this year, when it was moved out of a large local school and into the changing room and offices of a football stadium in the same neighbourhood.

The new installations, which are small and have few windows, are hot in the summertime and cold in the winter. And because there is no space for the entire 120-piece orchestra to practice together, they have to rehearse in smaller, separate groups, complains the head of the local Guri centre, Jocimara Caetano. Moreover, because of the problems with damp, mildew has actually grown on some instruments, she says.

The city government moved the centre because it needed more rooms in the school where it was operating, in order to serve children from a newly-built housing project that expanded the population in the neighbourhood. Regular education has to take priority, officials explained.

"We just want facilities that are suitable for a serious, well-organised project that socialises kids and helps them become good citizens," says Raimundo Siqueira, whose daughter and nephew attend the centre. He criticises the Municipal Secretariat of Culture for the failure to assign the centre a better locale.

Marcia de Camargo, who runs her own small neighbourhood business, also wants better facilities for the centre, to which she is grateful because singing in the choir has helped her nine-year-old son get over his poor pronunciation and attention deficit problem.

"Art is the best education," says Luci Arena, the director of the school where the Guri centre used to operate. Music helps develop "attention, discipline and peaceful coexistence.

"A conventional class does not stimulate concentration, but music does," she says, adding that it also engages emotions, which boosts learning.

"No longer poor"

"The Guri Project could already have great orchestras if it really believed in the kids," says the director of the Symphonic Orchestra of Bahia, Ricardo Castro, who started his own music education initiative with a different focus: orchestral training.

Launched in July 2007 in Salvador, the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia, his programme already has an orchestra that delighted audiences in São Paulo and seven state capitals in Brazil's impoverished northeast region in July and August.

His project, the Núcleos Estaduais de Orquestras Juvenis e Infantis da Bahia (NEOJIBA), is based on Venezuela's National System of Youth Orchestras, which for over 30 years has transformed the lives of at-risk, underprivileged youngsters in that country by training them as classical musicians.

Known simply as "El Sistema" (The System), the Venezuelan programme has more than 220 youth orchestras and 180 educational centres, where 350,000 children and adolescents are studying classical music. It has inspired a number of countries throughout the hemisphere to create similar programmes.

"All children can play an instrument well," argues Castro, a renowned pianist who returned from a successful career in Europe to become artistic director of the state Symphonic Orchestra of Bahia (OSBA) in January 2007, on the condition that he would be able to launch the NEOJIBA programme.

"Within three months, a youth orchestra can play simple pieces," he said, pointing out that special talent is only needed "by the soloists."

For now, the programme's first orchestra, in the NEOJIBA centre in Salvador, has 140 members of the July 2 Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Experimental Teaching Orchestra. With new centres preparing to open, Castro hopes to reach 1,000 young people in 2010.

In response to criticism that classical music training does not pull children out of poverty or out of the "favelas" or shantytowns, Castro responds sharply: "Whoever goes through this experience is no longer poor, because they gain inner wealth, pride and self-esteem, and return to the favela to transform it."

For example, one intellectually disabled student in the school "wandered in and out of the classroom whenever he wanted, as if he were in his own home." But when he started going to Guri Project classes, he understood the need to follow the rules and to listen to the teachers. Since then, he has made huge progress in his regular classes as well, says the director.

Explaining why the centre had to be moved, Arena points out that the number of students in her school rose to 1,400 this year, 300 more than last year, and that new classrooms will be needed in 2010.

Social focus

The Guri Project has social, rather than educational or employment-oriented, objectives, says the programme's executive director Alessandra Costa. The aim is "to democratise access to musical culture, mainly just to open the door; producing professional musicians is not our intention," she explains.

In her view, musical education provides "tools for living" by fomenting "cognitive, sensorial and physical capabilities and skills" needed for any job or career – which is why it is described as a "sociocultural" project.

With that aim in mind, the kids are taught in groups, rather than individual classes. The objective is to bring together children of different socioeconomic levels, to foster "healthy egalitarian coexistence," which strengthens society as a whole, says Costa.

The discovery of talent is "something that happens, but it's not a goal," she adds.

Nevertheless, many of the students have their own dreams, encouraged by the creation of orchestras in the bigger centres and the performances offered on special occasions.

A large proportion of the teachers were themselves students of the Guri Project, like 27-year-old Valdir Maia, who studied in the programme for five years, where he "fell in love with the cello at first hearing." He then went on to university, and now he teaches at the centre in Achiropita, a Catholic parish located in a neighbourhood of São Paulo.

New regional centres

The Guri Project is now undergoing a process of administrative decentralisation, which will create 13 regional centres, each of which will run a group of local centres.

The regional centres themselves will offer more advanced teaching, incorporating new instruments and forming bands, thus encouraging the formation of professional musicians.

In one of the regional centres, which could serve up to 500 students, each instrument will be taught by a specific teacher, while in the local centres, the educators teach a set of instruments, like wind or string instruments, says Idelli Costa Nichele, coordinator of the regional centre in the city of Jundiaí, 60 km from São Paulo.

This could accentuate the inequalities between the large centres and the less-equipped ones in small cities. In Cordeirópolis, a municipality of 20,000 people located 160 km from São Paulo, the local Guri Project only functions in the afternoon, which means kids who go to school in the afternoon have no chance of attending. The centre, meanwhile, has room for 129 more students – one-third of the potential student body.

(In Brazil, schoolchildren attend either the morning or the afternoon shift.)

Nevertheless, the Project benefits "the forgotten youngsters" and the poor, says Cordeirópolis Secretary of Culture Nivaldo Menezes, stressing that the centre is made possible by private donations.

Politicians, he says, don't like "culture" because it provides "slow returns."

"An actor takes years to train, while a bridge is built in a few months," he says.


The inevitable flourishing of talent led the administrators of the Project to create a scholarship fund to help a few gifted former students continue their studies in top-level institutions, both in Brazil and abroad.

The idea took off when 18-year-old Anna Murakawa was invited last year to continue studying violin at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, where she has been living since March with financial support from the Guri Project.

The next beneficiary will be Milena Salvatti, who discovered late, at the age of 17, her passion for the cello, after dreaming about dance and design. In her six months in the Guri Project, and after only three months training in cello, she revealed such great talent that she won a scholarship for music education and went on to graduate from university.

Today, at the age of 25, Salvatti, whose mother is retired on invalidity grounds, and who never knew her father because he left before she was born, has to quickly learn German to do a master's degree in Switzerland, as the guest of an orchestra in Zurich.

"This article forms part of the Art Is the Best Education series of reports. The project that gave rise to this effort was the winner of the AVINA Investigative Journalism scholarship. The logos must be published with the reports. The AVINA Foundation and Casa Daros, its local partner in the Art and Society category, are not responsible for the ideas, opinions or other aspects of the content.".
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