By Jens Erik Gould
Placido Domingo cried when he saw the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra perform.
The world-renowned opera singer confessed that the concert evoked the strongest emotions he had ever felt.
The young players have won over many big name musicians
Sir Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic, swore that the country's youth orchestras were doing the most important work in classical music anywhere in the world.
And former Berlin Philharmonic director Claudio Abbado only needed to see one performance by the orchestra to
invite the Venezuelans to play in Germany.
The talented musicians of the National System of Venezuelan Youth and Children's Orchestras are a source of national pride, like football stars in other Latin American countries.
They have also inspired 23 countries across the hemisphere to launch similar music education programmes.
Called El Sistema by its members, the programme is celebrating 30 years of making classical musicians out of half-a-million young Venezuelans, and it has transformed the lives of many underprivileged and at-risk youths in the process.
"I wish players in the US were here to hear the conviction with which you play," Gwyn Richards, dean of Indiana University's School of Music, told a Caracas youth orchestra after it played Dmitri Shostakovich's Festive Overture in honour of his visit.
"No-one is just walking through it, watching the clock," he said later. "When they play, they really mean it."
Visitors say the children play with unusual conviction
The young musicians' excitement stems from the programme's social mission, which its founder Jose Antonio Abreu describes as helping "the fight of a poor and abandoned child against everything that opposes his full realisation as a human being".
One of Mr Abreu's musicians is Lennar Acosta, 23, who six years ago was already making his ninth visit to a Caracas correctional facility after a history of heavy drug use and armed robbery.
While the facility denied Mr Acosta's request to return to school, the youth orchestra took him on as a student and soon gave him a scholarship.
He now earns his living at a music institute, has played a dozen times in the nation's famed Teresa Carreno music hall, and is studying to perform Mozart's clarinet concerto.
"One of the biggest emotions I've felt was when they gave me a clarinet," Mr Acosta said, sitting with his instrument in hand in a Caracas music conservatory.
"El Sistema ended up straightening me out. It is my family, like my home."
When 11 young musicians put on the Youth Orchestra's first concert in 1975, there were only two symphony orchestras in the entire country.
The programme has helped boost that number to around 200, with at least one professional orchestra in every state.
El Sistema has also transcended politics and regime changes, receiving increased funding from every new government. Its 2005 budget is $23m.
The growing quantity and quality of Venezuelan musicians is due in part to the programme's teaching methods, which involve inviting children as young as two to play in front of audiences as soon as they begin learning their instruments.
Susan Siman, one of El Sistema's founders, says that playing her first concert at the age of eight motivated her to keep improving as a violinist.
"I was terrified. The music score went blank," Ms Siman said of her performance of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, with her parents in the audience.
"But at the end, [the concert] was what motivated me and I wanted to do it better."
This approach to music education is beginning to leave its mark on orchestras worldwide.
The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra's Gustavo Dudamel, 24, who is a disciple of Sir Simon Rattle, won the Bamberg Symphony's Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition last year.
He also received rave reviews from local press after conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in September.
The programme's Edicson Ruiz has also earned a seat as double bassist with the Berlin Philharmonic at just 20 years of age.
In a two-week period in November, visitors to the Caracas Youth Symphony included Gwyn Richards, contemporary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and Italian violinist Uto Ughi.
Mr Richards said he was impressed with the programme's goal to create a larger space for classical music in popular culture.
El Sistema has brought the sounds of Beethoven to the masses, by giving children instruments, scholarships and free transportation, in barrios such as the Caracas neighbourhood of Sarria.
Youths from the country's slums take pride in their musical abilities
About 90% of students there are from the country's lowest economic class.
"In Venezuela, we broke the myth that you have to be from the upper class to play violin," says the Sarria school's director, Carlos Sedan.
Young musicians in Sarria are not allowed to take their instruments home because of the risk of being mugged, and some come to class with headaches because their families cannot afford food.
Yet when they perform, they become the pride of their neighbourhoods and inspire their parents to learn about the great classical composers.
"I saw the whole evolution. [In the beginning] you saw a certain sadness in their faces," said Antonio Mayorca, who taught music in a low-income Caracas neighbourhood and is also first violinist in the Simon Bolivar orchestra.
"But when they started to play music, it was different. The light that they transmitted taught me a lot."