Vol. 111 (2021)

From Adversity to Hope: How Music Reveals the Beauty of Life


By Anne Fitzgibbon

Guest Columnist

New York, NY, USA


Pedro approached me, after his orchestra rehearsal. Slightly built with brown, curious eyes and a violin case in hand, he was 12 years of age but appeared no older than eight. He had been removed by the State from a violent home and now lived in Los Chorros, a leafy neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas and the site of one of hundreds of orchestras comprising Venezuela’s national youth orchestra system, known simply as El Sistema.


“Music calms me down. I used to say lots of ‘groserĂ­as,’” he confessed, using the Spanish word for curses. “I want to be a maestro one day and help others the way that I’ve been helped.”


Pedro was one of many young musicians I met in 2007 on a Fulbright Fellowship, studying El Sistema’s model of social change through music. My goal was to mine the secrets of its success to strengthen and sustain the organization I had founded, the Harmony Program, to bring music education to New York City children in need. Pedro and others would come to embody for me El Sistema’s mission and reveal an insight that remains resonant today, particularly during the global pandemic: music can turn adversity into hope.

I must admit that when I arrived in Venezuela, I had not fully grasped the breadth of music’s value. My own history as a musician was nothing like Pedro’s. I had grown up in a small town with supportive parents who encouraged my studies. I had a robust band program at school and weekly private lessons. And beyond music, I had a schedule full of after-school sports and other enriching activities. In the United States, where music is often considered extracurricular, those of us privileged enough to learn to play an instrument often fail to fully appreciate the essential gifts we gain from that singular experience; indeed, we have the luxury of taking them for granted.


Even when I planted the early seeds of the Harmony Program in 2003, providing instrumental music instruction to young residents of New York City’s public housing developments, my students were a step ahead of me in their anticipation of music’s impact. “I want to study the flute because it reminds me of the soft sounds of my mother singing to me when I cannot sleep,” expressed one. “My parents got divorced, and I think music will help me with my self-esteem,” offered another. Their words, the reality of their daily struggles, and the relief they found in their music lessons would begin a shift in my perception of my role and influence as a music educator.

Barrio Sarria

That evolution would be fully realized during my year in Venezuela as I traveled the country interviewing staff, visiting classes, attending rehearsals and performances, and even teaching my own clarinet students. And, in the gritty barrios, perched like piles of discarded boxes high on the hilltops outside the city center and plagued by poverty and violent crime, the social mission of El Sistema would come into stark relief.

Renowned Venezuelan Conductor Gustavo Dudamel and Anne Fitzgibbon

Traveling up steep, dusty roads in an armored car, I arrived in the barrio, Sarria, where families often lacked basic services like running water, electricity and sanitation. “Many of the students here have troubled lives,” explained one of the teachers. “The orchestra is their home. We are their family. The instrument becomes a means of forging an identity for these students as musicians.” The ritual of the orchestra rehearsal unfolding before me was intimately familiar, from the tuning of the instruments to the whispers and glances between stand partners. However, within this context, against this backdrop of deprivation and insecurity, every element appeared newly rich in significance. These young musicians were attuning their voices to one another, aligning their individual roles to serve a greater, common purpose, and giving life to art and beauty. In this moment, I realized that even – and perhaps especially – during challenging times, music is uniquely able to satisfy the needs we all share, regardless of our means and circumstances.

Youth Orchestra in Sarria

Until my year in Venezuela, I had never heard anyone speak of music as a human right like El Sistema’s visionary founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, who turned on its head the notion of music as mere entertainment. What he understood, and what his youth orchestras modeled for the world, was that children everywhere require the same things to thrive – security, identity, and a sense of community. As he explained, “When you establish the inner life of somebody, which is done so effectively through these music programs, then the possibility for these lives to contribute, to enhance and uplift society is endless.”


I returned from Venezuela believing music to be one of the most effective tools to prepare children for success in life. And, during this recent year, I have been reminded that it is also an inoculation against many of life’s struggles and stresses. My students, already among New York City’s most vulnerable, live in communities hardest hit by COVID-19 infection rates. “I feel like I’m in jail; I even have bars on my windows,” remarked one of them, via Zoom, from his family’s apartment in Harlem. Yet, within their music classes, which have continued uninterrupted since the pandemic’s arrival, they have found comfort amid the uncertainty, purpose within the monotony, and companionship despite the isolation.


Harmony Program Students in Concert

“When I pluck the strings or play with the bow, it’s calming,” said Frances, a young Harmony Program violist, echoing the sentiments Pedro had shared with me so many years ago. My students have learned what I have spent my career discovering: in times of adversity, music is uncommon in its capacity to strengthen the human spirit and inspire hope. As the pandemic recedes, there will remain among us vulnerable children who suffer its aftermath. If we care about their healing and their rediscovery of joy, I suggest we heed the words of Maestro Abreu, “Reveal to children the beauty of music, and music will reveal to them the beauty of life.” 

(Photos courtesy of Anne Fitzgibbon)


Anne Fitzgibbon   

Harmony Program 


Anne Fitzgibbon is the Founder and Executive Director of Harmony Program in New York.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.