El Salvador: Music education strikes a chord with at risk youth

May 23, 2013

  • A violence prevention project keeps young Salvadorians out of trouble by teaching them to sing and play a musical instrument
  • With support from the Japanese Fund for Social Development, dozens of at-risk youth attend music classes
  • Project participants are being trained by music teachers from all over the world

Life is not easy on the streets of the so-called “risk zones” of San Salvador.  For years, youth gangs, or maras, have controlled these areas to mug, threaten and extort locals, and as recruiting grounds for new members. For a long time, residents there were at the mercy of the gangs.

Bryan, a twenty-something Salvadorian, knows these “hoods” all too well. “It is quite a dangerous area…” he says. So much so that “we began to think we wouldn’t survive to see another day,” says Cristina, a student who lives in one of these hot neighborhoods.

Hope for a safer future, though, is in the air: melodies and tunes from the apt fingers and vocal chords of these young Salvadorians taking up music lessons to keep away from trouble.

To offer kids an alternative to gang life, a Bank supported project attempts to keep at-risk youth busy through cultural and musical activities.  The initiative also encourages them to develop skills in music and the arts.

The program ambitious goal:  is to create a music academy and a choir for young people. Plans are also in the making to form a youth symphony orchestra and to implement participatory cultural dissemination activities in San Salvador risk zones.

Similar initiatives are all the rage in neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, where violence prevention programs are key elements of the region’s strategy to address rising citizen insecurity. Averaging 14,000 homicides per year, Central America is one of world’s most violent regions. Security and health costs associated to crime and violence can be as much as 8% of GDP.

The success of these initiatives in keeping youth safe is music to experts’ ears:  

"We are committed to these children and young people who are transforming their present for a better future. The music has helped them all to have discipline, motivation, self-confidence and, above all, a perspective of life. Their young teachers are true leaders who make a difference in the lives of these students," said Maria Gonzalez de Asis, World Bank senior public sector specialist and leader of this project.

Since 2010, the Japanese Social Development Fund has donated nearly US$1 million to the project, enabling 175 young Salvadorians to take up music classes and learn to play a musical instrument. These after-school workshops fill the youth’s free time, keeping them out of trouble.

" I would like to become a great cellist "



Music against violence

Most beneficiaries, about 90 of them, are students from the Obrero Empresarial Technical Institute, located at the Don Bosco Industrial Site. The remaining 85 are public school students from “risk zones” in Greater San Salvador  

El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly donated musical instruments to complement those provided by the project. In addition, some students have their own instruments.

After several months of music theory, rhythm, melody, and music appreciation classes, as well as singing lessons - and many hours of practice - all the kids are now able to play a musical instrument and sing in the choir. Some students even performed at the opening ceremony of a building for the music conservatory last year.

As a result new horizons have opened up for these young Salvadorians, providing alternatives to a life of violence on the streets. “I would like to become a great cellist,” Cristina says, blushing, “and to make something of myself.”