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Gustavo Dudamel is the conductor and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. ((Glenn Gould Foundation))

Music is the centre of conductor Gustavo Dudamel's life, and he never hesitates to credit El Sistema, Venezuela's unique system of music education, for making it possible.

The 28-year-old who is the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted a concert of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, made up of the best students of El Sistema, in Toronto Monday night.

He also is the "protégé" with whom El Sistema founder Jose Antonio Abreu chose to share his Glenn Gould Prize, awarded Monday evening.

In an interview with CBC News on Monday, Dudamel said he entered the free musical education system at age four. The system aims to expose every child, regardless of ability or socio-economic background, to music by giving them early and free access to instruments and music education.

"The most important thing inside the system is the music changed totally my life," he said.

"We are building better citizens with music. This is the real reason for the system. Music, yes, but to see your life in a different way. I really feel that I am totally a product of the system in Venezuela."

At the age of six, he recalled setting up his toys as an orchestra and conducting them. His father played salsa, but El Sistema was young Dudamel's first exposure to classical music. He learned to play violin and by the age of nine started asking questions about that person in front of the orchestra with a baton.

"Watching the conductor, I wanted to understand that. Because there is not any sound in the conductor's instrument," he said.

More CBC coverage

Gustavo Dudamel interview broadcast on Q, Thursday, Oct. 29.

Excerpts from the gala concert on CBC Radio 2's Tempo at noon on Friday, Oct. 30.

Gala concert broadcast on CBC Radio 2's In Concert, Nov. 1 at 11 a.m.

The National broadcasts Q's Gustavo Dudamel interview on Sunday, Nov. 1.

Dudamel downplays the acclaim he has received as a wunderkind who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic so early in his career.

The "craziness" as he calls it is a result of the excitement of music, he said. Classical music has always had a small following, and Dudamel said he's glad to focus attention on it.

Some have criticized Dudamel's very physical approach to conducting, but fans say it's part of his style.

"I need music, like air, like water, like food," says Dudamel. "When I'm conducting, I like to give every part of my energy. Even if people say it's too much. It's the way that my soul, that my body, is expressing what I want to."

He's had sleepless nights before standing in front of orchestras with many of the world's best classical musicians, all more experienced than he is. But Dudamel mainly feels excitement at doing what he loves.

"As a young conductor, you have to know what you want from the musicians, and there has to be a balance between what you want and what they want to give to you," he said.

"When you have a connection with each musician and have a chance to develop something very deep in the relation[ship] When they feel you are part of them, the music is more special, is different."

Dudamel still feels connected to El Sistema and tries to give back to the system that has been so kind to him, he said. Part of the value of getting children involved in music is to build better citizens, he said.

Dudamel has returned to Los Angeles, but Abreu and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra remain in Toronto to play for Canadian students on Tuesday and Thursday. A conference Wednesday is set to discuss the benefits of El Sistema.

El Sistema in Moncton

Ken MacLeod, president of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, doesn't have to be convinced.

He began a Sistema-like music program in Moncton last week, with 48 children between the ages of six and 10 who attend schools in low-income neighborhoods.  

MacLeod was in Venezuela in June to check out the country's system of music education, which is credited with turning around the lives of children raised in Venezuela's crime-ridden barrios.

"We were so inspired by what we saw that we were literally compelled to do something," MacLeod said. "It's a very inspiring story. Really, music becomes an engine for human development."

The program will cost $180,000 a year to run. A third of the funding comes from the province, and the rest is being raised in the community.

New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham said he wants to see a rapid expansion of the music-education centres.  

"We envision that by 2015, we could see four to six such centres operating around the province operating in both official languages," he told CBC News. "There could be private sector participation."

Ottawa has had a community program for the past two years, and today has about 100 children taking part.