A group of 45 Moncton children is participating in an after-school orchestral program fashioned after Venezuela's internationally renowned El Sistema initiative.

The New Brunswick Youth Orchestra's pilot program aimed at teaching music to schoolchildren, especially those in low-income areas, officially opened in Moncton on Thursday.

The Moncton initiative is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada to develop in the same vein as Venezuela's El Sistema.

Students in Grades 1 to 4 started picking up their instruments about five weeks ago.

Ken MacLeod, president of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, said the idea is to put violins, violas, cellos and double basses into the hands of as many children as possible.

After a few short weeks, MacLeod said he is already seeing the payoff.

'Astonishing' progress

"It's astonishing, not only what happened in terms of music in just five short weeks, but also personally and in school," MacLeod said.

"We're starting to see mentoring take place as well, where the children who are developing skills more quickly are helping their seatmates with their instruments and with their playing."

Sistema New Brunswick is aiming to have four to six centres open by 2015 and operating in both official languages.

"We hope to expand these centres by 50 children each year. So in five years, there could be as many as 500 children in Sistema orchestras in New Brunswick," MacLeod said.

The program's first children's orchestra centre is at Moncton's Beaverbrook School, but it also accepts students from Birchmount, Queen Elizabeth and Edith Cavell schools.

Visited Venezuela

It provides instruments and music lessons to children regardless of their ability to play or pay. 

MacLeod and two other board members from the youth orchestra visited Venezuela last year to assess the after-school orchestral program.

The National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela, which is also known as El Sistema, was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, an economist and amateur musician.

The program is funded by the Venezuela government and assembles disadvantaged youth from the South American country and offers them free access to music instruments and instruction.

Gustavo Dudamel, the 28-year-old music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a product of the El Sistema program. Dudamel said he entered the free musical education system at age four.

The New Brunswick Youth Orchestra's board members came away convinced that a similar project could work in New Brunswick.

Government funding

To help get the program started, the New Brunswick government chipped in $120,000, which is two-thirds of the $180,000 budget.

Premier Shawn Graham attended Sistema New Brunswick's opening on Thursday and said he felt it was important to give the children an opportunity to experience music.

"We're witness to these young New Brunswickers that are being empowered with self confidence, intellectual curiosity, hope for a bright future and the sheer joy that we all feel when our lives are touched by music and the arts," Graham said.