A violin case slung over her shoulder, 10-year-old Daniela Fagundez trudges home along a row of muddy yards where chickens scratch among banana trees and laundry hangs drying on wire fences.
She's an unlikely classical musician, the daughter of a construction worker father who dropped out of high school and a mother who has cleaned houses to help the family get by. But Daniela has found a new world in music, and her eyes light up as she talks about the violin she was given through a unique program that has changed her life.
"This is the most beautiful gift I've ever had," she says proudly. "In the future, I'd really like to conduct the orchestra."
She is a participant in one of the most widely praised teaching systems in classical music today, a nationwide network of orchestras that has made Venezuela a powerhouse for producing talented musicians.
It is known as "El Sistema" _ the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela _ and it's becoming a model internationally for getting children excited about classical music.
Daniela's orchestra of 6-to-12-year-olds spends afternoons rehearsing Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and Merle J. Isaac's "Gypsy" Overture in the shade of a mango tree that towers over a colonial-era courtyard.
Many students come from humble families who otherwise couldn't afford instruments or formal training. A cement plant and chicken farms are the biggest employers in this small town, but music is giving the children a new direction.
The System was begun in 1975 and has been financed by successive governments since then. It was born as the dream of a visionary economist, musician and former congressman, Jose Antonio Abreu, who was driven by a conviction that all children should have access to a quality musical education.
Today there are some 150 youth orchestras and 70 children's orchestras in Venezuela. The System involves more than 250,000 pupils, extraordinary for a country of about 27 million people.
Its star graduate, charismatic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, has risen to fame performing in concert halls from New York to Berlin. The 27-year-old, with long, curly hair that bounces as he leaps into the air while conducting, takes over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in September 2009.
"'El Sistema' has given me everything. It gave me the possibility of having a path in life with music," Dudamel said during a recording session in Caracas, motioning to his Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra. "Every one of those guys is 'El Sistema,' and they've been transformed by music."
He and the orchestra received long, thunderous ovations in November in two sold-out concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Clive Gillinson, Carnegie's executive director, said the performers exuded "the sheer joy of music," at times dancing with their instruments.
When the orchestra performs at home, admiring children often fill the front rows.
This musical revolution began with 11 young musicians under Abreu's tutelage. Rehearsals were first held in a classroom, a parking garage and loaned space in other buildings.
"It grew very quickly. Already that first year we were able to have an orchestra with 100 kids," Abreu recalled.
He then founded orchestra after orchestra across Venezuela.
The teaching philosophy is straightforward. All are welcome, children as young as 3 begin with singing, xylophone playing and other exercises. An instrument is chosen according to each child's inclination and abilities _ provided free for the majority who otherwise couldn't afford one.
The students learn largely by practice while theory is introduced along the way. Many of their teachers were trained in the same system, forming a regenerating bottom-up cycle as knowledge is passed along. By age 10, some standout students are already helping to coach their peers.
There are similarities with the Suzuki method, created by the late Shinichi Suzuki, which emphasizes getting a child to enjoy music by hearing it in a family atmosphere and playing it as early as possible.
But teachers here say their intensive program has developed its own characteristics and emphasizes collective advancement. Love of music and hard work are guiding principles _ encapsulated in a slogan engraved on medals for orchestra members: "Tocar y Luchar," or "Play and Struggle."
The program has produced various world-class graduates. Bassist Edicson Ruiz, now 23, started playing in the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic at just 17.
Not all students are expected to become professional musicians. Abreu sees the program as "an oasis" that changes lives by giving kids an outlet away from the barrios and keeping them out of trouble. He calls it building "spiritual richness."
Teachers say many students go on to successful nonmusical careers as doctors, engineers and other professionals. In Venezuela's prisons, inmates now play in similar orchestras set up in hopes that a connection to music will aid their rehabilitation.
International recognition of the youth program has been widespread. The System won its latest honor, Spain's Prince of Asturias Arts Prize, in May.
Its musicians have teamed up to share their methods with orchestras across Latin America. Programs modeled after the System have sprung up in places from Scotland to California.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic has created Youth Orchestra LA, aiming to establish several orchestras in inner-city communities. The first is the Expo Center Youth Orchestra, which has enrolled 150 children.
"Classical music has a power, a power to change human beings," Dudamel said. "And that's exportable to the entire world."
The youth orchestra foundation headed by Abreu has been financially supported by government after government in Venezuela, most recently by President Hugo Chavez. The 69-year-old maestro estimates the annual cost at some $60 million, mostly paid by the state.
And Chavez's government has latched on to the System as a symbol of national success. Members of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra are featured on state television wearing the yellow, blue and red of Venezuela's flag. One segment calls them "the vanguard of the new fatherland."
In the town of San Sebastian de Los Reyes, the children don't have to look far for role models. Johnny Cubides, a 40-year-old who leads the music school, started in the System at 10. He stands in the courtyard helping tune children's instruments.
On a wall is a mural of Beethoven and a slogan: "With music, we achieve all desired goals."
Daniela, like many others here, has taken the discipline to heart.
After nearly a year studying, her fingers have grown calloused from gripping the violin. And she sometimes holds an imaginary violin in the air while walking to class, gazing into the distance while her fingers dance over the strings.
Afternoon rehearsals last three hours. Later, Daniela often practices at home until her parents insist it's time to sleep.
She admires the teenagers in the youth orchestra, and after class she and two friends slip into a room where the older group is rehearsing. Daniela smiles with excitement. Asked what she likes about their music, she says: "the energy."
"I want to make it to the youth orchestra to play songs like they play. They have a lot of strength when they play _ yes, a lot of joy."