El Sistema is a system of youth orchestras in Venezuela designed to save the lives of under-served children through intensive and fun participation in music. Founded in 1975 by a visionary man named Jose Antonio Abreu (the former Venezuelan Advisor of the National Economic Council and the Minister of State for Culture), El Sistema has become a paradigm for social action through quality music-making. Currently, over 350,000 children are making music in orchestras across Venezuela through intensive after-school programs at nucleos (centers). Through immersion in rehearsals, group lessons, private lessons, master classes, and performances, the participants have multiple group and peer-learning opportunities to refine their musical voices while developing important life skills. The program is self-perpetuating and comprehensive in its structure: as children are encouraged to start at a very young age and move sequentially through the program, many of them become El Sistema teachers, creating a culture of educators deeply committed to the social and musical mission of the program. Furthermore, the program works with parents to ensure that the children are supported in their musical studies in the home as well as in the nucleos.
Over the last five years, the El Sistema “model” has become a sensation around the world as more musicians and arts leaders have visited Venezuela and felt inspired to adapt the program within their communities. Others have learned about El Sistema on programs like 60 Minutes and through the popularity of Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel. I had the opportunity to visit El Sistema in Venezuela in 2007, and everything about it was intoxicating: the enthusiasm of the teachers and administrators to save disadvantaged children through music, the level of the musicianship, the camaraderie of the students and teachers, the music-festival spirit of the program (it felt like my experiences at summer music festivals, only this program is all year long), the concert hall designed specifically to advance the education and performance opportunities of El Sistema participants, the participatory nature of every rehearsal and performance. Not to mention that the El Sistema folks know how to have a really good time, and don’t seem to blur the lines between working hard at their music and partying (a motto of El Sistema is “To Play and To Fight.”)
This spirit, coupled with the enormous breadth of the program, has captured the attention of the rest of the world. From the Americas to Europe, from Asia to Africa, from New Zealand to the Middle East, El Sistema programs seem to be springing up everywhere, spurring major strategic conversations about how to reach children from economically under-served backgrounds using this daily after-school, fun, orchestra-based model of music education. El Sistema has had a particularly powerful influence in this country in the last five years. Large to small organizations have found themselves asking, “What is this El Sistema thing all about? Should we consider starting an El Sistema-inspired program? If so, what does it look like for our community?”
In the U.S., the El Sistema movement has manifested itself in multiple ways, and nearly forty El Sistema-inspired programs have emerged around the country to reach needy communities in recent years (check the map to see some of the programs). In 2009, after ten years of building a strong relationship between El Sistema and the New England Conservatory of Music, Mark Churchill, a former dean at NEC, launched the El Sistema USA center along with its first major initiative, the Abreu Fellows program, to support the El Sistema movement in the U.S. The awarding of the TED Prize to José Antonio Abreu greatly assisted the effort. The Abreu Fellows program trains musicians in developing the El Sistema model (disclaimer: I’ll be joining the 2011-2012 class of Fellows). While NEC and El Sistema USA decided to part ways in 2010 so that El Sistema USA could develop into a robust networking organization for El Sistema programs around the U.S., NEC will continue to host the Abreu Fellows program.
Symposia and conferences about El Sistema have taken place in various cities (such as Los Angeles, Texas, Boston, New York, and Baltimore), and the League of American Orchestras provides resources on its website such as written material from conferences, videos of El Sistema workshops, and articles by prominent arts education leaders like Eric Booth. Even filmmakers are excited about capturing the programs in the U.S.: filmmaker Pedro Carvajal is making a documentary on Anne Fitzgibbon’s Harmony Program, and Jamie Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s daughter) is making a documentary film about Abreu Fellow Stanford Thompson’s Tune Up Philly program.
Not surprisingly, major orchestras have pondered their role in regard to El Sistema. The LA Philharmonic swept in with the first major U.S. El Sistema initiative in 2008 to “build youth orchestras in communities throughout Los Angeles,” as Gustavo Dudamel prepared to become its conductor. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra followed with its OrchKids program, which provides in- and after-school music appreciation and instrumental learning opportunities to Baltimore City children. Other orchestras have opted out of starting El Sistema for various reasons. As Cayenne Harris, Director of Learning and Access Initiatives at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra explained, the CSO orchestra management spent numerous hours discussing what the CSO’s role might be in offering El Sistema, but ultimately decided that the CSO was not the right host for an El Sistema program. Instead, they looked to other ways that they could be more helpful in supporting the movement: for example, by hosting a Festival of Youth in Music that brings together multiple organizations who may never have had the opportunity to collaborate around the theme of music for social change. For more information on the CSO response to El Sistema, download the PowerPoint presentation entitled “A Distinct Approach” here. Other orchestras have developed partnerships to support the movement, such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s collaboration with The Atlanta Music Project.
It will be interesting to see the measurable (and non-measurable) impact that El Sistema in the U.S. is having on the children who are participating in its programs. For now, though, it’s pretty exciting to see how one man’s vision to create an after-school orchestral music education program in Venezuela back in 1975 has inspired many of our cultural organizations and artists to take action and innovate in music education for social change.