Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (image by gichristof)

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.

  • Hi Jen,

    You write a great blog! Looking forward to reading more as you go through the Abreu Fellows Program. By the way, if you’re ever swinging through Atlanta feel free to contact me. I’d love for you to come check out the Atlanta Music Project.



    • Jennifer Kessler

      Hi Dante,
      Great to hear from you! I’d love to check out your work in Atlanta one of these days. I hear wonderful things about your program. I’m looking forward to learning more about your projects as I approach the Abreu Fellows year ahead.

      Have a great summer,

  • I wonder if and how these El Sistema programs around the US are going to be successful. The original program in Venezuela is of course an almost unattainable benchmark for success.

    What I always wondered as well, and this is purely based on a thought more than actual knowledge, is that the El Sistema program in Venezuela seems to have the main goal of lifting kids out of the gutter. It just happens to be through music. In the US, how many El Sistema programs got started to “build a future audience” rather than help underserved kids. In short, in Venezuela it’s a social program, in the US it’s a music program.

    I might be completely off, but I’m curious. Any thoughts on this?

    • Jennifer Kessler

      Hi Marc, thanks for your comments. Your curiousity about whether the US El Sistema programs will be successful raises a few key questions that many people have wondered: what does success look like to El Sistema programs in the US? Is it the same as it looks in Venezuela? Does it shift from one program to the next, based on the needs of the community? While the program in Venezuela may look different than programs that are emerging around the US (particularly in terms of breadth and funding), there are successful aspects of that program which may indeed be quite attainable, such as the quality of the music-making, the positive impact on the children, or the engagement of the community.

      I’m curious to know which El Sistema programs you’re referring to that “got started to ‘build a future audience.'” My understanding from most of the programs I’m familiar with is that one of the central goals is to serve economically-disadvantaged young people. But it is true that balancing two central missions — to save children’s lives and to provide high-quality musical training — is an enormous task for any organization. Eric Booth eloquently explains these two goals, as well as El Sistema’s success, in his essay “Open Secrets.” Definitely worth a read if you haven’t read it yet:

      • Thanks, Jennifer. Certainly, the El Sistema USA programs don’t need to emulate Venezuela in its breadth and scope. In light of that, it’s interesting to see the different incarnations of the “model.” To me, the most important measure of success is the impact on the lives of disadvantaged children. I have compared it many times with a program that was going on in my neighborhood in Chicago: Albany Park Theatre Project. I would call that program about as successful as anything!

        And I wasn’t referring to any specific El Sistema program, but that’s the general impression–right or wrong– I have gotten from community outreach programs at classical music institutions. Similar to “corporate responsibility” programs at corporations; are they really interested in helping out, or does it serve their bottom line?

        I don’t mean to be the cynical party pooper. I do think El Sistema is one of the best, inspirational programs. But it’s important to see the art as the means, not the reason. With that, I’m off to read Eric Booth’s essay. Thanks for the link!

  • Thanks for this Jennifer! And to Marc, I agree, some of the old establishment, in all of the arts developed outreach and education programs mostly to get more funding with the argument that they were creating new audiences. I guess some were successful in it, some were just using that as a means to get that funding. Some might have called themselves “El Sistema-inspired”, just because why not, and because there was little information about what El Sistema is about. But the new initiatives in the US have a very clear idea of what their goals and purposes are. They are clearly two different animals. As our colleague Jonathan Govias said (and I’m paraphrasing), our idea is not to try change the old establishment, but ultimately, it will become obsolete.

    • Thanks, Alvaro. I think indeed that my fears stemmed from old establishment efforts. Good to hear the new initiatives have a good sense of purpose and goals.

  • Sandy Fortier

    The program in little Juneau, Alaska seems to be flourishing. I don’t have anything to do with measuring results of it but it has been just amazing to watch the program as it unfolds. There is a lot of community support behind it, which helps a lot. Who knew it would work in a tiny town like ours?

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  • Hey Jennifer, would you mind updating the sentence about our program? It’s called “Play On, Philly” and our website is!

    Great post!!!!