Who knew little kids playing Tchaikovsky in Latin America could inspire national institutional partnerships in the United States? Last month, the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced a new Masters of Arts in Teaching degree, in partnership with the Longy School of Music and Bard College, to position high-level musicians as socially-conscious, engaging teachers in El Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S.
As a program that began with a few young musicians playing classical music in a garage in Venezuela in the 1970s, the phenomenon of youth orchestras known as “El Sistema” has captured the hearts and imaginations of renowned artists and arts organizations around the world. Today, over fifty organizations in the US self-identify as “El Sistema-inspired,” presumably because they have some combination of rigorous musical study, a social justice mission, or a community development mission. As these music for social action programs emerge and evolve, they are grappling with questions about how to collectively support this new movement, what informs this type of work in our communities, and what this new hybrid leader of advocate, educator, administrator, and musician looks like.
Organizations around the country are exploring partnerships as a way to achieve greater impact than they alone can accomplish. Bard College and The Longy School of Music saw a need to support musicians in well-rounded careers as extraordinary musicians with strong teaching skills, and recently announced that the two schools are in the process of merging. The Los Angeles Philharmonic saw a need to supply El Sistema programs with high-quality teachers, and has partnered with Longy and Bard to train teachers and host conferences that bring together leaders in the El Sistema movement to discuss the needs of emerging programs. The New England Conservatory continues to support 10 people each year in a rigorous program (Abreu Fellows) that prepares them to start and/or support El Sistema programs in the US.
As a current Abreu Fellow, I’m seeing this connectivity in the spirit of El Sistema first-hand. In September, the Fellows joined about 35 music teachers and El Sistema program leaders from around the country in a professional development workshop called “Enacting a Teaching Practice through El Sistema Philosophy,” a joint initiative of New England Conservatory, the Longy School of Music, and the Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS) in Boston, where first-year Abreu Fellows Rebecca Levi and David Malek direct an El Sistema program. This was not your garden-variety conference: we embodied the learning by making music together, singing with the children’s choir at CLCS, playing in the children’s orchestra, and learning how to play in a bucket band. By the end of the workshop, many of us felt so connected that we ended the evening harmonizing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” outside of a restaurant.
Cross-pollination from different fields is happening institutionally, as well. When Harvard University hosted a session at the Kennedy School for Public Policy with El Sistema leaders in the US to discuss possible implications of El Sistema-inspired programs on policy, the Abreu Fellows turned the group of 40 public policy grads and arts education leaders into a choir. This is the change that is happening through the inspiration of El Sistema: creative entryways into experiencing excellence, community-building, performance, and most importantly, fun.
As Doug Borwick says, “As more established arts institutions come to understand the need to establish community relevance as part of their long-term prosperity (or survival) the more necessary it will be to develop models of work with communities that produce impressive results.” The good news is, we’re just at the beginning, and the conversations and rich connections are well on their way to making relevant music for community development programs a reality. Through these connections, we’re establishing an infrastructure for the next step: gathering information to better understand the impact that these programs can have.