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.

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  • FCM

    Jennifer,

    I’m curious about the prescriptive philosophy behind El Sistema. I’m assuming that is focuses around classical music because the people who started it practiced classical music and because the orchestral model is naturally a very cohesive process.

    Has there been much discussion around what types of music should be part of the system or not? Does El Sistema resist the notion of using popular music, on aesthetic grounds, or ensemble size? Does it see classical music as a better tool to impart its values?

    Thank you.

    FCM

    • Jennifer Kessler

      FCM, thank you for your comment. Your questions tap into the discussions that many of us in the El Sistema movement have been grappling with. There are a couple of reasons why classical orchestral music works so well for this program: orchestras are large, and can serve the social component of the program because many children can join one. Orchestras and choirs provide a platform where people can learn to work as a team to create a beautiful product together. As for the music itself, some would reason that classical music inherently has a level of complexity that provides for a rich and challenging learning experience for everyone involved. A beginner can play the downbeats in the 4th movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony alongside a more advanced player, who can perfect the movement for many years to come.

      That said, there are always discussions about what type of music to include in an El Sistema program, and people are embracing other genres. In Venezuela, El Sistema is focused on orchestral classical music, but now the program is expanding to include calypso and jazz ensembles. Two weeks ago, the Simón Bolívar Big-Band Jazz — an El Sistema jazz ensemble — performed for a week in NYC to sold-out concerts. At this point, program leaders in the US are including the music that they think best serves their programs and communities. Last week, beat-boxer Shodekeh performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids students in an improvised work for small ensemble. Some program directors are integrating jazz and Mariachi ensembles into their programs. So while there is not a prescriptive philosophy, creating a strong ensemble seems to be at the core of capturing the values of El Sistema.

  • Eric Booth

    Hi FCM and Jennifer,
    I think Jennifer answered your question well. There are many reasons while the originators of El Sistema in Venezuela, particularly Jose Antonio Abreu, began their work in classical music, and continue that tradition. Not the least of the reasons is that they love it, and find it serves their goal well–to change the trajectory of young lives and bring so much beauty into their world. As Jennifer points out, they experiment with many other musical genres in Venezuela’s El Sistema, in response to local interest and the enthusiasm of individuals. And there is experimentation in the U.S. El Sistema network to find the music that works best to accomplish our goals for young people, given the lives and values in our communities.

    FCM (shall I call you FC for short?), I was struck by your use of the word “prescriptive” to describe the philosophy (and practice, since they are pretty much inseparable) of El Sistema. There seems to be an impression in the U.S. that their work is prescriptive, and in my experience there and here it certainly is not. Indeed, many in the U.S. movement wish they were MORE prescriptive to clarify the ambiguities of how to change young lives through music. The Venezuelans proffer no finite curriculum, no codified set of “shoulds,” not even a list of preferred practices. There are values and goals, and endlessly generous ways to help their own established and emerging leaders find new and better ways to serve youth and music. The first major book on El Sistema (in Venezuela and the U.S.) comes out in January, and I urge everyone to read it–Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music. (By Tricia Tunstall, W.W. Norton) I am hoping it can dispel some of the impressions about El Sistema that aren’t really so. And there is a lot of experimentation going on around the U.S.

  • FCM

    Jennifer and Eric, thanks for your thoughtful replies.

    Jennifer –
    I’m interested to hear that there are ongoing discussions about styles of music. And it’s well-taken that ensembles is at the core of the system, which fits nicely with the orchestral model.

    I suppose I was asking in regards to the inherent overhead costs of making an orchestra happen – (relatively delicate/expensive) instruments and (often upscale) venues – which might set such a program apart from other developmental, community-based projects.

    And ultimately, whether the very “institution of the orchestra” is a viable vehicle for bringing classical music-ness into the future. I am thinking of, or at least, imagining, the speed at which smaller ensembles can form, innovate, and produce concerts, in contrast to the immense institutional apparatuses that orchestras require.

    This is one of those wishful types of musings, which I don’t think gets addressed very much, because it’s so impractical to ask of a long-running (often outright ossified) tradition, such as we have.

    But I ask because El Sistema seems very keenly geared towards it’s ability to spread, grow, and be scalable. So I (assume) that this issue would be at the center of its core values. I may be wrong, but it has a very DIY-vibe about it, like “anytime, anywhere, you can make this happen.” On the other hand, my personal impression of orchestras is “specific time, specific place, you trade flexibility/innovation for artistic excellence.” A false dichotomy?

    Eric- (I certainly would address you as Mr. Booth, in person)

    Ah the power of words; let me first say that I should have asked IF the philosophy was ‘prescriptive’, but I assumed it must have been, in order to be spread with integrity, to retain it’s most effective elements, prevent religious cults & mass-marriages, etc.

    I’m happy to hear that the philosophy sounds so permeable and….hm, perhaps reflective/homologous to the art from which it originates?

    I’m looking forward to the book to say the least.

    May I ask another question to you both?
    How does El Sistema think about composition vs performance? Can you comment a bit on how you foster collaboration rather than obedience in such a large environment (the orchestra)? If that’s unfairly framed, please feel free to correct me.

    If you will allow me a moment to expand on this a bit:
    I’ve been concerned for a long time about the institution of the orchestra. (As well as the academy). Between the two, they are the largest organized influences on classical music in this country, at least in terms of dollars marshaled and directed. And perhaps excluding NYC, which is an aberration.

    I’m not sure it’s fair to pin all the ideological ails of the industry on them, but who else is to take leadership, if not these giants? They certainly consume the lion’s share of the resources. I keep coming back to the idea of their size being a huge barrier to innovation in the field. The sheer expense of the thing means you’re always betting with scared money.

    I feel that artistically, the orchestra also resists innovation, at the most basic level of it’s political structuring, in its inherent hierarchy. It takes a tightly-tuned machine to execute the ideas of the canonic masters, but how does that machine take the blinders off, and express or live out the humanism it is delivering to others?

    ——

    To quote Eric:
    “Not the least of the reasons is that they love it”

    This is certainly reason enough… Joy and love should never be misunderestimated.

    I hope my questions are taken in the best possible light. El Sistema has
    generated a lot of interest and I have a feeling that the ideas and practices of the
    organization will grow to become normative and highly influential. That’s the kernel of my interest.

    Sorry for the nom de plume. It’s my philosophy more than my name, but it’s vulgar. We performers get crucified for trying to do anything different. I have too much student debt to risk losing a single gig from openly asking questions or engaging in provoking discourse. In public, in my tux, with my real name, I bet with scared money.

    FCM

    • Jennifer Kessler

      Hi FCM,
      I like the nom de plume! To your point about the inherent costs of an orchestra, it does take a lot of money and energy to get a program started, and it’s particularly expensive when instruments are involved. But programs like OrchKids and Play on Philly are reducing their cost per child each year. Through data collection, we’re hoping to show that these programs can actually save a city money, by keeping children in school and staying away from crime.

      In regards to trading flexibility for artistic excellence, I’m not sure exactly what you mean by flexibility, but one of the most compelling qualities of El Sistema in Venezuela is how they’re able to balance the artistic goals with the social ones. As far as scalability, the programs in Venezuela are uniquely positioned to move and change quickly; they’ve been around a long time, and there’s a visionary man (Dr. Abreu) who is at the helm of the network of nucleos. I would agree with you that there’s an entrepreneurial spirit to the programs in the US, but it’s not as easy as it may sound. Like any successful initiative, the “anytime, anywhere” attitude can only be realized with an extraordinary team, a solid fundraising and organizational strategy, a ton of hard work, and a strong vision.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, FCM. These are the kinds of questions and conversations we all need to move the work forward.

      Best
      Jennifer

  • Eric Booth

    I think FCM is kind of catchy as a name.

    You raise lots of good questions, and certainly I share many of your same concerns about the future of classical music in our culture.

    One additional information bit. El Sistema in Venezuela has not emphasized composition, although it has appeared in places. There is a recent effort to explore it, and redress this imbalance. Jon Deak has made several trips there recently to experiment with his approaches, and the results are available in blogs of his. (He is currently exploring similarly in Finland.) In the U.S., our El Sistema beginnings have included more compositional elements, although they are not prioritized as the development of performance skills are. There is a sense here that compositional skills round out and deepen musicianship, so leaders are finding ways to include them. And additionally, at the EXPO site of YOLA (Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles) one of the El Sistema sites led by the Los Angeles Philharmonic (in partnership with the Harmony Project), they have a compositional program for parents of students–so they can explore composition together while the students work hard in the program at the Expo Center.

    Eric

  • FCM

    Thanks, guys. I have a lot of support for what you are doing and wish you the best.

  • Beth Hondl

    Last month I had the opportunity to hear Gustavo Dudamel and Deborah Borda speak about Youth Orchestra LA as well as the new Take a Stand program. What really stood out for me and the message they really got across is that these programs are about more than “music education.” They are about changing kids lives and come from a belief that giving kids “access to beauty” can fundamentally influence them as people. In some ways, the classical music part is incidental. Well, incidental might be too strong a word, but the importance of the program definitely seems to stem from something deeper. It was inspiring stuff.

    The other statement that really caught my attention was: “Music is a fundamental human right.” Even though I’ve played music all my life and have worked in the orchestral world (on the administration side), I had never heard anyone articulate it quite that way before.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting post from inside an El Sistema-inspired program. It will be great to watch how these programs influence music in the US for years to come.

    • Jennifer Kessler

      Beth, the “access to beauty” example is such a rich reminder of the power and importance of these programs. Thanks for sharing your experience! -Jennifer

  • Anna

    Thanks for the great post and insightful comments!

    I feel very strongly about El Sistema – the original model in Venezuela, as well as El Sistema USA. I have seen what they are doing in CLCS first-hand, and it’s incredible.

    As a musician, I find that El Sistema is not just a solution for the kids. It’s also a solution for musicians who have been disenchanted with the options available to them after graduating from a major conservatory. I think we deserve a voice, too! :) In all seriousness, it is hard for people outside of the music world to understand the difficulty of being a musician these days. We have the tools to open up worlds of beauty, worlds of despair and joy, worlds of inspiration and exhilaration. But without an audience that knows how to listen, we’re lost. There’s not much room for a musician who doesn’t want to compromise the quality of his/her art but wants to make a difference in people’s lives.

    Jonathan Govias recently wrote in his blog:
    “That’s the beauty of el Sistema. It offers musicians a model for a meaningful, concrete role – a role that perhaps we always knew we had, subconsciously or otherwise, but were afraid to claim – to play in building a better society.

    We can be relevant, we can be influential.”

    The benefits of El Sistema-like programs seem to be endless!!! I almost feel like making a chart… :)