The idea of El Sistema has been entering conversations about American music education. The title is tossed around and linked with success stories of famous musicians such as Gustavo Dudamel. A simple internet search provides inspirational videos and images of joy and triumph. There exists, however, some confusion over what exactly El Sistema is. The simplest answer: It is an idea. With roots in the impoverished barrios in Venezuela, it is an idea that has spread from South America to the United States and abroad as a way to offer children a way out of the cycle of poverty they have been presented with through the values and skills learned through music. Though the structure of the American El Sistema-inspired programs varies, they all are based on the belief that every child is entitled to the opportunity to learn an instrument despite their financial or social standing.
What is El Sistema?
Dr. José Antonio Abreu founded what we now know as El Sistema in Venezuela in 1975, building it from a group of eleven children to a national state-funded program with locations throughout the country. His goal was to provide children with a safe place to be after school and give them the skills and opportunities to find an alternative to the pervasive cycle of poverty. Since the program is free of charge, any child is able to attend El Sistema regardless of economic status. Each site, or nucleo, has orchestral and choral programs as well as folk, jazz, and special needs classes. The world-renowned Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is one of the top orchestras to come out of this system, as well as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel.
In 2009, Dr Abreu was awarded the TED Prize. With this comes the opportunity to share a wish with the world. His was for the United States to set up a series of El Sistema inspired programs throughout the country for the benefit of impoverished youth. According to El Sistema USA, today there are over one hundred registered El Sistema-inspired programs throughout the nation. This wish has spread abroad to other countries on all seven continents excluding Antarctica.
The programs in the United States, while they carry the values and goals of Dr. Abreu’s original mission, have some significant differences in structure. El Sistema itself is not a curriculum, but Venezuela has a national one that can be adapted at the local level. The United States does not have a set national curriculum for music education, therefore it is decided by each individual program. El Sistema is also not a pedagogy. While it provides a programming structure and mission, the methods used in the United States vary depending on the program. Funding has been an issue as well; since the programs are not nationally sponsored, they need to find outside funding. This can be done through fundraising, school systems (depending on who is sponsoring the program), grants, or other avenues. Currently, only one program in the United States has been funded directly by a municipal government.
For more information (www.elsistemausa.org/el-sistema-in-the-u-s.htm)
El Sistema in Massachusetts
Eight of the country’s registered El Sistema programs are located in Massachusetts, with the majority being in the Greater Boston area. Programs are located in Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, Roslindale, Pittsfield, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain. Each program serves a different type of community, but almost all of them serve schools where the majority of children are on free or reduced lunches or communities that are left needing in other ways. Five of Massachusetts’ programs operate within Boston Public Schools: El Sistema at Conservatory Lab, Josiah Quincy Orchestra Program, Bridge Boston, Margarita Muniz Academy, and musiConnects.
New England Conservatory has historically been a supporter of national El Sistema-inspired programs. From 2009-2014, the school had a Sistema Fellows Program, also referred to until 2011 as the Abreu Fellows Program. It was designed as a professional training program to prepare students to create, head, manage, and teach an El Sistema-inspired program in both the United States and abroad. With only 10 fellows per year, it was a highly selective program. Fellows gained experience through local programs, once established, as well as first-hand experience in Venezuela. They were also required to spend one year after graduation working with El Sistema initiatives. Many of the current programs operating in Massachusetts were created and run by former Fellows, including Bridge Boston, Conservatory Lab, Josiah Quincy Orchestra Program, and Revolution of Hope.
The Longy School of Music at Bard College also has a long-standing relationship with Massachusetts’ El Sistema programs. Most directly, they run an event called Sistema Side by Side. Begun in 2014, it is a series of concerts that bring together the different El Sistema programs in Massachusetts to play with members of the Longy Conservatory Orchestra under the guidance of varying conductors. They attend joint rehearsals and perform a concert together. The most high-profile conductor of the series to date was Gustavo Dudamel in March of 2014. The school also has a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in Music degree that trains and certifies students to teach in El Sistema-inspired programs. Based in Los Angeles, CA, the program is part of a greater partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its affiliated El Sistema-inspired programs. This initiative promotes the spread of music education’s social impact to underserviced areas. In addition, all students of the conservatory, regardless of degree program, take a year of classes that provides them with the skills and experience to put together a community musical presentation that is both meaningful and educational. It culminates in a student-created project that is then brought to a location in the community. Many times this is one of the state’s El Sistema programs but it can also be hospitals, prisons, or community centers.
On the state level, the Massachusetts Cultural Council has created a program through their Creative Youth Initiative to benefit the growing number of El Sistema programs in the state. Called SerHacer (To be, To make), it is designed to help the organizations through what the MCC describes as “technical assistance, grants, and convenings.” It was put in place to help facilitate access to these programs for the growing number of children and families currently living in poverty. With the help of this initiative, Johnson String Instrument intends to expand its contribution to the Massachusetts El Sistema community.
For more information on Massachusetts El Sistema-inspired programs:
- Josiah Quincy Orchestra Program (www.jqop.org)
- El Sistema at Conservatory Lab (www.conservatorylab.org)
- Bridge Boston (www.bridgebostoncs.org)
- Open Access to Music Education for Children (OAMEC) (www.yofes.org/oamecprogram)
- Margarita Muniz Academy (www.mnizacademy.org)
- Kids 4 Harmony (www.berkshirechildren.org/about-kids-4-harmony)
- musiConnects (www.musiconnects.org)
- El Sistema Somerville (sistemasomerville.org)
- Revolution of Hope (http://www.revolutionofhope.org)
- Longy School of Music at Bard College MAT (longy.edu/social-change-through-music/mat/)
- New England Conservatory Sistema Fellows Program (www.necmusic.edu/sistema-fellows)