What is El Sistema?
A visionary global movement that transforms the lives of children through music.
A new model for social change.
Thirty-three years ago in a parking garage in Caracas, Dr. José Antonio Abreu gathered together 11 children to play music. El Sistema was born. It now teaches music to 300,000 of Venezuela’s poorest children, demonstrating the power of ensemble music to dramatically change the life trajectory of hundreds of thousands of a nation’s youth while transforming the communities around them.
What distinguishes an El Sistema-inspired program in the U.S.?
El Sistema is a set of inspiring ideals that has led to an intensive after-school music program that seeks to effect social change through the pursuit of musical excellence. El Sistema focuses on children with the fewest resources and greatest need and is delivered at no cost to participants.
- Every human being has the right to a life of dignity and contribution.
- Every child can learn to experience and express music and art deeply and receive its many benefits.
- Overcoming poverty and adversity is best done by first strengthening the spirit, creating, as Dr. Abreu puts it: “an affluence of the spirit.”
- Effective education is based on love, approval, joy and experience within a high-functioning, aspiring, nurturing community. Every child has limitless possibilities and the ability to strive for excellence. “Trust the young” informs every aspect of the work.
- Learning organizations never arrive but are always becoming—striving to include more students, greater musical excellence, better teaching. Thus, flexibility, experimentation, and risk-taking are inherent and desirable aspects of every program.
1. Mission of social change.
El Sistema is a social change/youth development program that uses music to enable every child to feel like an asset within her or his community, inside and outside the “nucleo.” Students feel an ownership of the music making process, taking responsibility for both individual and group improvement. For example, they often take on teaching roles themselves starting at an early age.
2. Access and excellence.
El Sistema includes as many children as it can, bringing young people into its community whenever possible, as young as possible, for as long as possible, whatever their background or abilities. As El Sistema strives single mindedly toward musical excellence for all students, it also provides intensive training at “Academies” for the most committed and gifted, preparing them for the highest-level national orchestras and cultivating them as leaders in their own communities. In this way and others, the ideals of access and excellence are maintained in a productive balance that maximizes both the fullest success for all and highest accomplishment for some.
3. The nucleo environment.
The nucleo is a physical location, within the students’ neighborhood where students live, that embodies the values and goals of El Sistema. It is a haven of safety, fun, joy, and friendship, with an ethos of positivity and aspiration, where all students are encouraged to explore their potential. The nucleo‘s doors are always open, and community members convene in its hallways.
Students spend a large amount of time at the nucleo, many hours per day, and almost all days of the week, often building up to four hours per day, six days per week. Rehearsals are fast paced and rigorous, demanding a durable commitment, personal responsibility, and a strong work ethic. Through frequent performances, students have many opportunities to excel and to share their accomplishments with their peers, family and community.
5. The use of ensemble.
The learning in El Sistema is based in ensemble experience in which group achievement is balanced with individualized attention. The orchestra acts as a model society in which an atmosphere of competition between individuals is replaced by shared struggle. [Dr Abreu: “The orchestra is the only group that comes together with the sole purpose of agreement.”] Smaller ensembles and choruses adopt the same ethos.
6. The CATS teacher model: Citizen/Artist/Teacher/Scholar.
Those who work at the nucleo take on many jobs and multiple roles in relationship to the students. By acting as citizens, artists, teachers and scholars, these adults encourage their students to develop holistically: as active musicians, helpful educators, inquisitive learners and responsible civic contributors.
7. The multi-year continuum.
El Sistema provides a “conveyor belt” of services, supporting its students from early childhood into adulthood. Despite variation in resources and practices, all nucleos work toward a full program. The “Academies” and other national teams have formed lists of sequential repertoire, orchestral levels, and pedagogical practices that create a through line for every child’s learning. Although each nucleo is encouraged to develop programs that suit its community, shared practices and unified vision allow El Sistema to provide its students with a continuous musical experience. The learning process develops the ear as the fundamental tool before the visual.
8. Family and community inclusion.
Family participation is an essential aspiration of El Sistema. Siblings often go to the same nucleo, parents attend classes with the youngest students, and families form the bulk of the audience at orchestra concerts. Many sites have parent musical ensembles, and all actively work to involve the community at large through outreach concerts.
9. Connections and network.
Although nucleos run independently and customize their programs, they are strongly connected to the national leadership organization, which provides financial resources but more importantly gives the network a unified vision. Additionally, each nucleo is indispensably tied to the many other nucleos that form the El Sistema network. These interdependent relationships are manifested through events such as “seminarios,” which are intensive, project-based musical retreats where orchestras share repertoire, streamline technique, and build personal and institutional relationships. By uniting students and teachers from disparate parts of the country, the nucleo network embodies the El Sistema ideals of sharing and learning.