El Sistema: System or Anti-system?

El Sistema:  System or Anti-system?


Did you have lessons as a child?  Swimming lessons, music lessons, hockey lessons, sailing lessons, art classes?  Did you know that many children in our community do not get that opportunity?  The conservative estimate is 35%.


Now to fill that gap:


El Sistema is a UNESCO and TED award winning free afterschool intensive music program for youth and children.  Its musical focus is the ensemble, namely orchestra, choir and other types of ensemble experiences.  It is as much a social program as it is a musical program helping participants develop transferable skills and experiences such as:


Social Goals:

  • Increasing opportunities for youth and their families to pursue excellence
  • Working as a team toward the building of  community through experiences in the orchestra, choir, Gamelan ensemble and at the dinner table
  • Fostering community interaction through frequent performances and the meeting of people which result
  • Building self esteem
  • Cultivating passion
  • Teaching communication skills
  • Meeting and engaging with various members and organizations of the community:  creating community connectivity
  • Learning how to give back to others
  • Engaging parents/ caregivers and their communities in the process
  • Helping  youth develop social and academic skills by providing positive interactions with teachers and peers
  • Fostering a sense of pride and accomplishment by engaging in public performance opportunities
    • Cultivating a sense of belonging:  show participants that there is a group of adults and peers which care about them and will help them succeed by providing the consistent, structured and safe environment for learning.



Music Goals:

  • Providing excellent music education
  • Offering teaching experience to peers and mentors
  • Instilling appreciation for classical music as well as music of all styles
  • Gaining familiarity with great repertoire (masterpieces)
  • Helping take classical music out of the hands of the elite and give it back to everyone in the community
  • Building new audiences for classical music as well as music of all styles
  • Fostering performance skills through frequent performance opportunities
  • Increasing emotional and musical sensitivity



Educational Goals:

  • Providing opportunities for participants to discover new ways to learn
  • Offering a learning and teaching “incubator” for both participants and the teaching/nurturing team to explore both established and innovative ways for both the team and the individual to learn


Other Goals:

  • Refining motor skills and coordination
  • Encouraging the ability to multitask
  • Providing and teaching about good nutrition


But is El Sistema a system?  I believe on some levels it is.  It is a global network of programs which interacts and learns from one another.  Participants progress through the program with innovative curricula and performance goals.  But there is no “one approach” or static curriculum.


Learning and teaching approaches are fluid, flexible and innovative.  Attention to the individual as well as the group is balanced so that the participants and the team can find unique ways to facilitate learning.  It is an “incubator” concept which stays fresh with the latest teaching and learning approaches.  The approaches assist the participants to know themselves better and how they can find unique ways to embrace challenges.  The skill bases and building of personal capacity are contextualized so that they become transferable skills helping participants to navigate new inspiring horizons and pathways of choice in their lives.


El Sistema fights against current systems which are “standardized” often leaving challenged participants to “fend for themselves” or “weed them out” of opportunities.  It is about “beating the odds” and beating the systems constructing personal systems of learning and achieving in life.  It is about “equity” and offering the best music education experience possible to all.


It is about values as well.  If life is just about “survival”, what is the point?  Should we not be living he lives of our dreams and aspirations?  If a child picks up a violin and learns to play it, will he not be more likely to support art and culture in the future?


We live in a time when art and culture are considered by society as being for the elite only.  Worse than that, it is often considered a superfluous commodity. Much of this is caused by the lack of equity and access to it.  I believe that art and culture is at the core of who we are and not a superfluous commodity.  It is the “why” in our very existence.  We need to both establish and re-establish this value.  This will be at the core of our healthy, balanced, passionate and vibrant futures. 


Participants in our program are taught to give back.  They are expected to volunteer and share their skills, insights and passions.  This is another value we lack in today’s world.  When we are passionate about giving and optimistic about the future, it is proven that the stock market goes up.  The happiness index also rises.  Is that not the world you would like to live in?


El Sistema is both a system and an anti-system.  It challenges existing educational systems to do more for participants by providing a unique model of “incubation” rather than a didactic learning environment.  It focuses on the individual’s personal growth as much as it does on their musical growth.

It is a learning revolution!

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