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Perspective: El Sistema in the U.S.A.

Josh Harris • Archives • January 7, 2011

Simon Rattle, music director of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, describes El Sistema as “nothing less than a miracle… From here, I see the future of music for the whole world”Simon Rattle, music director of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, describes El Sistema as “nothing less than a miracle… From here, I see the future of music for the whole world” (The Observer, Sunday July 29, 2007). El Sistema, the unique Venezuelan program that takes underserved children and provides them with an intensive, music-focused program of enabling, has accounted for the success of training hundreds of thousands of students to perform in orchestras and to help them learn not only musical skills but also social skills and self discipline – in essence, providing them with a greater chance of success in life. In case you’re unfamiliar with this, The National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela was founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, who believes that children from extreme poverty, physical abuse, and from families with severe drug afflictions from the poorest slums could have their lives improved by being involved in an intensive program of orchestral performance.

Dr. Mark Churchill, dean emeritus of the Preparatory and Continuing Education division at New England Conservatory, has been involved with the effort to establish El Sistema USA to provide the same benefits to our country’s impoverished children. Mark has always been a catalyst for music education and has launched numerous programs and orchestras for music students, including the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. However, bringing El Sistema to the United States on a broad scale presents a series of interesting challenges due to the vast philosophical and cultural differences between the USA and Venezuela.

The most obvious of these differences is the government backing of system in Venezuela, whereas in the US, there will need to be other venues for funding from private, corporate, and government grants. Additionally, dovetailing El Sistema with the USA’s music education system, which provides the most established public school music programs in the world, will require careful maneuvering. Nevertheless, it could actually strengthen traditional school music programs by changing the culture of the schools and increasing the number of students who are interested in musical performance. Though the traditional US system of music education is available to an enormous number of students, there are numerous inner-city schools that have lost their funding due to years of budget cuts and underperformance, as well as the increased focus of schools on the academic standards of No Child Left Behind; these factors could serve to open the door to El Sistema.

Numerous music charities have been established with the goal of bringing instruments to underprivileged children, as well as attempting to re-establish school music programs whose funding has been cut. Some of these have been quite successful, including the VH1 Save the Music, Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and a variety of others. The difference, though, is that El Sistema offers a paradigm shift, as it provides an intensive 15 to 20-hour-per-week program for these students and it is designed not only to support the students musical growth, but their overall growth as a disciplined human being beyond the musical learning.

This issue of SBO contains an intriguing, in-depth story on this unique program that could represent a major growth opportunity for music education in the United States. The opportunity for success for El Sistema USA is in good hands with Mark Churchill, whose exemplary background as a music educator, conductor, and administrator makes him uniquely qualified to build this program and help improve the outlook for poor children throughout our country.

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