Celebrating 40 Years of El Sistema

Mike Lawson • Features • March 9, 2015

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Shutterstock PhotoFebruary 2015 was set aside to celebrate the 40thanniversary of the original El Sistema program. In the mid 1970’s, Dr. Jose Abreu first birthed the idea of using music to powerfully affect change. Through the years, this idea has taken hold in the hearts and minds of not only the lives he impacted directly, but throughout the international community, and resonates with believers in the power of music everywhere.

The milestone was recognized worldwide, with supporters offering memories, praises, encouragements, and hopes through social media and at a variety of events. Gustavo Dudamel and his colleagues returned home to the birthplace of the movement, surrendering batons and offices of great dignity to once again pick up a bow and play in harmony with other El Sistema kindred.

Here in the U.S., we celebrated in a variety of ways. The members and friends of El Sistema USA dedicated a concert to the movement as a tribute. Programs in Oregon, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Canada all performed in honor of the program that is changing lives regularly through music. Young people learned about the program’s history and were given the chance to offer back their talents as a “thank you.”

In addition to the concerts, Seth Truby of Bravo Youth Orchestras in Oregon and Mia Allen contributed their time and energy to create a beautiful tribute video. (The video is at vimeo.com/119455493). This video is a “thank you” to the movement that started it all four decades ago.

The month has been an exciting, unifying experience for El Sistema professionals and students alike. It is humbling and wonderful to know that before so many of us were even born, the power of music was known and powerfully used for the improvement of society. So, in the retrospective spirit of the 40th anniversary, let’s look at what has made and continues to make El Sistema so distinctive…

El Sistema is infused with a mission of social change. While we are always excited to improve an embouchure or expand a young person’s range, the main emphasis is positive social change. This is the spirit behind the program’s motto, Tocar y Luchar (to play and to strive). By giving young people ownership of their music and musicianship, we are teaching them responsibility. By giving them the ensemble experience, we are simulating their future as an individual within society. We are helping these young people grow as citizens. We are creating pure harmonies – musically and socially. 

El Sistema is all about access and excellence. We invite anyone to dedicate him or herself to musical excellence. We eliminate barriers to entry by creating instructional centers within home communities. We provide access to the highest quality instruction, with the highest expectations, and unparalleled opportunities. While accessibility and excellence can often be at odds with one another, El Sistema is dedicated to bridging the gap and providing both access and excellence.

El Sistema is centered on the concept of the nucleo environment. The physical environment in which young people learn is one of nurture, positivity, and safety. Young people are invited in, encouraged to pursue their fullest potential, and exposed to new and exciting opportunities. The nucleo is a place where the community can gather and impact the futures of young people in positive and significant ways.

El Sistema is marked by a high level of intensity. The sheer number of hours spent at the nucleo is an intense experience. The combination of rigorous, fast-paced instruction, frequent performance opportunities, and encouragement to excel exposes students to an intense music program, sustained by a balance between personal responsibility and group aspirations to achieve great things.

El Sistema is based on the use of ensemble. While we have to teach individuals to play their instruments and to develop technique, the main goal is to create orchestral players. In keeping with Dr. Abreu’s observation that, “the orchestra is the only group that comes together with the sole purpose of agreement,” the orchestra is the place that young people are transformed from instrumentalists to a part of a greater whole – they become ensemble members.

 El Sistema employs the CATS teacher model: citizen / artist / teacher / scholar. By helping young people develop into active citizens who are responsible civic contributors, highly-qualified individuals are the primary workers in El Sistema programs. These people are the embodiment of what it means to fully participate – in music, in community, and in all things with excellence.

El Sistema is predicated upon a multi-year continuum. From preschool to young adulthood, El Sistema programs keep students learning and successful. The continuum is designed to meet the needs of each student, encouraging him or her through developmental stages in a nurturing and rigorous way.

El Sistema values family and community inclusion. Since nucleos are designed to be accessible to young people, it follows that their families and communities are organic to them as well. Family members are welcomed in and equipped to support the young participants, while also encouraging their own development. The nucleo walls are known to be highly porous membranes – the exchange between influences inside and outside the nucleo are continuous and encouraged. 

El Sistema is designed to develop connections and network. Each nucleo is intricately connected to the other nucleos. This connectivity fosters a network of young people dedicated to rigorous training and high levels of excellence. These connections foster the opportunities for large group activities, such as seminaries or festivals.

El Sistema encourages ambition and achievement. With transformational work at the forefront, El Sistema helps young people translate the pursuit of excellence in music to ambition and achievement throughout life. By building confidence and strength through rigorous musical experiences, young people are emboldened to challenge themselves in other ways.

These guiding principles are the distinguishing characteristics of El Sistema. As we move forward toward our 50th anniversary, 75th anniversary, 100th anniversary, and beyond, the participants in the El Sistema movement are optimistic about the progress that is yet to come – the lives that are yet to be touched – the communities that are yet to be transformed through these ideas. For more information, please visit elsistemausa.org.

Victoria Petro-Eschler is the administrative assistant and online content coordinator for El Sistema USA. A flute player and music education advocate, Victoria has been active in the El Sistema USA family since 2013. She holds a B.M. in Music Therapy from East Carolina University (‘02), an M.A. in Musicology from Brandeis University (‘09) and a M. of International Studies in International Nonprofit Management from North Carolina State University (‘13).

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