Commentary: El Sistema

Mike Lawson • Commentary • May 19, 2014

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Traditional Public Music Education and Innovative El Sistema Programming: Two Platforms that Share a Common Goal

Over the past five years, since I was introduced to El Sistema and entered the field in the United States, I have continually been asked about the relationship between El Sistema-inspired work and the traditional public school music education systems. There are many elements that make El Sistema programming innovative, including the intense time commitment on the part of the student population, the integration of teaching artists in addition to trained educators, and the tapping of funding from a wide array of sources. Combining those elements with the wonderful work happening in so many school music departments can help further our common goals.


Music education helps the social, cultural, and educational development that children depend upon to deal with the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. The National Endowment for the Arts released data in 2008 about what the decline of arts education means for arts participation. The research revealed that there was steady growth in access to arts education from the 1930s to the 1970s that helped to create, nurture, and sustain the audiences who would shape the cultural and economic landscape of America.

By 1982, over half of Americans had a meaningful relationship with arts education, which is what I am referring to as “traditional music education.” Over the past 30 years, we have seen music education get reduced to bare bones in many school districts, while private youth music organizations have soared to the highest musical levels ever seen in this country. How is it possible that a city like Philadelphia can hear their local youth orchestra tackle Mahler’s Second Symphony while the school district threatens to let go of the majority of its music educators every six months?

There are some metrics that quantify the economic impact of the arts in terms of how many jobs are created in orchestras and spent by concert-goers, but what about the social and educational impact that comes from the arts experience? How do we measure that? Because we haven’t found reliable or accurate metrics for the broader influence of arts education, it has hurt our ability to raise funds, especially now that funding happens in a different way. When I talk to potential donors and contributors, I make the argument that kids are practicing executive functioning skills all day long, rather than just music education.

Since 1982, what has happened to these children that have been denied an arts education? This is not a question to the benefit of “putting butts in seats.” This is not a question of how many billions of dollars are not being spent by arts and cultural organizations because we don’t have the money. This question is: what happened to a generation of American youth who did not have access to arts education? Every child can benefit from an intense experience with music.

The innovation that El Sistema brings to traditional public music education helps to make a stronger argument for the realities that our society cares about. According to the recent Gallup polls, the economy, government, jobs, and healthcare are the most compelling issues facing the American public. Although education still ranks high, arts education still remains one of the first areas of education deemed dispensable.


What is El Sistema?

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 in over 100 programs in the United States.


Core values:

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. Jose Antonio Abreu (founder of El Sistema in Venezuela) 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, and better teaching. Thus, flexibility, experimentation, and risk-taking are inherent and desirable aspects of every program.


A core set of fundamental ideals was adopted by El Sistema USA, which operates under the umbrella of the National Alliance of El Sistema-Inspired Programs. The National Alliance is a non-profit professional association that has the goal of supporting and advocating for the movement by providing networking and guidance to the many individual El Sistema-inspired programs that exist around the U.S.


1. Mission of social change [Tocar y Luchar; To Play and To Struggle]

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 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.


4. Intensity

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 a program that suits its community, shared practices and unified vision allow El Sistema to provide 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.


Sound Familiar?

Each of the listed fundamental elements is applicable to public school music systems. The goals are the same, the basic needs of children have not changed over the generations, and many El Sistema programs and public schools in the United States have found powerful ways to advocate for each other. By working together, the impact both groups can have on the life of a child can be strengthened.

By realizing that our objectives are the same, we allow ourselves to open doors to support each other. El Sistema programs need access to the public music education systems, facilities, instruments, and students. The traditional music educators could also use a hand from the performing musicians who tend to make up the bulk of teaching artists that serve El Sistema programs.

El Sistema is an additional opportunity we should provide students in the public school setting. With a field of work that is less than a decade old, time and effort will tell the story of the collaborative impact we continue to have on the children we serve. The first step to collaboration is finding more spaces to explore potential partnerships and what unique roles each party plays in the success of delivering high-quality music education to any child who wants it.

It is the responsibility of every artist to live up to the original meaning of the word “artist”: “one who cultivates the fine arts.”

All music educators – whether working in El Sistema-inspired programs or in the public schools – should continually advocate and strive for a greater, more effective, more inclusive system. By working together, we can ensure that the next generation of students will be able to reap the benefits that come from immersive music education.


Stanford Thompson is a musician and educator who is passionate about using music for social action. Thompson serves as the CEO for the El Sistema-inspired program, Play On, Philly! and the chairman of the National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programs (El Sistema USA). He also serves on the boards of the Interlochen Center for the Arts, the Philadelphia chapter of the American Composers Forum, and as chairman of The Curtis Institute of Music Alumni Council. He regularly contributes to the communities of TED, League of American Orchestras, and El Sistema-inspired initiatives around the world. For El Sistema-inspired programs he has implemented, Thompson has secured over $5 million in funding, which has impacted the lives of hundreds of children in Philadelphia.

Trained as a professional trumpeter, Thompson has performed and soloed with major orchestras around the world while actively performing chamber music and jazz. He is a native of Atlanta, Georgia and holds degrees from The Curtis Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory’s Abreu Fellows Program.

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