Who is El Sistema?
El Sistema is a philosophy of music education created in Venezuela in 1975. It is the brainchild of Venezuelan musician, politician, economist and philanthropist Dr. José Antonio Abreu. At the root of this philosophy is the idea that music education – specifically classical music education – can and should be used as a means of uplifting and unifying an underserved community, starting with the youth. All children over the age of 2 years are afforded the opportunity to own their own instrument, take private lessons, sing in a choir, and play in an orchestra for no cost. Most of the expenses are paid through government funding. El Sistema has touched the lives of over 2 million Venezuelan children, and over 180 núcleos* have been established in virtually every town and city, no matter how rural or urban.
At the heart of El Sistema is the orchestra, or the family and community. All children play together and metaphorically (or perhaps literally) fight and struggle together to overcome life’s obstacles and to reach a common goal of social change. El Sistema’s approach to music education emphasizes intensive ensemble participation from the earliest stages, group learning, peer teaching, and a commitment to keeping the joy and fun of musical learning and music making ever-present.
Classical music education offers a fresh, creative way to impart important life skills to children who may have deficient learning opportunities otherwise. In the case of El Sistema, however, these lessons rest on top of an equally, and perhaps more important, notion of using art to alleviate the strains of poverty. Private lessons and orchestra rehearsals not only offer a child critical thinking skills cultivated in regular one-on-one interaction with adult music mentors, but also provide an incentive for the child to stay off the streets and away from negative influences while not in school.
El Sistema is a philosophy of learning that is beautifully flexible, allowing it to fit the needs of every community and demographic variable. No two El Sistema programs are the same, but the mission holds true throughout: use music to enable children to thrive and progress as a community. Since its inception in Venezuela over 30 years ago, the El Sistema philosophy has spread worldwide, and includes many vibrant programs found throughout the United States. Today, there are more than 50 El Sistema programs established in the United States. On the worldwide scale, more than 25 countries now have music programs modeled on the El Sistema philosophy.
Critics of El Sistema have asked: Why classical music? All genres of music could, in theory, fit in the El Sistema model, and in many regions of both Venezuela and the U.S., they are in fact a very important part of the musical programs. Classical music specifically has been highly successful because it requires the combined skills of learning an instrument, playing in an ensemble, and honing creative interpretation – all at the highest level. The lessons learned and the discipline required in studying and creating music are a by-product of El Sistema’s focus on producing performances of classical music (and in some cases, other genres) of the highest quality. When all students are making music at the most profound, intellectually stimulated level possible for each individual, then the endeavor as a whole will prove successful. Once the skills are learned, the possibilities and opportunities for transferring those life lessons are endless.
*núcleo: a physical location within the students’ neighborhood that embodies the values and goals of El Sistema