El Systema is a music program developed in Venezuela about 25 to 30 years ago. It is a music program which dramatically change the life of needy kids within their country as well as successfully creating many great musicians. What I find amazing is that St George Players started 20 to 25 years ago was developed with an almost identical ethos although it was not for slum children but for an area with a lack of a good music culture. I did it based on what I knew of successful music teaching with what I call ordinary kids but had to achieve my goals with NO financial help from anyone unlike El Systema and totally unaware of the Venezuelan system. My work was recognised by The Australia Council and sent me to Italy to talk about my program and it was there I first heard of El Systema and I think it shows that successful teaching will develop along similar lines. There is another community in Soweto that is just as successful and another I have heard of in New York, both using very similar methods to El Systema and us.
El Sistema program
Many begin attending their local El Sistema center, called a “nucleo,” as early as 2 or 3 year olds, with the vast majority continuing well into their teens; attending up to six days a week, three to four hours a day, plus retreats and intensive workshops. The country now has children’s orchestras, youth orchestras, professional adult orchestras and dozens of choirs. 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. The backbone of El Sistema traning is preparation for participation in orchestral ensembles, which are the soul of the nucleo community and culture. Of equal importance are choral singing and various other ensembles, which adapt well to a diversity of musical genres and origins.
Kids of preschool age begin with work on body expressiveness and rhythm. Encouraging the children to keep their bodies active while playing (without losing technique) is a key feature of the program in later years. At age 5, children pick up their first instruments, starting with the recorder and percussion. They also join a choir in order to build community through ensemble work. By age 7, all students can pick their first string or wind instrument. Kids can change instruments but are not encouraged to do so frivolously.
Early instruction includes singing and playing with the student’s instrument, often focusing on a single note within a group song; this helps to develop a sense of quality sound. Learning how to use full standard notation often takes many years and is incorporated into their learning organically.There are three levels of practice every week: full ensemble work, section work and private lessons. Students often encounter the same teacher in both their group and personal lessons. This allows student to progress quickly, as bad habits are quickly corrected and good habits are regularly enforced.
Learning through Performing
Students play in front of audiences as much as possible. This reduces the pressure of formal performance, and allows performing to become a natural part of their musical life. Students frequently watch their fellow students perform, allowing them to both see and be inspired by the accomplishments of their peers. From a young age, the students are exposed to the variety of orchestras within the system, from the lowest level to the internationally successful Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra.
El Sistema’s primary focus is to create a daily haven of safety, joy and fun that builds every child’s self-esteem and sense of value. Discipline is relaxed but enforced. However, a feeling of fun is never forgotten.
The majority of El Sistema teachers and nucleo leaders are former students of the program. They understand both the social and musical mission of the program — they nurture both the individual person and the musician at the same time.
El Sistema has a national curriculum, including an established musical sequence. However, local leaders can customize their program. When a local experiment produces good results, it is shared and possibly adopted everywhere. All of the musical curriculum starts with simple arrangements of big pieces with big sound. These masterworks are often reintroduced as the children progress through the system.
Work with Parents
El Sistema takes considerable time working with the parents of students. For a child of age 2 or 3, teachers make home visits to ensure that the family understands the level of commitment required of them. As the students begin to learn their instruments, teachers instruct parents on how best to support their child’s practice schedule at home, giving feedback and encouragement. If a student gets into a youth or city orchestra, they will receive a stipend; this not only honors his/her accomplishments but places real value on the music making for the family.
El Sistema grows from loving children first and loving music second. Emphasis is placed on creating a community that supports one another. Teachers and students alike are invested in both personal and community success, creating a place where children feel safe and challenged. El Sistema graduates leave with a sense of capability, endurance and resilience — owning a confidence about taking on enormous challenges in their lives. A deep sense of value, of being loved and appreciated, and a trust for group process and cooperation, enables them to feel that excellence is in their own hands.
A wonderful program but maybe not as groundbreaking as they make out, remember I was sent to Italy to talk about my program and it was there I met people from El Systema. Just consider that our motto has always been
Whatever you and I do alone can be even greater – and more fun – together