Sunday, July 5, 2015

El Sistema is a publicly financed voluntary sector music education program in Venezuela, founded in 1975 by Venezuelan educator, musician and activist José Antonio Abreu which later adopted the motto Social Action for Music. To say it another way, it is "free classical music education that promotes human opportunity and development for impoverished children," as quoted from the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. By 2015, according to official figures, El Sistema consisted of over 400 music centers and 700,000 young musicians. The program provides 4 hours of musical training and rehearsal per week day after school, as well as work on the weekends.

Origin and History

El Sistema

It all began with 11 students in an underground parking garage under the leadership of José Abreu. For many years its official name was Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, (FESNOJIV), which is sometimes translated into English as "National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela". It has recently changed to Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar (FMSB) but it is still widely known by the FESNOJIV acronym.

Abreu's vision

Abreu said: "Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values â€" solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings."

Abreu has navigated the program for the past 35 years through ten different administrations, flourishing "with the backing and material support of seven consecutive Venezuelan governments, ranging across the political spectrum from center-right to the current leftist presidency of Hugo Chávez"..(although).."he is careful to keep the Sistema separate from partisan politics". Combining political shrewdness with religious devotion, Abreu has dedicated himself to an utopian dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in that environment, the better for all.

Success Stories of El Sistema

Gustavo Dudamel, current musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had his beginnings in El Sistema. According to Dudamel, "music saved my life and has saved the lives of thousands of at risk children in food, like health care, like education, music has to be a right for every citizen."

Venezuelan government involvement

The program is known for rescuing young people in extremely impoverished circumstances from the environment of drug abuse and crime into which they would likely otherwise be drawn.

The Venezuelan government began fully financing Abreu's orchestra after it succeeded at "International Festival of Youth Orchestras" in 1976 in Aberdeen, Scotland. From the beginning, El Sistema fell under the dominion of social-services ministries, not the ministry of culture, which has strategically helped it to survive. The current Chavez administration has been the most generous patron of El Sistema so far, footing almost its entire annual operating budget as well as additional capital projects. Abreu received the National Music Prize for his work in 1979 and he became Minister of Culture in 1983. Abreu was appointed as Special Ambassador for the development of a Global Network of Youth and Children orchestras and choirs by UNESCO in 1995, also as special representative for the development of network of orchestras within the framework of UNESCO's "World Movement of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choirs".

At the time, its network of 102 youth and 55 children's orchestras (numbering approximately 100,000 youngsters) came under the supervision of the Ministry of Family, Health and Sports. As "El Sistema", its goal is to use music for the protection of childhood through training, rehabilitation and prevention of criminal behaviour.

In September 2007, with Abreu present on the television program, President Hugo Chávez announced a new government program, Misión Música, designed to provide tuition and music instruments to Venezuelan children. It has been noted that "various ministries oversaw El Sistema until two years ago, when the president's office took direct control. El Sistema's mission runs parallel to Mr. Chávez's program to provide subsidies and services to the poor." However, there has been objections to Chavez's involvement from those who oppose the policies of the present government.

Spread of regional centres in Venezuela

On 6 June 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank announced the granting of a US$150 million loan for the construction of seven regional centers of El Sistema throughout Venezuela. Many bankers within the IDB originally objected to the loan on the grounds that classical music is for the elite. In fact, the bank has conducted studies on the more than two million young people who have been educated in El Sistema which link participation in the program to improvements in school attendance and declines in juvenile delinquency. Weighing such benefits as a falloff in school drop-out rates and a decline in crime, the bank calculated that every dollar invested in El Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends. Supported by the government, El Sistema has started to introduce its music program into the public-school curriculum, aiming to be in every school and to support 500,000 children by 2015.

The project has been extended to the penal system. On 25 May 2008, Leidys Asuaje wrote for Venezuelan daily El Nacional: "The plan to humanize jails through music began eleven months ago under the tutelage of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice and FESNOJIV...."


In November 2014, British music scholar Geoffrey Baker published a newspaper article and a book that threw doubt on many of the claims made by and about El Sistema and suggested that much of the publicly circulating information about the program was hyperbolic or simply false. The book's allegations included a culture of authoritarianism, hyper-discipline, exploitation, competition, and gender discrimination. It argued that the program was deeply conservative beneath its progressive exterior and that its claims of social transformation were unproven and exaggerated. For example, the IADB's claim that El Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends for each $1 invested was based on dubious calculations and had been withdrawn by the bank itself. Considerable controversy ensued, with furious denunciations by Sistema advocates and enthusiastic responses from music education experts.

Simon Bolivar Orchestra

An important product of El Sistema is the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. In the mid-1990s, Abreu formed the National Children's Youth Orchestra, and many young musicians graduated from it to the Simón Bolívar which grew considerably in size. However, this "became an opportunity to re-create the ensemble as two separate performing entities. The first generation of members was designated the Simón Bolívar A; the younger, newer members, who had recently been brought in from the new National Children's Orchestra, now constituted the Simón Bolívar B" The Simón Bolívar B is now the touring orchestra and, 2007, it made its debut at the BBC Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall and later at Carnegie Hall under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, receiving enthusiastic reviews. 2009 saw the orchestra touring in the US, but also in Europe as well.

However, in Spring 2010, with a tour to the Lucerne Easter Festival, comments from reviewers such as Tom Service of London's The Guardian that "the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra is youthful no longer" struck home, and Abreu "decided that the time is once again ripe for new, younger national orchestras" and so he set about creating new ensembles. The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, named after the Venezuelan pianist, started international touring in the fall of 2010 with appearances at the Beethoven Fest in Bonn and then went on to Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, Madrid, and London. Other new youth orchestras include the Caracas Symphony Youth Orchestra and a newly constituted National Children's Orchestra consisting of 358 musicians. Damian Thompson, arts editor for The Spectator reports that the rampant sexual abuse of young musicians in El Sistema is part of "classical music's dirty little secret."

El Sistema in other countries

The United States: El Sistema USA

"El Sistema USA" is an organization which promotes the "system" throughout the US. Its philosophy is expressed on its website:

"A visionary global movement that transforms the lives of children through music. A new model for social change."

Abreu appeared in a public symposium on El Sistema which took place on 7 November 2007 in Boston, Massachusetts where he gave the keynote speech; it is available as a video of the public symposium on "El Sistema"] on the WGBH Forum Network. A significant panel of speakers was present.

At the November 2007 symposium Abreau "expressed his delight at the prospect of joining with the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston and other musical institutions in the United States to create a Pan-American movement. 'The New World', he said, "is nothing less than all three Americas. And so what we are in the process of creating is really an expression of a new, transcontinental social and musical culture" The Conservatory Lab school is associated with the New England Conservatory of Music, and was the first El Sistema-infused charter school in Massachusetts.

It has been estimated that in early 2009 there were five or six El Sistema-based programs in the US, but "by mid-2011, there were at least 50 such programs â€" and list is increasing by the week..." In addition, many of the original Abreu Fellows who came together at the New England Conservatory as a result of Abreu's TED Prize, have gone into their local communities to start new programs or to expand upon or within existing ones. These cover a wide geographical area ranging from KidZNotes in North Carolina, JAMM (Juneau Alaska Music Matters) in that state, and ICAN (Incredible Children's Art Network) in Santa Barbara, California. In 2011, Longy School of Music of Bard College, Bard College, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic formed Take a Stand to promote and support the El Sistema-inspired music education movement in the United States. Based in Los Angeles, it also offers a graduate-level degree program based on the tenets of El Sistema, including Master of Arts in Teaching in Music degree.

First Notes in Vail Valley, Colorado; CityMusic in Cleveland, Ohio; Club O in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Kid Ovation program in Des Moines, Iowa; and Orchestrating Diversity in Saint Louis, Missouri are also inspired by El Sistema.

Other El Sistema-inspired programs in the US include:

  • Atlanta Music Project (Atlanta, Georgia) is sponsored by major companies and foundations of the city. It is managed by two Sistema Fellows, graduates of the 2010 and 2012 Program at the New England Conservatory of Music. The Atlanta Music Project offers both an orchestral and a choral music program.
  • Chicago Metamorphosis Orchestra Project (ChiMOP) (Chicago, Illinois) was founded in May 2013 by Thomas Madeja and Sylvia Carlson. Its first program, the ChiMOP Summer Youth Orchestra, is an advanced youth orchestra that is designed to bridge the gap between academic year programs. ChiMOP's second program, Mary Lyon Music, is an El Sistema inspired program that takes place at Mary Lyon Elementary School in Chicago's Belmont Cragin neighborhood and was launched in September 2013.
  • Harmony Program (New York City) was one of the first El Sistema-inspired programs in the US. It began as a pilot program in the New York City Mayor's Office in 2003. After being incorporated as an independent non-profit, the Harmony Program was re-launched under its current model in 2008 through a partnership with the City University of New York. The program was founded by Anne Fitzgibbon, who studied El Sistema in Venezuela on a year-long Fulbright Fellowship.
  • Kids 4 Harmony (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) was launched in 2012 by Berkshire Children and Families, a social services organization and is based at the Morningside School in Pittsfield. The Berkshire Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Conservatory have supported the program with periodic tutoring and public fundraising performances.
  • Miami Music Project (Miami, Florida) was founded in 2008 by James Judd with chapters in Doral, Little Haiti, and Liberty City.
  • MYCincinnati (Cincinnati, Ohio) is a free youth orchestra program. It was founded in October 2011 by a graduate of the second class of Sistema Fellows at New England Conservatory. The program has a full string orchestra of over 40 students who meet for two hours a day, five days a week.
  • OrchKids (Baltimore, Maryland) is an after-school program at at the Luckerman Bundy Elementary School which brings "intensive music education to very young children" one of its distinctive features According to Nick Skinner, assistant to OrchKids Director, Dan Trahey it concentrates on both the musical and the social: "(the children) learn that being an OrchKid means behaving in a certain way". The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's is involved in the program and its conductor, Marin Alsop, conducts concerts with the young group.
  • People's Music School Youth Orchestras (Chicago, Illinois) (formerly known as the YOURS Project) was founded in 2008 as the first El Sistema-inspired program in Chicago. Using donated instruments and makeshift accessories, the Youth Orchestra began with 35 students and grew to serve over 135 students annually by 2014. The first in its network of youth orchestras is located at the William G. Hibbard Elementary School in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood.
  • Play on Philly! (POP) (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) started in 2011 with 110 underserved children (grades 1 - 8) in St. Francis de Sales, a West Philadelphia school. Another site at the Freire Charter Middle School, established in September 2010, brought the total number of students to close to 250. In addition to group instrumental lessons children study composition, general music, choir, chamber and ensemble music. POP employs 31 teaching artists. A major part of the program is a series of 30 concerts in the community throughout the year as well as visits from guest artists and conductors.
  • Shift: Englewood Youth Orchestra (Chicago, Illinois) was founded in July 2014 by Ayriole Frost and Albert Oppenheimer. It serves children grades 3 through 8 in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, and takes place at Wentworth Elementary School.
  • Soundscapes (Newport News, Virginia) was founded in 2009 and opened its first nucleo at Carver Elementary. In 2012 the program opened its second nucleo at Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center.
  • UpBeat NYC (Bronx, New York) was established in 2009. It is a free community music program in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx. Its activities include an orchestra program for ages 8 and up providing lessons, sectionals, and ensemble rehearsals, a beginner violin orchestra that transitions children from paper orchestra to real instruments and prepares students for the orchestra program, and a pre-orchestra program for ages 5â€"7 that implements Kodály methodology and a paper orchestra curriculum. The majority of UpBeat's staff are volunteer musicians.
  • Union City Music Project (UCMP) (Union City, New Jersey) is the first El Sistema program in the New Jersey. The UCMP launched operations in March 2012 through a Paper Orchestra. It has support from volunteer parents but all teaching artists are paid.
  • WHIN Music Project (Washington Heights-Inwood, New York) was founded by El Sistema Fellow David Gracia in August 2012. WHIN offers string orchestra and choir, early childhood music classes, as well as satellite programs in schools and daycare centers. Students receive masterclasses as well as opportunities to peer mentor.
  • YOLA (Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles) (Los Angeles, California) is a partnership between the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Harmony Project, and EXPO Center, a City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks facility. The orchestra receives artistic direction from the Los Angeles Philharmonic via conductor Bruce Kiesling and LA Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, who has led the orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.
  • YOSA (Youth Orchestra of San Antonio) (San Antonio, Texas) is located in the "Good Sam" Community Services Center in West San Antonio and run by an expatriate Briton, Steven Payne. YOSA has five orchestras and 450 students. It also has the financial support of a local businessman, Al Silva, a man of Mexican heritage who grew up the area.


El Sistema-based programs exist in almost every province of Canada, with over 11 programs in existence and more being started each year.

Saint James Music Academy (SJMA) (Vancouver, British Columbia) was established in September 2007 and is the first El Sistema program in Canada. It serves 420 students from Downtown Eastside inner-city schools through its outreach (250 students) and after school program (170 students). The program is an official community partner of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

YONA-Sistema (Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta - Sistema) (Edmonton, Alberta) was established in September 2013. It serves students at Mother Teresa Elementary School in Edmonton, Alberta and is oferred through a partnership between the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Edmonton Catholic School District, and the Inner City Children's Program.

El Sistema Aeolian(London, Ontario) was established in November 2011 and grew out of The Aeolian Performing Arts Centre, in London Ontario [5] []. It serves approximately 75 students attracted from the greater London area. Currently, the program runs 4 days per week and includes youth string orchestra, choir, an adult orchestra, a full meal/snack, Indonesian Gamelan, free donated pianos/lessons and gives between 15-20 performances per year.

United Kingdom

In Harmony is a British government-led music education and community development project which is based on El Sistema It was begun in 2009 with Julian Lloyd Webber appointed chairman of its steering group. The project receives funding from the Department for Education and Arts Council England. On 22 November 2007, Julian Lloyd Webber noted the following in regard to the UK government's announcement of an infusion of £332 million dedicated to music education:

We also have an impoverished South American nation to thank. Last August, in the midst of school holidays, when an uncomfortable number of British children seemed even more disaffected than usual, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra arrived from Venezuela to deliver performances at the Edinburgh Festival and the London Proms that were, quite simply, miraculous"

Lloyd Webber visited Venezuela in late 2009 and reported on what he saw there. the project has centers in Lambeth (led by Lambeth Council's Children and Young People's Service), Leeds, (led by Opera North), Liverpool (led by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), Newcastle Gateshead, (led by The Sage Gateshead), Nottingham, (led by Nottingham City Council), and Telford and Stoke-on-Trent (led by Telford and Wrekin Music)

Sistema Scotland was established with a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, as a result of an initiative by its chairman Richard Holloway in the economically depressed area of Raploch, in Stirling


Orquestra Geração (Generation Orchestra)

This name used to describe the 16 centres currently using it to reference activities throughout the country. It was started in 2005 in a small way in Amadora on the northern outskirts of Lisbon. It is now a solid project ready to expand and to influence Portuguese social inclusion methodology and government policy. Some 850 young people are now involved, in 16 schools in 11 towns: Loures, Oeiras, Sintra, Amadora, Sesimbra, Vila Franca de Xira, Lisboa, Coimbra, Amarante and Gondomar.

International recognition of El Sistema

El Sistema

The Glenn Gould Prize was awarded to El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu on 14 February 2008. Brian Levine, Managing Director of the Glenn Gould Foundation, in an account of his 2008 visit to Caracas wrote: "El Sistema has demonstrated conclusively that music education is the gateway to lifelong learning and a better future."

The Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts was awarded to El Sistema on 28 May 2008.

The National Performing Arts Convention 2008, held in Denver, Colorado, featured Abreu as a guest speaker on 13 June 2008.

The TED Prize was awarded to José Antonio Abreu on 5 February 2009 for his work on El Sistema. A pre-recorded speech was played at the ceremony in which he explained his philosophy. The prize allowed for the creation of the Abreu Fellows.

The Polar Music Prize from Sweden was awarded to El Sistema and Maestro Abreu in 2009.

El Sistema in the media

El Sistema
  • Tocar y Luchar (Play and Fight), a documentary film produced in 2004 on the subject of El Sistema. The film has won several awards, including "Best Documentary" at both the 2007 Cine Las Americas International Film Festival and also the CineMás Albuquerque Latino Film Festival.
  • El Sistema, a 2008 documentary made by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier about the system. The film won the "Best Documentary Feature Award" at the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival in 2010 and "Best Documentary" at the Orlando Hispanic Film Festival in 2009.
  • Dudamel: Conducting a Life is an hour-long PBS program hosted by Tavis Smiley on the subject of music education in the United States, with a focus on Gustavo Dudamel and his achievements with the L.A. Philharmonic. The report includes a look at how the Boston Conservatory Lab Charter School works with children.
  • El Sistema: a report on CBS's 60 Minutes from 13 April 2008 which explores the "System" and includes interviews with some of the Venezuelan children who are members of an orchestra.


El Sistema


Cited sources

  • Baker, Geoffrey, "El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela's Youth", Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Tunstall, Tricia, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2012 ISBN 978-0-393-07896-1
  • Wakin, Daniel J., "Venerated High Priest and Humble Servant of Music Education". The New York Times. 4 March 2012. Retrieved 4 March 2012. 

External links

  • Articles about El Sistema
  • Drew McManus, The Future of Classical Music is in Venezuela on
    • "Part 1 of a trip to Caracas which led to a world of discovery", 4 July 2005
    • "Part 2: Learning about where this remarkable Venezuelan program of classical music comes from and where it's going", 18 July 2005
    • "Part 3: The process behind the Venezuelan program seems sound, but what about the artistic accomplishments?" 1 August 2005
    • "Part 4: The FESNOJIV program has achieved sound accomplishments but could the program work outside of Venezuela?" 15 August 2005


  • Official FESNOJIV website, in English
  • In Harmony Sistema England website
  • In Harmony Telford & Stoke on Trent blog

Sponsored Links