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Who started El Sistema?

The founder of El Sistema, and still its leader, is the Venezuelan musician and economist José Antonio Abreu, a true visionary of our time. He has a clear and powerful vision of music’s life-transformative potential for needy children, and his goal is to extend this opportunity to every Venezuelan child.  He and his team of committed colleagues have been central to the growth of El Sistema in Venezuela and across the world—many of the original co-founders of El Sistema, in 1975, are still active leaders in El Sistema, four decades later.

How many young people are involved in El Sistema?

In Venezuela right now, there are over 750,000 children involved in El Sistema, learning music and participating in ensembles and choruses. There are many tens of thousands more in other Latin American countries, and large programs in South Korea, The Philippines, and Europe. About 25,000 young people are now in U.S. programs.  We estimate the world total will exceed one million by the end of 2016.

Is El Sistema in other parts of the world?

Maestro Abreu’s idea took root in a number of Latin American countries over the last several decades, including Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Chile.  Since 2007, the movement has spread rapidly across the world, and there are now Sistema-inspired programs in over 64 countries, on every continent except Antarctica.

How can playing music together really keep poor kids away from drugs and gang violence?

El Sistema works because it immerses children in an alternative world, every day for several hours – a world that gives them a deep sense of belonging to a community where they are needed and valued. The longing to belong that can propel young people toward gangs is much more deeply satisfied in the community of an orchestra.  Many programs are documenting other benefits too, including increased high school graduation, college matriculation, higher academic achievement, better social skills, better “executive function” and more positive attitude toward life.

Do children audition to get into El Sistema? Do they have to pay?

No, there are no auditions.  The program is free (or sometimes for a nominal fee). It’s for any child who wants to join.

If El Sistema takes anyone and everyone, regardless of talent, how does it happen that their top orchestras are as good as many conservatory and professional orchestras?

Even though El Sistema is open and accessible to everyone, musical excellence is a top priority at every level; standards are set high, and children are expected to work hard to achieve them. This hard work toward high aspiration is a key element of El Sistema: it not only produces great music but also creates the opportunity for each child to experience self-discipline, tenacity, and mastery.

Is El Sistema a program initiated by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez?

No, El Sistema began 41 years ago.  José Antonio Abreu has been able to win government support through a succession of seven different regimes, from far left to far right. The program is not about politics; it is about the wellbeing of children and youth.  Even as Venezuela faces fierce political partisanship and economic strain, El Sistema keeps its focus on its youth development mission.

What about criticism of El Sistema that has appeared in recent years?

El Sistema is not perfect, and its leaders regularly admit that they seek to address flaws and continually improve.  Its critics tend to focus primarily on its political positioning or its pedagogical methods.  In our view, some of the criticism is constructive and useful, but some can simply be attributed to the fact that no program can grow to the tremendous scale and impact of El Sistema Venezuela without incurring criticism.  El Sistema in Venezuela is constantly evolving and managing heroically to continue its work in conditions of extreme social turbulence. We note that there is very little or no public criticism of El Sistema programs in the 63 other countries in which it is growing.

How different are the programs in all those countries?

That question is frequently asked, but we had to write a book to answer it properly.  There are strong similarities around their goals, and significant differences in the ways they try to achieve them in the wide variety of cultures.

Who funds these programs?

Again, there are differences around the world.  A few countries get all or almost all of their funding from their national government; many countries (such as the U.S.) have no national funding.  In most countries, there is a mix of public funding from national, regional or local agencies, and private funding from foundations, individuals, corporations and NGOs.