Fundamental Elements of Venezuela’s El Sistema

That Inform and Guide El Sistema-inspired Programs in the USA

These ten fundamental elements (which are always being refined) are neither a checklist nor a set of requirements. They seek to distinguish the distinctive elements of El Sistema work; and for those who aspire to achieve the goals our friends in Venezuela have achieved, these fundamentals provide a beacon to follow. While many fine music-learning programs share these goals and practices, perhaps the Venezuelan achievement is the unprecedented fullness with which they achieve their goals, and consequently the power of choices made in a commitment to these ideals.

El Sistema is a set of inspiring ideals that inform an intensive youth music program that seeks to effect social change through the ambitious pursuit of musical excellence. El Sistema focuses primarily on children with the fewest resources and greatest need and is delivered at no cost to participants.

Core values of El Sistema

• Every human being has the right to a life of dignity and contribution.

• Every child can learn to experience and express music deeply, can receive its many benefits, and can make different critical life choices as a result of this learning.

• Overcoming poverty and adversity is best done by first strengthening the spirit, creating, as Dr. Abreu puts it: “an affluence of the spirit,” and then investing that affluence as a valued asset in a community endeavor to create excellence and beauty in music.

• 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. Maestro Abreu’s dictum “Trust the young” informs every aspect of the work.

• Learning organizations never arrive but are always becoming—striving to include: more students, deeper impact, greater musical excellence, better teaching, improved tools. Thus, flexibility, experimentation, risk-taking, and collegial change are inherent aspects of every program.

Fundamental Elements of El Sistema Learning

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

El Sistema is a social change/youth development program that uses ensemble music to enable every child to experience being an asset within her or his community, inside and outside the “núcleo.” 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—peer-to-peer instruction is an omnipresent practice. The feel of the social mission is captured in the slogan “to play and to strive.” This work is not effortful or discipline-driven; it is the serious play of an artist in “flow experience,” which research affirms is optimum engagement in any endeavor, and which leads to optimum performance and learning. El Sistema learning is both vigorous work and serious play – ideally, the “flow experience” which research affirms is optimum engagement in any endeavor, leading to optimum performance and learning.

2. Access and excellence.

El Sistema includes as many children as it can, bringing young people into its communities whenever possible, as young as possible, for as long as possible, whatever their background or abilities. As El Sistema strives toward musical excellence for all students, it also provides intensive, accelerated training at “Academies” for the most committed and gifted, preparing them for the highest-level national orchestras and cultivating them as teacher-leaders in their own communities and beyond. The ideals of access and excellence are maintained in a productive balance that maximizes both the fullest success for all and the highest accomplishment for some. Those who achieve the most celebrated accomplishments are guided to feed new energy and expertise back into the system, for wider access and greater excellence.

3. The núcleo environment.

The núcleo is a physical location, usually 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. One often finds a thriving atmosphere of “coopetition” in the núcleo—a healthy mix of cooperative competition as a spice to add playful fun to the rehearsal mix. Visitors from traditional youth music cultures describe it as the “good kind” of competition, as opposed to the “bad kind” they see adding tension and anxiety to their students. The núcleo‘s doors are always open to the community; community members often volunteer, and sometimes use the facility to support other community needs. Creating the distinctive quality of the learning environment, and the teachers’ personal ownership of and committed alignment with the fundamental goals, is more significant in achieving El Sistema-inspired success than any particular pedagogical practices.

4. Intensity.

Students spend a large amount of time at the núcleo, often over four hours per day and six days per week—with extra time for special opportunities like festivals, seminarios and camps. 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. The intensity is an expression of aspiration and intention more than a sense of discipline or of any specific elements of curriculum; it is not imposed, but is born of each individual’s hunger to create the greatest possible beauty, and an unspoken agreement between everyone to achieve it together.

One additional component of this intensity is the fostering of students’ passionate personal investment in the music, so that every piece offers and extends relevance and personal meaning. This emotional investment fuels the Sistema teaching truth that “passion provokes precision”—meaning that a young artist’s emotional investment leads to mastery more reliably over the long haul than does technical drill; the hunger to express more fully drives the improvement and creates motivation for finding technical solutions.

5. The use of ensemble.

The learning in El Sistema is based in group learning and practice, including orchestral ensembles, sectional learning, and frequent performance. There is also consistent (and strategic) individualized attention within and beyond the group setting Individual lessons are prized and do contribute (especially as students develop into more accomplished orchestras), but the ensemble is the main learning setting. The orchestra acts as a model society in which an atmosphere of competition between individuals is replaced by shared aspiration and investment. [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. Students’ primary musical identification is as an ensemble member more than as a specific kind of instrumentalist, i.e. “a violinist.”

6. The CATS teacher model: Citizen/Artist/Teacher/Scholar.

Those who work at the núcleo take on many jobs and multiple roles in relationship to the students. By acting as citizens, artists, teachers and scholars (the CATS model was a suggestion from the first cohort of Sistema Fellows), these adults encourage their students to develop holistically: as active musicians, helpful educators, inquisitive learners and responsible civic contributors. Students see their teachers proactively working in their communities to advance the work of the núcleo and for other social improvements. Students also see their teachers perform, frequently in classroom demonstrations and as often as possible in orchestras. Students see their teachers as learners, experimenters, as curious students, and thus we might call them scholars. Evoking the adage “Eighty percent of what you teach is who you are,” the visible embodiment of these roles instructs young musicians about how to participate fully in life. Becoming a music teacher is seen as a great accomplishment in life.

7. The multi-year continuum.

El Sistema provides a “conveyor belt” of services, supporting students from early childhood into young adulthood. Despite variations in resources and practices, all núcleos work toward a full program of this kind. 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 núcleo is encouraged to develop programs that suit its community, a shared teaching and learning set of practices and a unified vision allow El Sistema to provide its students with a continuous, consistent, and coherent musical experience across their years and stages of development.

8. Family and community inclusion.

Family participation is an essential aspiration of El Sistema. Siblings often go to the same núcleo, parents attend classes with the youngest students, family members are taught ways to support student learning, and families form an eager and enthusiastic core audience at concerts. Many sites have parent musical ensembles, and all actively work to involve the community at large through outreach concerts. The núcleos often have strong walls for security reasons, but these membranes are highly porous, and there is a constant flow and exchange between the inside-work and outside-relevance and value.

9. Connections and network.

Although núcleos run independently and customize their programs, they are strongly connected to the national leadership organization (Fundamusical), which provides financial resources but more importantly gives the network a unified vision, as well as tools that can be used consistently. Additionally, each núcleo is indispensably tied to the many other núcleos that form the El Sistema network. These interdependent relationships are manifested through events such as “festivals” and “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 núcleo network embodies the El Sistema ideals of sharing and learning, and adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. A student whose family moves can pick up in her new town’s núcleo right where she left off in the program she left.

10. Ambition and achievement.

El Sistema work is more than merely good for young people. It aspires to transform lives, and widely succeeds in setting a healthier, fuller trajectory for stressed young lives. The social development happens because of the ensemble music making practices described above. However, the catalyst that makes for a life-transformative impact is not just the aspiration for excellence, but the degree of hunger driving the aspiration for excellence; it always leans toward the highly-ambitious end of every opportunity – sometimes bordering on the outrageous, according to the norms of Western classical tradition.

What changes young lives is being a part of an aligned community (teachers, students, community included) that reaches unreasonably high together, regularly, taking risks to achieve excellence that matters to them and to others. This cycle of ambitious yearning and achievement, repeated consistently for the sake of beauty and contribution to community, can, over time, change the thousands of small and larger choices a young person makes in creating her life. And it is fuelled by a sustainable supply of joy.

This document revises a May 2010 report which was a synthesis of observations and study of the workings of El Sistema in Venezuela, composed by colleagues in the U.S. movement – especially Mark Churchill, the 2009-2010 class of Sistema Fellows at New England Conservatory, and others, in consultation with the Venezuelan leaders of El Sistema. This update revises that original document, with ongoing study and in dialogue with many. — EB