Strengthening communities ... through orchestra
The “what,” “how,” and “why” of El Sistema, and its potential in the Sonoma Valley
Anne Case is hard at work bringing an El Sistema-type youth orchestra program to Sonoma. The district has confirmed that her first site will be El Verano Elementary School.
Angie Tan Burns/Special to the Index-Tribune
How does Venezuela increase school attendance, decrease school behavioral notifications and increase employability? Through playing orchestral music, of course.
Changing lives and communities through music may seem like an unreasonably tall and ambitious order, but skeptics should look towards El Sistema, a social initiative that Venezuela has been perfecting for years. In 1975, economist and musician José Antonio Abreu organized an orchestra of 11 children in a parking garage, in response to a lack of Venezuelan representation in foreigner-populated orchestras. This marked the birth of El Sistema (“the System”), a network of youth orchestras that reaches deep into the barrios and overlooked groups in society, engaging low-income children in an intensive and long-term youth development program.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend an inspiring symposium on El Sistema, titled “Reaching for the Stars” and hosted by Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. The event is designed around the residency and concerts given by the famous touring ensemble of El Sistema, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra.
Keynote speaker, advocate and facilitator, Eric Booth, delved into Sistema fundamentals at the symposium’s start. What distinguishes El Sistema music education from traditional music education in this country? El Sistema is a philosophy, a way of thinking, and quite possibly a way of life, not a particular curriculum or pedagogy. There is no “how-to” handbook for a Sistema program.
El Sistema focuses first on enacting social change. Through music, children who would not otherwise have access to music training learn the skills and develop the relationships that enable them to lead fulfilling and productive lives. El Sistema is about changing the trajectory of a child’s life, and of the community they live in.
Children begin attending a “núcleo,” or community music center, and playing an instrument at an early age. Rather than having one private lesson, maybe one group musical experience a week, and taking the instrument home to (not) practice, students play their instruments for hours every day among peers. They learn in a social environment; nearly all instruction takes place through large-group or small-group ensemble learning.
These musicians play in their orchestras through adolescence, and they teach younger students. Eric Booth stresses the “outrageous ambition” integral to Sistema – the idea of constantly creating “crises” to work towards, the fervency for expansion and reaching more children, and the necessity of connecting and aligning with others who have social missions to fight poverty.
I believe El Sistema in Sonoma Valley would help children stay on a path to lead fulfilling and productive lives, engage children in the community and the community in our children, and unite the Valley through communal musical experiences.
Please contact me at email@example.com or (425) 773-3408 to find out more about the new El Sistema orchestra or to donate an orchestral instrument to our program. Learn more about El Sistema at elsistemausa.org or watch a You Tube video about the program at youtube.com/watch?v=43tqQhOTCgQ
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Anne Case is director of Valley Vibes Orchestras.