Taking the El Sistema Challenge
Under Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil wants to save string education in the USA. Advocates say America might have something to learn about itself in the process
Can an acclaimed music program that helped lift Gustavo Dudamel and other children from the teeming slums of Caracas be a model for underfunded youth orchestras in the United States? The Los Angeles Philharmonic thinks so and, in partnership with the League of American Orchestras, recently offered up its El Sistema–inspired Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) as a case study during an international symposium for music professionals who are developing similar programs in their own communities.
Hailed as the first such gathering of its kind, the three-day conference in Los Angeles, “Composing Change: YOLA and the El Sistema Movement,” held in May, drew more than 250 professional and youth orchestra directors and educators from 27 states and five countries.
Enthusiasm for El Sistema, the celebrated Venezuelan national music-training and youth-orchestra program, ran to nearly ecstatic levels throughout the symposium, which took place at the historic EXPO Center Swimming Stadium in South Los Angeles, where YOLA students rehearse and attend classes.
LA Phil music director Dudamel, El Sistema’s most famous violin student, bookended the mixture of reverent roundtables, giddy breakout sessions, and zealous panel discussions with a pair of performances. First, he conducted the LA Philharmonic, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in an invitational rehearsal of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”). The conference closed with Dudamel conducting the student orchestra in the slow movement of Mahler’s First Symphony and the “Gipsy Overture,” a centerpiece of Dudamel’s training through El Sistema.
The Venezuelan music program penetrated the consciousness of music educators around the world after the 2006 release of Tocar y Luchar, or To Play and to Fight, an award-winning film documentary about the music movement. El Sistema–inspired programs have been popping up in Europe, Latin America, and the United States ever since.
Read about the growing pains that El Sistema USA is experiencing and how it's dealing with those challenges.
The recent Los Angeles symposium allowed music educators to closely examine how the Venezuelan program translates into an American context. It focused on the LA Philharmonic’s experience of launching YOLA, the first large-scale American music program modeled on El Sistema. The conference also served as a coming out party for El Sistema USA, a support network and information clearinghouse for US organizations inspired by the Venezuelan program.
In his plenary remarks at the symposium, renowned arts advocate Eric Booth, a senior advisor to El Sistema USA and self-described “maniac” on its behalf, said, “It takes an act of courage in our critical world for the LA Phil to share what it has learned, including its mistakes.” But he added, “We are finding our way together—that’s the El Sistema way.”
El Sistema in Venezuela
As anyone knows who hasn’t spent the last few years hiding in a double bass case, El Sistema, or the System, is the nickname for Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, the state-supported music-education program started by economist José Antonio Abreu in 1975. It’s been featured on 60 Minutes, NPR, and other major media outlets.
Originally known as Social Action for Music, the program is now funded by the Venezuelan health and social development ministry and operates 126 community centers known as “nucleos” throughout the South American nation. The centers are associated with nearly 300 children, youth, and adult orchestras, including the critically acclaimed Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, for which Dudamel has served as music director since 1999.
Over the past 35 years, the program has provided music training to more than two million children between the ages of two and 19, the vast majority of them living in wrenching poverty. Despite extraordinary challenges, students who participate in the music program have higher class attendance, better academic achievement, lower school dropout rates, and fewer behavior problems than those in a control group, according to a report prepared by the Inter-American Development Bank, which loaned Venezuela $150 million in 2007 to construct more regional centers for the program.
Although the name suggests a highly structured and centrally organized music program, El Sistema actually provides the individual nucleos with local control, allowing them maximum flexibility to best meet students’ needs.
Much has been written about the intensity of El Sistema’s learning environment. Venezuelan students spend an average of 17 hours a week on music lessons, which are organized in groups by instrument as well as ensemble practice. Students perform frequently and mentor each other at every level, spending an average of ten years in the music program. While a small number of students actually make their way to the top of the pyramid, no fewer than 85 percent of the program’s students achieve good or excellent music skills by the time they leave.
In his article “El Sistema’s Open Secrets,” which was distributed at the conference, Booth attributes much of El Sistema’s success to the seemingly contradictory way the program aspires both to include as many children as possible while also nurturing excellence in its most gifted.
“In the US, we almost despair the difficulty of achieving excellence in breadth and depth at the same time,” Booth wrote. “But the Venezuelan Sistema has created a
synergistic co-existence between the child-development goals and the ‘high arts’ goals.”
The nucleo, where students meet for lessons, rehearsals, and performances, is far more than a music school—it is an open-membership community center that
includes siblings, parents, and friends who frequently perform together.
Studies show that El Sistema has made measurable improvements in the lives and earning ability of hundreds of thousands of children in Venezuela. Still, skeptics have questioned whether a nationally funded program in a small country where impoverished children have few distractions can really serve as a model for American music programs, where public funds are virtually nonexistent and society is exponentially more complex and diverse.
“It’s going to be different here,” Booth acknowledges. “In Venezuela, El Sistema started small and grew. Here, a movement is springing up in dozens of places with no central core. But the Venezuelan model isn’t so simple . . . and there is an organizing principle here, even though we don’t have the national support.”
YOLA as a Case Study
The LA Philharmonic Association became interested in launching an El Sistema–inspired youth orchestra in early 2007, around the time the organization started courting Dudamel to replace Esa Pekka-Salonen as music director. Much of the credit goes to Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the LA Philharmonic Association, who led a delegation to Venezuela to learn more about El Sistema.
Because there are virtually no state or federal funds for music programs in the United States, the LA Phil reached out to other stakeholders to move the project forward. They built a “stakeholder network” that included 50 schools, foundations, and arts organizations and developed a set of criteria for the kind of site they wanted to house their program.
The site needed to have space to house a large number of classrooms several days a week, an intergenerational campus so people of all ages would feel welcome, and a location within walking distance of a school. It also had to be “a safe place in a neighborhood that wasn’t so safe,” said Leni Boorstin, community affairs director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.
The board became partners with two critical groups: The Harmony Project, a youth development program that was already offering free music lessons to a small group of children, and the EXPO Center of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, which was providing space for Harmony Project’s music classes.
“We wanted to grow fast,” Boorstin said. “We knew we needed an orchestra that Gustavo could come visit, so we aimed for an orchestra-size group of students.”
Pressure to fast track the music program, however, and the intricacies of the three-way partnership caused some unexpected problems.
In a candid panel discussion about YOLA’s early development, Gretchen Nielsen, director of educational initiatives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, described the partnership as a “three-way marriage with many mistresses” and said the groups needed “marriage counseling” to work through their differences.
Some of the conflicts centered on scheduling and staffing concerns. Belinda Jackson, the EXPO Center’s executive director, said she didn’t appreciate how fast the program was slated to grow and didn’t provide enough staffing to handle the demands. Although Jackson believes YOLA “can literally save my community,” she had a hard time convincing many of her 225 part-time employees to work longer hours to support the program.
Not everyone in the relatively poor community, which has gone from predominantly black to mostly Latino in the past decade and suffers from gang and drug-related violence, felt welcomed to participate in the program. Promotional materials that were in English and Spanish led many black families to conclude the program “wasn’t for them,” Jackson said.
The Philharmonic also failed to adequately communicate its expectations.
“We were not all that clear that we expected the orchestra to be at the center of this experience,” Nielsen said. And teachers with the Harmony Project, who previously held classes on Saturdays, initially resisted efforts to offer music instruction during the week. While El Sistema teachers are encouraged to take on roles as “citizens, artists, teachers, and scholars,” (the so-called CATS model of teaching), YOLA teachers faced challenges trying to live up to that ideal.
Many of the teachers live far from the EXPO Center and struggle to find time for the tasks that advocates of the Venezuelan system say are so important, including reaching out to needy students and frequently performing to nurture their own artistic development.
“Harmony wants to support the artistry of our teachers and if there’s a big gig coming up, we want them to take it,” said Paloma Udovic, program manager for the Harmony Project’s EXPO Center Youth Orchestra. “But that can conflict with hourly classes.”
Challenges notwithstanding, the LA Phil has so much confidence in its El Sistema–inspired program that it is launching a second youth orchestra this month in partnership with Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), an after-school youth support group in Central LA. The program will provide free music instruction to 120 students—80 first-graders on strings and 40 fourth-graders on wind and brass instruments—to make a full orchestra. Each child must commit to 15 hours a week of classes to win acceptance into the program.
The LA Philharmonic’s ultimate goal with YOLA and HOLA is “to demonstrate the success of what a rigorous and intensive music project can do for a neighborhood and a community,” Nielsen said.
When the LA Phil designed its program, it adapted two key elements of El Sistema that Booth and other advocates say are relevant for American programs. These include learning through ensemble playing rather than focusing on individual lessons, and making the program free and accessible to children who couldn’t otherwise afford music instruction while also promoting excellence.
“In the US, we are very used to individual and private lessons, but any El Sistema–inspired program has to have community at its core,” Nielsen said. “When you learn in isolation as an individual student with a teacher, you’re not learning all the social skills that you get when you’re working in a group.”
Some features of El Sistema, however, are not easily adaptable to American programs. Without the kind of national funding that supports El Sistema in Venezuela, US music programs have to rely on “deep partnerships, not strategic ones” between major arts institutions and community-based social organizations, which can be difficult, Booth said.
American educators often express admiration for the number of hours Venezuelan children put into their music studies, but they are nevertheless hard-pressed to make such rigorous demands on their own students.
“Obviously, you can’t tweak a four-hour program into a 20-hour program, but you can make higher intensity a goal and work toward it,” Booth said.
The structure of the Venezuelan program is also not replicable in the United States, “nor should it be, as we already have a lot of good programs, which they didn’t have in Venezuela,” Nielsen said. “Our challenge is not ignoring the resources we have, but finding ways of connecting them.”
But perhaps the hardest idea for American music educators to grasp is El Sistema’s emphasis on peer instruction. In a frequently cited refrain, a child who knows four chords is encouraged to teach one chord to a child who only knows three. And in the process of teaching, that child will be better prepared to learn his fifth.
“We’re talking about changing the rules about who is allowed to teach,” Booth said. “This is a radical idea.”
To provide a unifying vision of how El Sistema can be adapted to American programs, El Sistema USA has established the Abreu Fellows Program at New England Conservatory. The highly competitive fellowship provides students with a two-month residency in Venezuela so they can experience El Sistema firsthand before taking spring internships in American music programs inspired by the Venezuelan model.
During a video presentation about the fellows’ experiences in Venezuela, clarinetist David Malek, a clarinet professor at St. Mary’s University before winning an Abreu fellowship, said he was shocked to find his Venezuelan students practicing in a dark, hot room without air conditioning after the electricity went out. “If the lights go out [in America], we’re done, but not in Venezuela,” Malek said. “These guys memorize symphonies like we learn scales.”
Abreu fellow Christine Witkowski, who plays horn with an outreach chamber music organization in Miami, was moved to find that in El Sistema, “everyone is brought into the fold,” including children with physical deformities. One child “with a foot growing out of her chest” was taking lessons on the French horn, Witkowski said. “Everyone, no matter what, is granted access to the nucleo.”
With Abreu fellows fanning out to seed El Sistema–inspired music programs around the country, the movement is gaining momentum for what Booth believes will revolutionize the way American educators teach music. “We’re at the very beginning,” Booth said. “Kids in Venezuela are learning instrumental music in ways that defy our understanding of what’s possible. This isn’t just a youth program or a music project. It’s a human program that addresses the question of ‘How do we love the neediest child into wholeness?’
“Venezuela has figured this out better than anyone else on this planet, and that’s why we’re learning from them.”
Next month, British cellist and strings advocate Julian Lloyd Webber discusses El Sistema’s influence in the UK.