The idea of El Sistema has been entering conversations about American music education. The title is tossed around and linked with success stories of famous musicians such as Gustavo Dudamel. A simple internet search provides inspirational videos and images of joy and triumph. There exists, however, some confusion over what exactly El Sistema is. The simplest answer: It is an idea. With roots in the impoverished barrios in Venezuela, it is an idea that has spread from South America to the United States and abroad as a way to offer children a way out of the cycle of poverty they have been presented with through the values and skills learned through music. Though the structure of the American El Sistema-inspired programs varies, they all are based on the belief that every child is entitled to the opportunity to learn an instrument despite their financial or social standing.
So what is El Sistema?
Dr. José Antonio Abreu founded what we now know as El Sistema in Venezuela in 1975, building it from a group of eleven children to a national state-funded program with locations throughout the country. His goal was to provide children with a safe place to be after school and give them the skills and opportunities to find an alternative to the pervasive cycle of poverty. Since the program is free of charge, any child is able to attend El Sistema regardless of economic status. Each site, or nucleo, has orchestral and choral programs as well as folk, jazz, and special needs classes. The world-renowned Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is one of the top orchestras to come out of this system, as well as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel.
In 2009, Dr Abreu was awarded the TED Prize. With this comes the opportunity to share a wish with the world. His was for the United States to set up a series of El Sistema inspired programs throughout the country for the benefit of impoverished youth. According to El Sistema USA, today there are over one hundred registered El Sistema-inspired programs throughout the nation. This wish has spread abroad to other countries on all seven continents excluding Antarctica.
The programs in the United States, while they carry the values and goals of Dr. Abreu’s original mission, have some significant differences in structure. El Sistema itself is not a curriculum, but Venezuela has a national one that can be adapted at the local level. The United States does not have a set national curriculum for music education, therefore it is decided by each individual program. El Sistema is also not a pedagogy. While it provides a programming structure and mission, the methods used in the United States vary depending on the program. Funding has been an issue as well; since the programs are not nationally sponsored, they need to find outside funding. This can be done through fundraising, school systems (depending on who is sponsoring the program), grants, or other avenues. Currently, only one program in the United States has been funded directly by a municipal government.
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