Expanding the “We” of El Sistema in North America

By Eric Booth, cofounder of The Ensemble and The World Ensemble

Ever since El Sistema came to North America over a decade ago, spawning over 150 separate programs, there has been discussion about how El Sistema programs should connect with other programs that don’t consider themselves part of that lineage. We’ve asked ourselves questions about whether to and how to connect to school music programs, to more traditional youth music programs, to existing community music programs. In the slow, barely visible ways that change actually unfolds, there are new answers emerging in the North American Sistema movement.

AMP podcast

True to Sistema’s character, these answers are generous. El Sistema programs in the United States have begun launching initiatives intended to share their learning more widely, beyond the circle of their own programs. Make Music NOLA has created online programming that is available to all children and families in New Orleans. (See recent article in The Ensemble.) The Harmony Program in New York has launched a free YouTube series of general music instruction for any and all children ages 7–10. Play On Philly has opened some of its online resources and programming to students in non-Sistema programs across the country. The Atlanta Music Project (AMP) has launched a podcast series for listeners everywhere. MyCincinnati has created an annual creative festival for its local community, bringing in many artists to share their work and create with community members. The Austin (Texas) Soundwaves staff observes a day of community service together every quarter (see recent article in The Ensemble). The Community Opus Project of the San Diego Youth Symphony offers drive-through instrument tune-ups (to be pandemic-safe) not only for their own students but also for every student in the district. And the Collective Conservatory offers compositional intensives to both El Sistema and non-El Sistema students.

Drive-through tuning at the Opus Project.

This trend recognizes the need to connect outside one’s program in order to achieve the program’s primary goal of social change for students. The “go it alone” approach was instinctive to most program startups in the first chapter of our growth. It is an entrepreneurial, individualistic habit of mind in the U.S., and somewhat (although less) in Canada. For the first decade, the “we” of U.S. El Sistema has been about building group identity and energy within programs. In this second decade, programs seek to serve a wider “we.” Regional and national Sistema networks are growing; witness El Sistema USA and new networks developing in Canada. And stronger partnerships are being built within local music learning ecosystems. Some of the most recent initiatives manifest an even more ambitious “we”—serving national constituencies and sharing the learning of our first decade as widely as we can.

The early years of our movement were guided by the widespread belief that programs had to develop their own identity, their own curriculum and culture, their own funding sustainability, before they reached out. The emergence of new, more expansive initiatives shows that the field is forging a new identity as a contributor to the wider field of music for social change.

Price Hill Will Community Festival 2019

In 2013, I wrote an essay that suggested a way U.S. Sistema programs might think of themselves in relation to the musical ecosystem around them. Recognizing that Sistema programs are privileged in several ways—more time with students, ability to experiment freely, inspirational examples with some distinctive sparkle—the essay envisioned Sistema programs as laboratories to develop and share new and powerful practices that could enrich the entire ecosystem. I proposed that we would serve our own students best by contributing wholeheartedly to the deepening of work for all students. This is a clear embodiment of foundational Sistema beliefs. And sure enough, in its second decade, North American Sistema programs have developed new ideas, new materials, new practices—and we are finding ways to open the doors of the generous laboratory.

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