A Conference on El Sistema in Berkeley

Cal Performances is hosting a two-day conference about music education centering on El Sistema, the lauded Venezuelan approach. The conference is part of a bunch of offerings organized around Gustavo Dudamel’s present tour with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela.

It seems that symposia on music education are springing up in many places that Dudamel and the SBOV are landing during their journey across the United States. And if the first half of the one organized by Cal Performances yesterday is anything to go by, music educators across the country, even those who profess to knowing quite a bit about El Sistema, are going to be getting a transformative experience.

It’s tempting to provide a blow-by-blow account of the day’s activities. But that would use up too much typewriter ribbon. So I’m going to jot down out a few of the ideas that came up during the discussions that made the strongest impression on me…

1. Eric Booth, the erudite and compelling arts education pundit who gave the keynote speech, on why Gustavo Dudamel thinks El Sistema has been so successful: “There are two reasons for this: One, it makes every child feel like he or she is an asset; and two, we never forget to have fun.”

2. According to Booth, the greatest determinant of the success of a music education program is the motivation of the learners.

3. Teachers in the El Sistema system are described as “C.A.T.S.” which stands for the four qualities that they all possess. An El Sistema teacher is at once a Citizen, Artist, Teacher, and Scholar.

4. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned about the El Sistema way of spreading music education to large numbers of children is how the kids grow up being both students and teachers at the same time. There are several orchestral levels and those in the second level and above teach the students in the junior levels. I imagine that this duality must inspire a lot of pride, self-esteem and patience in the El Sistema tribe from a young age.

5. Jose Antonio Abreu, who founded the El Sistema movement in the mid 1970s, impressed me with his long, visionary answers to panel chairman Matias Tarnopolsky’s questions. Of the many amazing things the guy said, the most compelling idea — or at least the one that stands out for me — is to do with how he views El Sistema not as a musical organization but rather as a movement for social change. He also added that the word “Sistema” is misleading because it makes people think of a strict and rigid system when in fact he views it as a network of educators and learners.

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  1. Joan says

    Does it really go without saying here in the US and Canada that, at its most basic, El Sistema offers every child the chance to actually play an instrument, in both private and group lessons and in an orchestra? Just in learning an instrument in school, which takes great skill and time, the child is given, in addition to musical knowledge, more understanding of their own authority, self-control, and the breadth of their own feelings, and all in a safe environment and where all their peers are also doing the same learning/fun (hence music’s role in social restructuring). Most school subjects demand the child put their own (as yet unknown) self aside in order to learn the objective facts of maths and sciences, of history and literature, and tragically in North American school curriculum, of classical music too. The fundamental benefit of El Sistema is that every child is actually playing classical music on a real instrument alone and with their peers throughout their school years. This is the basis of subjective knowledge. I really think that that is the “sine qua non” of the program. Then we can talk about attitude and methods.