The Unsung Side Of El Sistema


When most people think of El Sistema, the amazing Venezuelan-born music education program that’s transforming the way in which many countries are approaching the musical development of children, images of little kids playing violins and French horns come most readily to mind.

Few people, particularly outside of Venezuela, consider the fact that El Sistema also has an incredible vocal music education program involving thousands of children.

Documentaries about El Sistema focus strongly on the instrumental training, as do news stories. Most of the photographic documentation related to the program that’s disseminated around the world captures kids blowing, plucking and hitting various orchestral instruments. Very rarely do we see images of El Sistema kids singing. And it’s the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the top tier instrumental group of the El Sistema program, that most of us here in the US have been lucky enough to experience live on stage. The ensemble has been touring this country for a number of years now. The Simon Bolivar Choir, by contrast, only made its US debut this fall, and has only undertaken one previous international tour.

At a conference about El Sistema hosted by Cal Performances last week, the singing side of El Sistema was once again invisible. At least it was until I asked a question of keynote speaker Eric Booth about why so little emphasis is placed on the choral activities of El Sistema in the marketing of — and international conversation surrounding — the program.

Booth replied that although the singing program is very extensive and impressive, it doesn’t have the same marketing cache as the orchestral program. What it boils down to is this: Seeing a picture of a little kid holding a violin, as above, left, is somehow much more impressive and compelling to people than looking at a picture of a bunch of children, as above, right, with their mouths wide open singing a song.

This wasn’t a very satisfactory answer to my question. I don’t think Booth felt very comfortable talking about singing.

Funnily enough, people who attended the conference picked up on the singing issue several times for the rest of the day, so it clearly touched a nerve. Gillian Moore, of London’s South Bank Center, said during one panel discussion that the El Sistema choral program, “is going to be the next big story coming out of Venezuela.”

I certainly hope that this will prove to be true.

It’s time for marketers and media types to pay attention to singing as a core component of music education. The voice is the most primal and widespread instrument. It’s arguably the most powerful too, in terms of its ability to touch vast numbers of people both at the individual and community level. The brilliant vocalists who come out of the El Sistema choral program can help to demonstrate just how important singing is to the world.

But their efforts would be much more visible if they didn’t have to stand in the shadow of the El Sistema orchestral juggernaut all the time.


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  1. C. Robaina says

    I am so glad you asked that question. Choral/Vocal training has always been very present in Venezuela’s musical education. There are many professionals doing amazing work in small and large scale. My most favorite vocal ensemble in Venezuela is El Coro de Manos Blancas, which integrates people of all ages, mostly children, as well as those with learning and physical disabilities in one big ensemble, including the hard-of-hearing. Watching them perform live is truly breathtaking. Here is a link to a simple video:

    Good questions must be asked to set great ideas in motion.
    Thanks again,


    • Chloe Veltman says

      thanks claudia for your comments. It’s great that you bring up the fact that choral singing is huge in venezuela and extends well beyond the El Sistema program.

  2. says

    It is terrific to hear people asking for more information about the choirs in El Sistema.

    While traveling through Venezuela earlier this year– I found amazing singing in every nook and cranny! Upon return from VZ and completion of the Sistema Fellowship I launched Sister Cities Girlchoir– a Sistema inspired choral program in Philadelphia and Camden, NJ.

    Choirs are a powerful tool for community building and youth empowerment– and it is good to know that the US movement includes choirs!

  3. says

    The irony is that in all other spheres of music, vocal has submerged instrumental. Over the past few decades, instrumental music has lost the place in culture that it held throughout the history of Western music. It now occupies a marginal presence in all formats of music.

    That being said, El Sistema’s choral program deserves its moment in the sun. I am fortunae to sit on the advisory board of a Sistema-type program, Reaching Out Through Music (, which uses vocal music to provide artistic and social opportunities to children in one of North America’s most densely populated and ethnically diverse urban communities, St. Jamestown, in the heart of downtown Toronto.

  4. says

    I can tell you my experience of what I think El Sistema’ is trying to do: Achieve a balanced curriculum it looks like, by having the same importance distributed among the musical mediums. First of all, I was taught that the fair thing to do is to treat everything differently, and maybe that is what Eric Booth was getting at, but I think he was simply saying that we have developed and function in an exisistant art education paradigm that will value a violin before a vocal chord. Not saying that is the way it should be. And maybe the focus of El Sistema, awesome name by the way, trying to make up for vocal recognition in art programs due to the pop culture appeal to the masses. Which I think is the ultimate goal correct? Does that make sense?

    So how I blend vocals into my curriculum is by first defining it as simply ‘the voice’. And segment focals on voice, body, movement, and imagination (my foundational teaching through line) Centralizing and being specific in this way, allows me to reach for and use ‘the voice’ not only as a mode of expression, performance, and evaluation, but as a teaching tool as well. And that my friends, is what I recognize as creative drama. It is the core of what every teaching artist does. If not, I’d argue it should be.

    Hope that helped.

    Happy living,

    Jessica Padilla

    Freelance Teaching Artist

    Founder of
    Miss Jess Co. – A Company of Teaching Artists

    • Chloe Veltman says

      Interesting thoughts, Jessica. Thank you for offering them up. I don’t think I can pretend to guess what El Sistema is trying to do with its vocal programs. I imagine it’s the same goal as for its instrumental programs though.