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Inaugural Take A Stand Symposium Reveals El Sistema Strides

Leslie Velez |
February 4, 2012 | 6:32 p.m. PST

Executive Producer

Courtesy Creative Commons
Courtesy Creative Commons
The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association hosted the inaugural “Take a Stand” Symposium in downtown Los Angeles this past week, January 30 through February 1.  The event, which highlighted the current state and future of the El Sistema music education program, was established as a partnership between the Association; the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and New York’s Bard College.  

A series of presentations and discussion groups provided attendees from around the country the opportunity to explore various implementations of the program and share collective experiences.  The symposium was timely, being held in the same week Los Angeles arts advocacy program Arts for LA released an article revealing LAUSD’s proposal to eliminate its elementary arts program.    

The largely school- and community site-based El Sistema has grown prolifically since its inception 36 years ago with 11 children in Venezuela.  Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is known as the visionary leader of the program.  

“El Sistema aims to use the teaching of classical music to improve the lives of poor children and to help underprivileged neighborhoods. It has involved some 400,000 young people in Venezuela and spread to a number of countries, capturing the imagination of leading performers, teachers and executives in classical music” (New York Times).

A presentation given by ten Abreu Fellows (named for El Sistema founder Jose Antonio Abreu) of the New England Conservatory gave insight into the forwards strides and continuing challenges the program faces. 

 “We can actually take a snapshot of our movement, said Fellow David France. “Up to this point we’ve made a lot of lofty claims.  We’re going to be able to ask ourselves, ‘are we actually doing what we say we’re doing’?’”

An NEC-led needs assessment revealed that, despite projected numbers in the 70s, there are 54 active, individual El Sistema-modeled programs -- nucleos -- in the United States.  Most of these tuition-free programs are located in the Northeast, with the number of California nucleos coming in second.  According to the assessment, 6,317 children are served nationwide by El Sistema-inspired groups, with an average of 119 participants per site, costing $1700 per child.  National annual costs added up to approximately $11 million.  

Children spend a minimum of six hours a week participating in musical  ensembles, vocal choirs, recorder choirs, mariachi, and bucket bands, and parental involvement--one of El Sistema’s most crucial tenets--reached 61 percent at its highest.  Parents are encouraged to attend concerts, attend parent councils, join parent ensembles, and volunteer at parent community liaisons.

Over half of the nucleos surveyed cited funding as an on-going issue.  Money would be used to expand programs, invest in new facilities and equipment, and increase programs’ overall organizational capacity. 

Despite that ongoing challenge, NEC Fellow Jennifer Kessler expressed hope that El Sistema can galvanize interest in music education as a means of social change.  Take a Stand, she said, has “given more and more people a chance to think about new ways that music can be used for social change, and we envision that El Sistema can help elevate renewed support for music education programs everywhere.”

The Los Angeles Philharmic Association, led by President Deborah Borda, will open an office, continue annual conferences, and back a training program to buoy the efforts of Take a Stand and El Sistema organizations nationwide.


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