Saturday, October 16, 2010

What is El Sistema to me?

(Versión en español)

“Whoever creates beauty by playing an instrument and generates musical harmony begins to understand from within what essential harmony is: human harmony (…). That revelation is what transforms, sublimes and develops from within the spirit of men.”

José Antonio Abreu, in Tocar y luchar (2006)

I decided to start this blog with Maestro Abreu’s insights on music because he believed more than anybody else in the power of music as a catalyst when he started this program more than 35 years ago. And this is one of the key elements when trying to define what El Sistema is: a program that uses music as a transforming power for each and every individual. We could argue that this is nothing new for us: we all have been moved by music when going to concerts, when making music, and/or when teaching music to children. So what is so powerful about El Sistema? The way it is being put into practice, among other things that I will be touching upon on my blog.

El Sistema is a way of living, of experiencing life where musical excellence is at the center, not as a goal by itself, but as a means to teach children music in order to help them become better individuals and better citizens. How is it possible to accomplish such an ideal society? Here is where Maestro Abreu had the ability to put his vision into practice through pure pragmatism. If each of us feels transformed by the power of music whether attending a concert, or by making and/or teaching music at selected moments in our lives, why not make these transformational moments a norm instead of an exception? Every time we make music and look for ways of expressing ourselves through music we strive for excellence and beauty, therefore we are transforming our lives. And if we repeat this process over and over again, and it becomes part of our daily lives instead of an exception, we are constantly thriving to become the best of ourselves. Every time a teacher transmits this musical passion to a child it changes the child’s perspective of life, opening new possibilities. It is very similar to what Maestro Zander calls “the art of possibility.” But this change does not just add up, it multiplies exponentially because children see and experience life in a more passionate and fresh way than adults.

One of the most fascinating outcomes of El Sistema is that despite the emphasis on musical excellence, the main goal is not to become excellent musicians per se but children benefit from the great outcomes of this program. Even though the very talented children develop their excellent musical talents to their fullest extent, what really stays with vast majority of these children is all the values that the art of music-making develops within them, which are applicable to all the other spheres of their lives. To cite just a few of them: the use of imagination when performing such an abstract art; the discipline that is achieved through daily practice; the team work that has to be accomplished when playing in the orchestra or singing in a choir; the sense of reliability and responsibility when playing with others: you trust your fellows have practiced the piece enough so nobody lets anybody down; and the hard work that is always associated when learning music. These and other values develop every child’s personality in such a way that they become fully accomplished individuals as well as citizens.

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel, among others, are a clear example of this change through music. But I would say that, fortunately, they are just the tip of the iceberg and the impact of this attitude towards life and music is exemplified by the hundred of thousands of children that nowadays play in orchestras, sing in choirs, and learn music in Venezuela through El Sistema. Since 90% of the children from this program come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, El Sistema changes their lives dramatically and gives them a ray of hope to develop themselves as human beings and citizens. I see how Nietszche’s words: “Without music, life would be an error” acquire their fullest meaning in all these children's lives.


  1. Hey David! You have done a great job describing El Sistema and incorporating many of the things we have learned already - including the art of possibility! You speak of El Sistema eloquently, and I might have to use some of your sentences in our "intro to El Sistema" e-mail. Wonderful!!

  2. Nicely done David. Looking forward to reading more as your year goes on!


  3. Great synthesis David, you are really absorbing all the goodness of this program.