Introduction to El Sistema

Video summary

1 UCMP preschoolers singing at seminario vlcsnap-2014-07-22-13h33m54s239 1 mother and daughter making paper violin

This program introduces the El Sistema philosophy, which sets high standards and expectations for musical excellence, while fostering the social development of students. Music education experts, including representatives of El Sistema from Venezuela, discuss how community and citizenship are central to El Sistema-inspired teaching and learning.

Providing opportunities for children of all levels to learn from and play with exemplary musicians is a tenet of El Sistema. A seminario presented by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute in partnership with Orchestra of St. Luke’s brings this common El Sistema practice to New York City. Similar to seminarios in Venezuela, the event gathers students and teachers from New York City-area núcleos (the Venezuelan term for local El Sistema programs) with musicians from the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela for a day-long workshop. El Sistema educators from Venezuela and U.S. programs work with young students of varying ages, backgrounds, and abilities — some who have only been playing for a few months — to learn several pieces of music over the course of one day, culminating in a performance. The seminario illustrates the underlying assumption that all musicians have something to learn from and share with each other.

One of the participating núcleos is from Union City, NJ, where many families contend with problems associated with poverty. With support from the Union City school district and the local government, Melina García started the Union City Music Project, an after-school program designed to provide local children with the same kind of opportunities available to their Venezuelan counterparts. The story of Union City reflects the combination of advocacy and community involvement that has propelled the growth of El Sistema-inspired programs to serve disadvantaged young children when public school budgets for music education are cut.

Artistic director Samuel Marchán grew up in Venezuela, where he learned to play viola through El Sistema. Samuel adapts and combines traditional methods of instruction, such as Kodály, Suzuki, and Dalcroze, to serve El Sistema’s mission. With strong parent involvement, he prepares children as young as three or four to participate in the “paper orchestra,” a practice developed in Venezuela that enables children to build the skills, discipline, and focus necessary for real string instruments, while teaching children to work together as part of a larger orchestral community.

In a pre-paper orchestra workshop, Samuel gathers together a group of young children and their parents for the first time. He introduces basic orchestral concepts and skills through vocal and movement-based games. In one activity, the children are prompted to move like a variety of animals to loosen up their limbs and joints. Next, children practice holding, moving, and balancing books to prepare for holding violins. A movement-based singing activity prompts the children to associate the notes of the D major scale with different parts of their bodies. Parents are involved in assisting children throughout the workshop, and are invited to participate in the singing activity along with their children.

Children and their parents also attend a workshop in which Melina and Samuel demonstrate how to construct paper violins. The pedagogy associated with using paper instruments was developed in Venezuela by Josbel Puche at the núcleo la Rinconada because the program did not have enough instruments. It quickly became an important pedagogical tool, enabling children as young as three or four — much younger than in traditional music instruction — to learn how to care for, hold, and simulate playing instruments. The building of the paper violins also offers an immediate way to engage parents, students, teachers, and administrators in building community around the loving construction of the students’ first instruments.

As Samuel describes, the paper violin is an “initiation” that motivates students to earn their real instruments. Eventually, the students graduate to an instrumental ensemble, where they build on the skills and practices they learned as part of the paper orchestra. As in all El Sistema-inspired programs, the focus continues to be on participating in and contributing to an ensemble. Whether holding a cardboard violin or an actual cello, students are always making music together as a community; they are part of something larger as soon as they begin.