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The Road To An American 'El Sistema'

Abreu Fellow alumna Rebecca Levi now works in a <em>nucleo</em> in Boston, bringing free music education to kids.
Andrew Hurlbut
Abreu Fellow alumna Rebecca Levi now works in a nucleo in Boston, bringing free music education to kids.

Where in the world do you find more kids playing in orchestras than on soccer teams? In Venezuela, where a national program called "El Sistema" provides music education for hundreds of thousands of at-risk youth. Now like-minded programs are springing up across the United States. On Friday, El Sistema USA, the service organization that hopes to lead a U.S. orchestral movement, announced plans for its independence.

Alvaro Rodas is the founder and executive director of the Corona Youth Music Project in Queens, N.Y., a free program inspired by the El Sistema model. He's gotten around 100 restless kids together for a choir camp. Little do they know that their choir is just the beginning — a seed that could grow into an orchestra one day.

At least, that's Rodas' hope. "I started working for El Sistema back in Guatemala," he says. "I was teaching percussion in a little village, a Maya village."

El Sistema began 1,600 miles to the southeast in 1975, with 11 kids in a Caracas parking garage. By the 1990s, the program had grown to the point where Venezuela was introducing it to its Latin American neighbors. When El Sistema's teachers arrived in Guatemala, Rodas was skeptical. They claimed they'd start a youth orchestra with whoever had an instrument.

"We were very pessimistic about the idea, and they kept pushing it. They told us, 'Don't give us excuses. Just bring the kids.' It was a lot of pressure. But after 10 days we had a 100-piece youth orchestra playing Beethoven's Fifth."

Today, programs based on the El Sistema model — they're referred to as nucleos — can be found as far away as Australia, India, Scotland and South Korea.

The international growth owes a lot to the visibility of Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. It has toured internationally under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema's prize pupil.

The energetic, curly headed maestro became the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic two years ago at the age of 28. Since then, three-dozen nucleoshave popped up across the U.S. Many more are on the way, thanks in part to an award honoring El Sistema's founder, Jose Antonio Abreu. In accepting the TED Prize in 2009, Abreu said he wanted the award money to fund a training program for leaders who will start their own nucleos in the U.S.

Some of those 50 young musicians have already completed a graduate fellowship under the auspices of El Sistema USA and its host and fiscal sponsor, the New England Conservatory. Rodas became the first in the initial class of 10 to get his nucleo off the ground.

Stanford Thompson, another Abreu Fellow alum, adjusts a student's bowing in a <em>nucleo</em> in Philadelphia.
/ Andrew Hurlbut
Andrew Hurlbut
Stanford Thompson, another Abreu Fellow alum, adjusts a student's bowing in a nucleo in Philadelphia.

Looking For A New Home

With such a promising start, many were surprised to learn in January that El Sistema USA was looking for a new home. Conflicts had developed over El Sistema's proposed expansion and fundraising. The conservatory, after all, is about to begin its own fundraising initiative for capital improvements. Word came March 11 that the two organizations had apparently resolved their differences. NEC President Tony Woodcock says the Abreu Fellows won't have to move.

"We are recommitting to our Abreu Fellows Program, of which we are extremely proud; and Mark Churchill, who has been a force here at NEC for a long time, is going to develop El Sistema USA as a service organization."

Freeing the organization to focus its attention on the emerging nucleos sounds like a positive outcome, yet the dust-up with NEC can only be the first of many bumps in the road for an American El Sistema. Some music educators think the prospect of building orchestras to help at-risk youth is simply too good to be true.

"El Sistema as it is in Venezuela will never happen in the United States. It's not possible," says Richard Kessler, the executive director of New York City's Center for Arts Education.

"It's not possible for the program to be embraced by the social service and child welfare agencies, and be connected to a national health care system that we don't have. Our government does not fund the arts on that kind of level, on that sort of basis. So what happens is El Sistema has to be translated into something that's American and I think in the translation, generally speaking, it doesn't look very different than many very good youth orchestra programs."

Such training is already administered by schools, music conservatories, and nonprofits, a crowded field — even if hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren lack ready access to music education in New York City alone. Many music schools have extensive fee-based pre-college divisions that offer training that El Sistema nucleos will be giving away free, says Rebecca Levi, one of last year's Abreu Fellows.

"If we achieve anything close to what they've done in Venezuela, we will be a threat, a very real threat, to conservatories."

Levi now co-directs the music program at the Boston Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Mass.

"El Sistema in Venezuela has made the same music relevant to millions of young people, that same music that conservatories here are struggling to get people to pay thousands of dollars go and learn."

Luckily, back in Queens, the kids at the Louis Armstrong Community Center remain blissfully unaware of any behind-the-scenes politicking about their orchestral futures.

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Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.