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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

El Sistema in the US

In a recent NPR interview, Richard Kessler (executive directory of New York City's Center for Arts Education) stated the following: 

"El Sistema as it is in Venezuela will never happen in the United States. 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."

As a teacher who is primarily working with pre-college string students, I have been asking a question about "El Sistema" for several years and I have not received a satisfactory answer.  Can someone tell me if El Sistema is anything more than just the idea of taking at risk kids and giving them music instruction for free on a daily basis?  Is there a "method" to the teaching?  Are there materials, like in the Suzuki method?  Is there a philosophical foundation?  Is there a training system for teachers?

I have to agree with Richard Kessler.  As far as I can tell, "El Sistema", which as far as I can tell, means "give kids consistent, free music instruction",  has been alive and well for decades in the US, long before it was ever conceived of in Venezuela.  Just look to the D.C. Youth Orchestra program, which was founded in 1960, as a model.

                                                             D.C Youth Orchestra performing at the White House in the 1970's

It worked because the D.C. public schools worked in partnership with the founder, Lyn McLain, and provided a facility and financial support.  The major obstacle to providing comprehensive music instruction to millions of US children is a lack of cooperation and support from the American public school system.  We don't need to rely on "national health care systems."  We need facilities in which to provide instruction.  Such facilities already exist in the form of public schools which are paid for with taxpayer money.  Removing the cost of paying for use of a building goes a long way to eliminating much of the cost of providing "universal" music education.  Break the monopoly that public schools have on the buildings that should be seen as "community centers" and open up the buildings to after school educational programs, both in the "for-profit" and "non-profit" domains.  Remove the barriers to local private studio teachers having access to public facilities.  Let's go a step further and remove the monopoly "education majors" have on public school teaching jobs.  Open up the public schools to music performance majors and allow the buildings to be utilized by non-public school entities and you will go a long way towards providing a high quality, affordable music education to many more American children.  (see Orchkids Program too)

Anyway, I welcome responses regarding the questions I posed about the nature of "El Sistema."  I'm still wondering what it is.  Method, Philosphy, Idea?

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