El Sistema

National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela
Formation 1975
Founder José Antonio Abreu
Type non-profit
Purpose Music education
Website FESNOJIV official site

El Sistema is a publicly financed voluntary sector music education program in Venezuela, founded in 1975 by Venezuelan educator, musician and activist José Antonio Abreu [1] which later adopted the motto Social Action for Music. To say it another way, it is "free classical music education that promotes human opportunity and development for impoverished children," as quoted from the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies.[2] By 2015, according to official figures, El Sistema consisted of over 400 music centers and 700,000 young musicians. The program provides 4 hours of musical training and rehearsal per week day after school, as well as work on the weekends.[1]

Origin and History

It all began with 11 students in an underground parking garage under the leadership of José Abreu.[1] For many years its official name was Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, (FESNOJIV), which is sometimes translated into English as "National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela". It has recently changed to Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar (FMSB) but it is still widely known by the FESNOJIV acronym.[3]

Abreu's vision

Abreu said: "Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings."[4]

Abreu has navigated the program for the past 35 years through ten different administrations, flourishing "with the backing and material support of seven consecutive Venezuelan governments, ranging across the political spectrum from center-right to the current leftist presidency of Hugo Chávez"..(although).."he is careful to keep the Sistema separate from partisan politics".[5] Combining political shrewdness with religious devotion, Abreu has dedicated himself to an utopian dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in that environment, the better for all.[6]

Success Stories of El Sistema

Gustavo Dudamel, current musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had his beginnings in El Sistema. According to Dudamel, "music saved my life and has saved the lives of thousands of at risk children in Venezuela...like food, like health care, like education, music has to be a right for every citizen.[7] Carlos Izcaray conductor of Alabama Symphony Orchestra is also a product of the El Sistema program as Alcides Rodriguez clarinetist of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra who has said that "the System was an open door to another dimension, a different world that I probably could have never seen."[8]

Venezuelan government involvement

The program is known for rescuing young people in extremely impoverished circumstances from the environment of drug abuse and crime into which they would likely otherwise be drawn.

The Venezuelan government began fully financing Abreu's orchestra after it succeeded at "International Festival of Youth Orchestras" in 1976 in Aberdeen, Scotland. From the beginning, El Sistema fell under the dominion of social-services ministries, not the ministry of culture, which has strategically helped it to survive. The current Chavez administration has been the most generous patron of El Sistema so far, footing almost its entire annual operating budget as well as additional capital projects.[6] Abreu received the National Music Prize for his work in 1979 and he became Minister of Culture in 1983.[9] Abreu was appointed as Special Ambassador for the development of a Global Network of Youth and Children orchestras and choirs by UNESCO in 1995, also as special representative for the development of network of orchestras within the framework of UNESCO's "World Movement of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choirs".

At the time, its network of 102 youth and 55 children's orchestras (numbering approximately 100,000 youngsters) came under the supervision of the Ministry of Family, Health and Sports. As "El Sistema", its goal is to use music for the protection of childhood through training, rehabilitation and prevention of criminal behaviour.[10][11]

In September 2007, with Abreu present on the television program, President Hugo Chávez announced a new government program, Misión Música, designed to provide tuition and music instruments to Venezuelan children.[12] It has been noted that "various ministries oversaw El Sistema until two years ago, when the president's office took direct control. El Sistema's mission runs parallel to Mr. Chávez's program to provide subsidies and services to the poor."[13] However, there has been objections to Chavez's involvement from those who oppose the policies of the present government.

Spread of regional centres in Venezuela

On 6 June 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank announced the granting of a US$150 million loan for the construction of seven regional centers of El Sistema throughout Venezuela. Many bankers within the IDB originally objected to the loan on the grounds that classical music is for the elite. In fact, the bank has conducted studies on the more than two million young people who have been educated in El Sistema which link participation in the program to improvements in school attendance and declines in juvenile delinquency. Weighing such benefits as a falloff in school drop-out rates and a decline in crime, the bank calculated that every dollar invested in El Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends.[6] Supported by the government, El Sistema has started to introduce its music program into the public-school curriculum, aiming to be in every school and to support 500,000 children by 2015.[14]

The project has been extended to the penal system. On 25 May 2008, Leidys Asuaje wrote for Venezuelan daily El Nacional: "The plan to humanize jails through music began eleven months ago under the tutelage of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice and FESNOJIV...."[15]


In November 2014, British music scholar Geoffrey Baker published a newspaper article[16] and a book[17] that threw doubt on many of the claims made by and about El Sistema and suggested that much of the publicly circulating information about the program was hyperbolic or simply false. The book's allegations included a culture of authoritarianism, hyper-discipline, exploitation, competition, and gender discrimination. It argued that the program was deeply conservative beneath its progressive exterior and that its claims of social transformation were unproven and exaggerated. For example, the IADB's claim that El Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends for each $1 invested was based on dubious calculations and had been withdrawn by the bank itself. Considerable controversy ensued, with furious denunciations by Sistema advocates and enthusiastic responses from music education experts.

Simon Bolivar Orchestra

Simon Bolivar Children Orchestra in Zulia

An important product of El Sistema is the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. In the mid-1990s, Abreu formed the National Children's Youth Orchestra, and many young musicians graduated from it to the Simón Bolívar which grew considerably in size. However, this "became an opportunity to re-create the ensemble as two separate performing entities. The first generation of members was designated the Simón Bolívar A; the younger, newer members, who had recently been brought in from the new National Children's Orchestra, now constituted the Simón Bolívar B"[18] The Simón Bolívar B is now the touring orchestra and, 2007, it made its debut at the BBC Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall and later at Carnegie Hall under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, receiving enthusiastic reviews.[19][20] 2009 saw the orchestra touring in the US, but also in Europe as well.

However, in Spring 2010, with a tour to the Lucerne Easter Festival, comments from reviewers such as Tom Service of London's The Guardian that "the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra is youthful no longer"[21] struck home, and Abreu "decided that the time is once again ripe for new, younger national orchestras"[18] and so he set about creating new ensembles. The Teresa Carreño Symphony Youth Orchestra, named after the Venezuelan pianist, started international touring in the fall of 2010 with appearances at the Beethoven Fest in Bonn and then went on to Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, Madrid, and London.[22] Other new youth orchestras include the Caracas Symphony Youth Orchestra and a newly constituted National Children's Orchestra consisting of 358 musicians.[23] Damian Thompson, arts editor for The Spectator reports that the rampant sexual abuse of young musicians in El Sistema is part of "classical music's dirty little secret."[24]

El Sistema in other countries

El Sistema USA

El Sistema USA is an organization which promotes the "system" throughout the United States. Its philosophy is expressed on its website:

A visionary global movement that transforms the lives of children through music. A new model for social change.[25]

Abreu appeared in a public symposium on El Sistema on 7 November 2007 in Boston, Massachusetts, where he gave the keynote speech of the public symposium on El Sistema on the WGBH Forum Network. A significant panel of speakers was present.[26]

At the November 2007 symposium Abreu expressed his delight at the prospect of joining with the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston and other musical institutions in the United States to create a Pan-American movement. "The New World", he said, "is nothing less than all three Americas. And so what we are in the process of creating is really an expression of a new, transcontinental social and musical culture."[27] The Conservatory Lab school is associated with the New England Conservatory of Music,[28] and was the first El Sistema-infused charter school in Massachusetts.

It has been estimated that in early 2009 there were five or six El Sistema-based programs in the US, but "by mid-2011, there were at least 50 such programs – and list is increasing by the week..."[29][30] In addition, many of the original Abreu Fellows who came together at the New England Conservatory as a result of Abreu's TED Prize, have gone into their local communities to start new programs or to expand upon or within existing ones. These cover a wide geographical area ranging from KidZNotes in North Carolina, JAMM (Juneau Alaska Music Matters) in that state, and ICAN (Incredible Children's Art Network) in Santa Barbara, California. In 2011, Longy School of Music of Bard College, Bard College, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic formed Take a Stand to promote and support the El Sistema-inspired music education movement in the United States.[31] Based in Los Angeles, it also offers a graduate-level degree program based on the tenets of El Sistema, including Master of Arts in Teaching in Music degree.

First Notes in Vail Valley, Colorado; CityMusic in Cleveland, Ohio; Club O in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Kid Ovation program in Des Moines, Iowa; and Orchestrating Diversity in Saint Louis, Missouri are also inspired by El Sistema.[32]

Other El Sistema-inspired programs in the US include:


El Sistema-based programs exist in almost every province of Canada, with over 20 programs in existence and more being started each year. [55]

Saint James Music Academy (Vancouver, British Columbia) Canada's first El-sistema program, was established in September 2007 .[56] It serves 480 students from Downtown Eastside inner-city schools through its outreach (280 students) and after school program (200 students). The program is an official community partner of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

OrKidstra (Ottawa, Ontario) was established in October 2007. It serves 400 students from Centretown inner-city schools through in-school programming (150 students) and after school programming (250 students). The program is made possible through its many partnerships with local community supporters like: OCDSB, and the National Arts Centre.

YONA-Sistema (Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta – Sistema) (Edmonton, Alberta) was established in September 2013.[57] It serves students at Delton School and Mother Teresa Elementary School in Edmonton, Alberta and is offered through a partnership between the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Edmonton Catholic School District, the Edmonton Public School Board, and the Inner City Children's Program.

El Sistema Aeolian(London, Ontario) was established in November 2011 and grew out of The Aeolian Performing Arts Centre, in London Ontario [www.elsistema.ca]. It serves approximately 75 students attracted from the greater London area. Currently, the program runs 4 days per week and includes youth string orchestra, choir, an adult orchestra, a full meal/snack, Indonesian Gamelan, free donated pianos/lessons and gives between 15-20 performances per year.

United Kingdom

In Harmony is a British government-led music education and community development project which is based on El Sistema[58][59] It was begun in 2009 with Julian Lloyd Webber appointed chairman of its steering group. The project receives funding from the Department for Education and Arts Council England. On 22 November 2007, Julian Lloyd Webber noted the following in regard to the UK government's announcement of an infusion of £332 million dedicated to music education:

We also have an impoverished South American nation to thank. Last August, in the midst of school holidays, when an uncomfortable number of British children seemed even more disaffected than usual, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra arrived from Venezuela to deliver performances at the Edinburgh Festival and the London Proms that were, quite simply, miraculous"[60]

Lloyd Webber visited Venezuela in late 2009 and reported on what he saw there.[61] the project has centers in Lambeth (led by Lambeth Council's Children and Young People's Service), Leeds, (led by Opera North), Liverpool (led by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), Newcastle Gateshead, (led by The Sage Gateshead), Nottingham, (led by Nottingham City Council), and Telford and Stoke-on-Trent (led by Telford and Wrekin Music)[62][63]

Sistema Scotland was established with a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, as a result of an initiative by its chairman Richard Holloway in the economically depressed area of Raploch, in Stirling[64][65]


Orquestra Geração (Generation Orchestra)

This name used to describe the 16 centres currently using it to reference activities throughout the country. It was started in 2005 in a small way in Amadora on the northern outskirts of Lisbon. It is now a solid project ready to expand and to influence Portuguese social inclusion methodology and government policy. Some 850 young people are now involved, in 16 schools in 11 towns: Loures, Oeiras, Sintra, Amadora, Sesimbra, Vila Franca de Xira, Lisboa, Coimbra, Amarante and Gondomar.

International recognition of El Sistema

The Glenn Gould Prize was awarded to El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu on 14 February 2008.[66][67] Brian Levine, Managing Director of the Glenn Gould Foundation, in an account of his 2008 visit to Caracas wrote: "El Sistema has demonstrated conclusively that music education is the gateway to lifelong learning and a better future."

The Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts was awarded to El Sistema on 28 May 2008.[68]

The National Performing Arts Convention 2008, held in Denver, Colorado, featured Abreu as a guest speaker on 13 June 2008.[69]

The TED Prize was awarded to José Antonio Abreu on 5 February 2009 for his work on El Sistema. A pre-recorded speech was played at the ceremony in which he explained his philosophy.[70] The prize allowed for the creation of the Abreu Fellows.

The Polar Music Prize from Sweden was awarded to El Sistema and Maestro Abreu in 2009.

El Sistema in the media



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