El Sistema was founded in Venezuela in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu and is now known as Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar. The organization has 31 symphony orchestras, and more than 300,000 children attend its music school “nucleos” around the country. Seventy to 90 percent of the students come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. The system was designed to improve the life trajectory of young people living in poverty and as a paradigm for social change.
The intensive approach engages youth in group lessons, rehearsals and performance, while emphasizing peer learning and community engagement. The goals of El Sistema center on developing critical life skills and laying the groundwork for success.
In 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank announced the granting of a $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 that 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.
An important product of El Sistema is the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, fed by young musicians from the program. The orchestra made its debut and succeeded brilliantly at an international competition in 1977 in Aberdeen, Scotland and has since toured extensively in Europe and America.
New touring ensembles include the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, named after the Venezuelan pianist, the Caracas Symphony Youth Orchestra and a newly constituted National Children’s Orchestra consisting of 358 musicians.
Over the last five years, the El Sistema model has become a worldwide phenomenon as more music and education leaders have visited Venezuela and been inspired to adapt the program to their communities. Others have learned about El Sistema through the news media—including the news program 60 Minutes, which profiled the organization—as well as through the popularity of Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel and other El Sistema graduates.
The many awards and recognition bestowed on Abreu has also raised El Sistema’s profile. Abreu received the National Music Prize for his work in 1979. He was appointed as Special Ambassador for the development of a Global Network of Youth and Children orchestras and choirs by UNESCO in 1995 and was awarded the TED prize in 2009. El Sistema has spurred conversations about how to reach at-risk and low-income children using this daily, orchestra-based model of music education.
The movement has expanded rapidly in the United States over the last few years, including the formation of numerous El Sistema-inspired programs and the establishment of an Abreu Fellows program at the New England Conservatory of Music.
In January 2013, leaders of El Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S. came together to create a National Alliance of El Sistema-inspired programs, creating added value to our local efforts by working together to achieve shared goals. The Alliance is structured to achieve three primary goals: 1) to assist in the sustainability of existing initiatives by adding value to these programs; 2) to encourage and nurture new programs; 3) to garner support for El Sistema inspired programs nationally. The membership includes 38 active programs, as well as programs in the planning stages and community supporters. The alliance’s website can be found here.