Most people have never heard of El Sistema or its founder, Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu.
While arts and music programs remain underfunded and underutilized as resources for youth, El Sistema offers not only an introduction to music, but an understanding of life through the lessons of musical collaboration.
Nearly 40 years ago, in Caracas, Venezuela, visionary Jose Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema. Its humble beginnings consisted of 11 children in a parking garage with the promise that they would become one of the best youth orchestras in the world. Within a few years time that dream was realized, and, along with it, came the formation of one of the finest examples of youth collaborations in the country. Today, El Sistema reaches nearly 400,000 individuals in Venezuela alone, the majority coming from poor socio-economic backgrounds.
It was only a matter of time before El Sistema found its way into Colorado, thanks in large part to Monika Vischer, President of El Sistema Colorado.
We had a chance to speak with Monika about the program and what it took to get started in our state.
How did you first get involved with El Sistema?
El Sistema first came on my radar screen as a classical music host on National Public Radio. I watched the rise of Gustavo Dudamel [the most notable El Sistema graduate]. He was a young man coming out of Venezuela who was winning major international conducting competitions in Europe. [Eventually he was courted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic], and they hired him at age 26. He became one of the most famous success stories of the program.
As I was first reporting on it, I never imagined myself leading the efforts here in Denver. I got an exclusive interview with Abreu, and I was really intrigued with the story, and I kept waiting for someone in Denver to start it.
I had some time open up, and I happened to meet two other women who wanted to get involved, one of whom had tried to start it in Denver before. So, one night, the three of us got together over a glass of wine said to each other, ‘Ok, let’s do this.’
So, you just went for it?
We just went for it! So, I began some research to make sure nobody had started it, and sure enough nobody had. We assessed the arts education and non-profit communities to see what good work was already being done in Denver. There are pockets of [non-profits] doing good work here in Denver, but really nothing like El Sistema.
Is El Sistema fundamentally different than some of the other programs you encountered in Colorado?
Well, it is completely different in that it is free for the kids and it’s all based around building an ensemble, and building an orchestra. This is where Abreu explains the philosophy: You learn all of the life skills – how to listen, follow a leader, learn how to be a leader, mentorship, critical thinking, all of the kinds of skills that you learn as being a member of an orchestra.
The other huge difference about this is not only that it’s free to the kids, is that it is intensive. Our kids at Garden Place Elementary do this for 10 hours a week after school. There’s no approach to music education in this country like El Sistema; it’s completely different. It’s basically turning musical education on its head. What we end up with after school is it becomes a second family for these kids. A lot of these kids come from really difficult circumstances, broken homes, family members that are in jail, lack of role models in their life. This becomes a safe place for them to come.
We’re not here to actually raise a bunch of musicians, we’re here to create good citizens. In this country, the music education approach is [that] if your family has enough money, and you’re able to buy an instrument, pay for private music lessons and then you practice your instrument, then you might have a chance.
I’m a musician as well, and I was lucky enough to have support from my family growing up. Without that support, I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been.
Exactly, [El Sistema] provides access to kids who wouldn’t normally have it, either because their families can’t afford it, or they just don’t know about it otherwise. It’s transformative in these ways.
What sort of challenges does El Sistema face in Colorado in regards to funding, do you have support in the colorado community?
I think the answer is, yes. Remember though, we are only in our first couple of years now. In the non-profit world, you are always looking for fundraising. I wouldnt say its been difficult, the strength and compelling nature of this idea has drawn supporters. The idea itself, well communicated, has drawn supporters. Now that the program has been up and running for a few years, people are able to see what it does, and see the kids. We still have to work to win grants, contact donors, all the normal development work, but has it been tough? I will say that it hasn’t been tough. The best ideas are the ones that win support when you’re talking about competing dollars. We do our regular development work that any non-profit should be doing.
The idea of El Sistema is so interesting, and profound in its approach. It’s a community outreach program under the guise of music, which seems to draw supporters naturally.
I think you’re right about that. We’re fortunate in that way. I wouldn’t have gotten behind it if it wasn’t so compelling or proven. Over the last 40 years its been proven to change lives. It has saved lives.
Theres a young man in Venezuela [who had been in El Sistema and who had been in and out of jail]. He said, he just decided one day that ‘A clarinet felt better in my hand than a gun.’ That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about. Music is a tool.
People say, ‘Aren’t you nervous that you have to fight for arts funding?’ I’m not nervous about that. Obviously I believe our program deserves arts funding, definitely, but we equally go for funding that is all about closing the achievement gap in schools, and all about giving a child everything they need to succeed in achieving their dreams and succeeding in our society and improving our community.
On your site, there was mention of a few of the schools in Denver (Garden Place, Swansea and Bruce Randolph elementary) that you’ve been able to introduce El sistema into.
Because we’re new, we insist on starting slow. We’ve got lots of requests to start at schools, but we don’t expand until we’re ready. You have to get your infrastructure and your roots deep wherever you are. We want to make sure to bond with the kids and that the program is running smoothly and we’ve really engaged the community in a meaningful way, and created a really strong replicable model as we expand.
Does El Sistema have plans to expand in Colorado?
We have a vision of serving all of Denver and all of Colorado in the communities where there’s need and demand.
We’re definitely looking into how and where we can expand. For sure over this next year, we are going to continue to grow our roots where we are now and make those programs better, [grow] those orchestras there, and continue to more meaningfully serve the kids and their families.
How about extending to rural parts of Colorado?
Of course, I think it’s safe to say that Denver Metro is our priority, and then looking at rural communities is obviously on our radar as part of our longer term vision.
Could you give us one final thought?
Most people don’t know about El Sistema. This is a program that transforms the lives of their children, their families, and their communities. Our goal is to educate our entire community about the work that we’re doing so we can get everybody involved with supporting our kids which leads to academic success, success in life, and enriching the community with the arts.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with Arts For Colorado!
I really appreciate you reaching out to do the story. Thank you.
Visit www.elsistemacolorado.org for more information and the latest from El Sistema Colorado.
Monika Vischer is the Classical Program Director at National Public Radio as well as President of El Sistema Colorado.
Interview by: Stefan Runstrom