Why “El Sistema” Needs A Strong National Voice

Music is very important to K-12 education.  So are any of the performing arts as well as athletics.  Students need development in not only the mind, but the body and spirit as well.   Time and time again, I am seeing public schools, particularly in the state of Georgia (where I reside), making the mortifying of decision of cutting music and athletics programs whenever they have let reduced budgets force their hand.   As I have said repeatedly on this blog over the past 4 years, it is because of the fact that public education has failed to innovate in a digitally-connected world, that they have let their operational inefficiency get the best of them.  As a result,  public schools continue to adhere to the “addition by subtraction” philosophy, which regrettably, does not put our children first.  

As many of you know, I have been a major supporter of the Venezuelan-born, globally recognized “El Sistema” music program ever since I watched its founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, win the TED Prize in 2009.   It’s all about using music as an instrument for social change.  In the words of its founder, the most miserable thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or water, but the lack of hope.”  I co-founded the Atlanta Music Project because I believe that Atlanta’s at-risk youth could be saved by giving them access to the finest music education program in the world.   Two years later, the program has already provided hope to nearly 100 children, most whose household income is less than $20,000 a year!  There are more than 50 El-Sistema inspired programs in the United States, and the number continues to grow!

However, there are still many skeptics out there, and recently, one such skeptic wrote an article in Classical Music Magazine titled “Sceptic’s Sistema.”  Unfortunately, I am not able to provide a link to the full article, and I do not know the circulation base of the author, nor the publication.   Many supporters of El Sistema have vowed to not give any legitimacy to the author’s perspective, and I certainly agree.  I would not comment on the author’s blog about this, nor will I provide any links to the author’s blog.  You are more than happy to find the blog if you care to see some of the discussion about his controversial point of view.  Let me provide you with a few statements and why the author has an inherent bias that is not factually accurate:

  1. The author does not believe that playing an instrument makes you a better, more well rounded person:   this is factually inaccurate, especially if the author took the time to observe the children in these “nucleos.”  There is a growing body of research about the importance of social and emotional learning on academic learning.  Through music, these children are learning creativity, teamwork, self-confidence, and many other 21st century skills.  In addition, there is growing evidence of the strong linkage between music and mathematics.  I have written previous blog posts about social and emotional learning.
  2. The author believes that many musicians lead a “depressed” life, and finding jobs in this area is difficult:  the author needs to understand what the purpose of El Sistema truly is.  Not every student in the program will become another Gustavo Dudamel.  But these students will ALL graduate from high school and lead productive lives in whatever they decide to pursue.  Music is an art form.  it is also a vehicle to help these students increase their sefl-esteem and motivation to learn, whether  music or in the classroom.
  3. The author lnks the program to the authoritarian Chavez regime in a very negative way. Yes, it is true that the musicians perform in patriotic Venezuela state colors, but that is where the linkage ends.  This program has been around for more than 30 years, long before the Chavez regime.  In fact, the program has “survived” the regime.  Nowhere will you ever see any political talk from Maestro Abreu, Mr. Dudamel, or any other representative from the program.  This program is the one bright hope in one of the most oppressed countries in the western hemisphere.

It is unfortunate that music publications, or any publications for that matter, would allow writers to write articles that include a great many factual inaccuracies.  Certainly, dissenting opinions are welcome in a democracy; however, I would caution people to write about programs without having any meaningful first-hand knowledge or observations with such programs.

All of this leads me to the title of this blog post.  The El Sistema movement, particularly in the United States, is fledgling.  Most programs are less than 3 years old, and there is still no strong national voice, similar to how organizations such as Teach for America interact with their large affiliate base.  Plans are being discussed to organize a central organization, but these activities take time to achieve scale.   It would be the responsibility of the national organization to create a messaging strategy so that all affiliates are speaking off a similar script, adjusted for the local communities in which they operate.   Instead of dozens, or even hundreds of people responding to such baseless claims as this author has levied, the central organization can help deflect and discount such dissenting viewpoints, while also lobbying for financial and other support at the national level.

I have seen firsthand how this wonderful program is saving children, its families and its surrounding communities.   It’s time for a strong national voice to drown out the misinformed writers such as the one who penned the article in question.

Moral of the story?   Before you choose to attack a program with a global following, you better have your facts right!

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