Welcome to our Resources page.

 

Here we offer reading material that explains the learning theory and results behind the El Sistema-inspired music education programs.

We also provide links to websites and other materials which might be helpful if you're planning a program of your own, such as videos, books, and blog posts.

Did we miss something? Please send your questions and suggestions.

 
 

Learning Theory Resources

 

El Sistema’s approach is entirely different form classroom teaching. Learning orchestral music is more difficult, more challenging in many ways, than learning reading or math. But it’s a group effort. Teachers and students work together to achieve something. Kids don’t fail; there are no D’s and F’s. Together they set out to master a composition, and when they have done so, they get to perform it for others.

Stanford’s Shirley Brice Heath wrote: “As declining effectiveness of U.S. education for children living in poverty became more widely recognized…. Many felt that ensemble music could uniquely promote high learning demands for children and adolescents living in under-resourced communities [otherwise] unlikely to provide such learning for local children during after-school hours. With the spread of El Sistema-inspired programs, both during and after school in the United States, neuroscientists increased their attention to how ensemble music participation advances learning.”

For more about learning theory and the value of music education in schools and communities, you can read the talk given by Dick Roberts, president of the Coyote Foundation, which is a supporter of these El Sistema programs, at a Kansas City event organized by Children International. See below under "A Virtuous Partnership". 

 
 

Realizing the Potential of Learning in Middle Adolescence

 

Realizing the Potential of Learning in Middle Adolescence, by Robert Halpern, Ph.D. Erikson Institute Paul E. Heckman, Ph.D. University of California Davis Reed W. Larson, Ph.D. University of Illinois

Adolescence is a time of enormous potential for learning. This idea might or might not seem obvious, but what is surely true is that Americans are skeptical, and neglectful, of it. Our culture all too rarely creates the affordances – settings, relationships, roles – that would help young people realize their learning potential. The aim of this paper is to provide the empirical foundation for doing so. The authors highlight what research shows about the design and conditions for good learning experiences during the high school years, providing ten principles for the design of learning during this critical life period.

 

To read the entire paper, please click link here: Realizing the Potential of Learning in Middle Adolescence

 
 

Resources for Teaching Artists

 

Below are links for teaching artists to learn more about our El Sistema programs & Music Education.

El Sistema USA

League of American Orchestras

National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM)

 

A Virtuous Partnership

El Sistema in Children International

Talk given by Dick Roberts at Children International Headquarters, Kansas City, October 2016

Almost ten years ago, my wife Sally and I visited Calcutta to meet a youngster we sponsored there. That visit initiated a life-changing experience for me. Working with Children International (CI) here and abroad over the decade has become a central and deeply meaningful part of my life.

My talk today is around the El Sistema Music Programs that our foundation sponsors in CI centers in the Dominican Republic and Colombia. These CI agencies and centers play an essential and critical role in reshaping the lives of children and youth.

Professor Juan Carlos Natera Llanos leads rehearsal in Barranquilla.

Professor Juan Carlos Natera Llanos leads rehearsal in Barranquilla.

In Los Angeles, the after school programs I coordinated for a number of years in some 500 schools were all based on partnerships with nonprofits, over thirty different agencies, some huge and prestigious and others working with kids in only one neighborhood. And before that I’d helped the school district to partner with mental and physical health agencies across the city as we struggled in the early 90s with the massive Latino immigration. Nearly 99% of the children were not immunized, let alone their moms acquainted with all of the health facilities their families might need. 

That is why I was so deeply impressed with the CI center’s after school programs, tutoring, libraries, computers for in school support, counseling, medicine and dentistry for such a large number of children, and all so well organized.

What is so significant about all of this is that CI centers are themselves conducting El Sistema Music Programs. It brings about new levels of youth engagement in learning music.

Below is a short video that shows the type of engagement that students and teachers have in their classes, the dedication of the teachers, and the impact these music programs have on the children. 

It is unfortunate in the United States today that so much music has been driven out of educational systems, that there is such attention to standards-based testing in schooling, with its central emphasis on reading and math, and on narrow achievement-measurement data about this, that we have to remind ourselves of the significance of music in life.

Music is in all human culture. As one expert puts it, music is “natural [and] infused with our sense of human values, with our sense of what is good or bad, right or wrong. . . People think through music,” he says, “decide who they are through it, express themselves in it.”

Here in the United States in the 1890s, John Philip Sousa was so popular that he once conducted 1,000 marching bands in Boston. Even in the Great Depression of the 1930s instrumental music instructors in schools were not laid off. It would have been unthinkable; there were small orchestras and bands in every town.

So the increasing exclusion of music in schools is fairly recent.

Further is the concept about classical music that it is “high art” as opposed to “low art” of popular music; it’s an art, some seem to think, reserved for those who are privileged and wealthy. Entering a concert hall today, one really does move into a socially stratified atmosphere where tickets are too expensive for most.

And yet great music defies this. Whether it is the spirituals of southern slaves or the music of Beethoven, it is for all, everywhere. A Cambridge Professor of Music has written that, whatever “our ways of thinking about music, we never really escape from [Beethoven’s] abiding existence.” CI kids play portions of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as well as folk music from their own countries and popular music all on the same program.

Kids playing in Barranquilla.

Kids playing in Barranquilla.

The historic bridge from elitist assumptions about music to the music in CI is El Sistema, founded in Venezuela in 1975 by Maestro José Antonio Abreu. Abreu and a handful of other Venezuelan musicians felt that Europeans dominated their country’s musical stage and that music instruction was affordable only to the few. They wanted to break this down and make music available to the poor. Abreu has described El Sistema as “a conception regarding the function of music within society.” It is “based,” he says, “on the notion that a free, immersive classical music education of the poorest of the poor might positively influence the social programs plaguing the country.” 

Today, over 40 years later, El Sistema has served over 750,000 students and has inspired musicians across the world. There are now thousands of youth in El Sistema programs in this country alone.

This is a movement based on concepts, as Abreu said. Far from being top down, in Venezuela and abroad it is a network of community music schools, nucleos, as they are called. Each of these El Sistema sites is autonomous. In Children International, the programs in the DR and Colombia have the same fundamental purposes, they are based on the same framework of ideas, but they are the independent creations of each these CI agencies working with music professionals in their countries.

I can’t easily describe the levels of inspiration El Sistema has brought about. Simon Rattle, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, who tutored Gustavo Dudamel when Dudamel was still in Caracas, said, “What Abreu and El Sistema have done there. . . is to bring hope, through music, to hundreds of lives that would otherwise have been lost to drugs and violence. It is impossible to calculate. Abreu has saved those people physically in many cases and he has saved them in other ways too. He has given them life in all its depth. Abreu has built a system that provides nutrition for the soul.”

That is, of course, what Children International is also all about—nutrition of children’s souls.

At a community center managed by Children International.

At a community center managed by Children International.

Children International plays a significant role in the success of their El Sistema programs. In fact, the large majority of El Sistema programs across the world are not based in NGOs that have anywhere near the breadth, respect, know how, and professionalism—about children, about youth, about community, and about human development that Children International does. Frequently teaching artists are simply given permission to conduct programs in facilities, whether schools, churches or community centers, and they are pretty much on their own in a vacuum.

That is far from the case in CI. CI’s staff and the musicians are always working together. Truthfully in the centers where the music is taking place, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between the staff and the teaching artists. The CI staff is so deeply involved, so supportive of and so excited, they are like the musicians who teach it. The result is explosive. An environment that is already conducive to fast learning become one where kids are gaining skills so fast it’s almost hard to believe. It is CI’s contribution to the program that makes it stand apart from the rest.

Explaining rhythm.

Explaining rhythm.

I want now to explain how and why these leaps in learning take place, and in rather great detail. Already in the past two decades, in cognitive and learning sciences, education sciences, and in behavioral and developmental psychology, as well as in brain imaging, research has shown what most motivates children to learn, what kind of situation they learn best in, and what roles mentors should play that would be the most supportive of learning.

In fact our foundation put out a paper on learning theory written by three of this country’s leading experts on this and I had the wonderful opportunity to present workshops on this theory to leading CI staff in Santo Domingo, Barranquilla and Guadalajara.  I say wonderful because CI’s staff is so profoundly committed to children’s learning, they were so interested in this theory from so many aspects, honestly, in all three workshops they kept me going until I ran out of steam! It was in a workshop on learning theory in Santo Domingo, in fact, that the idea of doing El Sistema in CI first came up. I didn’t suggest it. Laura Rojas did. And pretty soon after the orchestral programs in Santiago had begun. And in Colombia, Juan Carlos Natera Llanos had started the Blizzard Band years earlier – but now, with the same enthusiasm he and CI have expanded it into a much larger wind orchestra.

Rehearsing in Barranquilla.

Rehearsing in Barranquilla.

But today even deeper neurological research is taking place than before, inspired by El Sistema itself. Stanford’s Shirley Brice Heath wrote just last year: “As declining effectiveness of U.S. education for children living in poverty became more widely recognized. . . Many felt that ensemble music could uniquely promote high learning demands for children and adolescents living in under-resourced communities [otherwise] unlikely to provide such learning for local children during after-school hours. With the spread of El Sistema-inspired programs both during and after school in the United States, neuroscientists increased their attention to how ensemble music participation advances learning.”

At the University of Southern California a number of researchers are working on this in their Brain and Creativity Institute. A recent forum USC brought together the world-famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and leading USC neuroscientists.  Ma declared that a part of El Sistema’s success is in giving youngsters a sense of identity and a place in society. Professor Antonio Damasio elaborated, “We are trying to understand the problems of humanity better. These are problems that have been with us for ages, but are still with us today and in some respects worse. We now see that neuroscience—the science of the brain—can help in some way illuminate these problems and illuminate how humans relate and cope with these problems.” The USC professor continued, “There’s something very intrinsic to music that deals with humanity and helps us change and become better citizens, more capable of coping with life effectively.”

To grasp how all this happens we need to begin with the exploratory selves of children and youth. From birth on, children reach out to discover the world around them. Infants want and make every attempt to get feedback from their caregivers; toddlers learn to walk and talk pretty much on their own; you can’t stop a four-year-old from asking questions. By six, these discoverers have navigated their own homes and neighborhoods and they wish to find out more about the world around them. They attend primary school with high hopes.

Rehearsing in Barranquilla.

Rehearsing in Barranquilla.

But, tragically, schools increasingly disappoint this natural creativity. Over and over again kids are told, “it’s not what you think that counts, it’s what we think, it’s what’s in these textbooks.” And these texts almost entirely depend on kids’ memorizing facts, not on their own essential creativity. As children move toward adolescence, new cognitive capacities develop and youngsters want to discover more, they want to figure out how to become a part of the world around them. They are excited, optimistic, idealistic and trying to grasp larger communities. How do I fit in? They ask. What can I do? They want to become meaningful participants in real life.

Yet schooling reacts negatively to this new energy. In schools teaching is more routine, textbooks are deadlier, even more boring. Through middle and adolescent years, these alienated youngster lose interest and motivation to attend to the studies schools demand. High school drop-out rates are staggering.

While all of this is happening, nevertheless, teens absorb themselves in music. Although I’ll here refer to studies conducted in this country, this is “inarguably common to all cultures,” a 2007 article in The Journal of Research in Music Education declares:  Music helps teens to locate themselves in society in ways schools mostly do not address. The Journal authors write that music provides “adolescents with a medium through which to construct, negotiate, and modify aspects of their personal and group identities, offering them a range of strategies for knowing themselves and connecting with others.” Data collected before Internet’s widespread usage showed adolescents listening to music upwards from four hours a day and those aged 12-20 purchasing 70% of popular music. With present technology available music and access to it have increased exponentially. You see kids in some of the poorest CI neighborhoods with cell phones. Not only their music but also their photos are a way of teens projecting their inner selves to the world. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that one does not have to persuade kids the value of learning instrumental music. Music is already a significant part of their lives, but actually playing musical instruments in an ensemble is not an opportunity that the children and youth in CI would normally have a chance to participate in at all. Coming from such desperate poverty they’d never have the chance actually to play an instrument. It’s inconceivable. Last year I was watching some kids spontaneously playing instruments at a break at the retreat in Santiago. They were so lively, having so much fun, playing so well. I asked their teacher how this could come about. “Playing saxophones, it’s beyond their wildest dreams,” he answered.

One of the first things I, myself, began to see, when I set out in retirement to figure out why schooling was failing so miserably, was that kids never get a chance to become good at something, they never get to master a skill. The classrooms are a never-ending treadmill teachers themselves complain about. Many young people don’t feel that they can ever really succeed in schools, let alone universities. It’s discouraging and it undermines their own sense of being.

Rhythm is key to learning.

Rhythm is key to learning.

El Sistema’s approach is entirely different form classroom teaching. Actually, as we’ll shortly see, learning orchestral music is more difficult, more challenging in many ways, than learning reading or math. But this is a group effort, teachers and students working together to achieve something that can be achieved.  Kids don’t fail; there are no Ds and Fs. Together they set out to master a composition, and when they have done so, they get to perform it for others.

Research in learning theory shows, contrary to what is often felt about adolescents, that teens like to focus on a few things that have clear purpose and that are consequential.  They know that many older people have gained the expertise to play the music they love. They are idealistic.  They, too, want to become experts.   They’re willing to commit time to practice.  Their teachers certainly did. 

Much research has shown that as kids become more and more deeply engaged in trying to accomplish something meaningful to them, they gain the feeling that no matter how many mistakes they make, they are getting better at it.  Practice works.  The more they learn the better they feel and this fuels increased motivation to learn even more.  You should notice here that this motivation is not coming from rewards and punishments, but from accomplishing the task itself.  It’s driven by the youngsters’ own desires for mastery and their identification with their conductors who are showing them how to do this.

I’m not saying CI should stop promoting tutoring or any support possible for kids to stay in school. There is no question that the longer kids stay in school, the better they do in life.

But what I am also saying is that schooling nowhere near gives the kids the feeling of self-reliance, that they can accomplish success through practice that El Sistema does. Giving children and youth this opportunity is a profound way of insuring their success in school.

The string section in Barranquilla.

The string section in Barranquilla.

I asked the music teachers in Santiago about this critical issue of motivation. They all answered, practically like I had no idea what I was talking about, “motivation? We do not motivate them they motivate us!” “They show us how to teach them.”

Importantly as well, as you can easily see, this is fun.  Reed Larson, one of the authors of Realizing the Potential of Learning in Middle Adolescence* studied what is enjoyable for kids for many years. This has included why adolescents spend so much time listening to music and how that affects their emotional development. 

Reed began his studies with the famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi asked, what are the optimal conditions for learning, what makes learning most rewarding. The clear answer Csikszentmihalyi found is in achieving goals that are difficult, goals that are challenging, but goals that are not insuperable. He called this “flow.” It is what most rewards learning. In his popular study Finding Flow, Csikszentmihalyi uses the example of skiing. Skiing can be one challenging sport!

Very well, then, it’s by no means easy, either, to learn to play musical instruments in orchestral settings. In fact it’s highly challenging.

Music specifically

Taking a close look at how and what children learn in El Sistema orchestras, scientists, particularly neurologists, have singled out a number of aspects.

First, as their teachers guide them in practice, students learn to improve visual and auditory perception, they learn to single out certain details in their surroundings. In the ensemble, many other kids are also involved, a conductor is giving students directions, maybe to another section of the ensemble, other students are shifting positions, there is much going on, someone just came in the door. Youngsters learn what are the significant cues they must pay attention to, and as they do this they become more attentive and alert.

Barranquilla brass section.

Barranquilla brass section.

Secondly, a great part of the sustained attentiveness and awareness involves imitating others—but not everyone! If a student is learning to play the violin she is paying attention to other violinists, not the horn players. Often times the distinct groups are actually reading from different sorts of scores, the G clef for violins, C clef for violists, and F clef for the low instruments. She is also correcting her own playing as she imitates others. Neuroscientists call this “grounded cognition.” The student is grounding her conceptual understanding of what she is trying to do within this environment of many inputs. And this will require her to repeat her efforts over and over again.

Thirdly, side-by-side this need to repeat a passage over and over again to learn how to play their instruments, there is also a great amount of repetition in music itself; shorter and longer passages the students become familiar with. Each piece and each part of it has repeated patterns that may occur at different tempos, with different dynamics, be they slow and softly, or very fast, louder, much louder, a whole range of sounds and rhythms are possible depending on the composer’s directions and the conductor’s own interpretive desires. Gaining this kind of understanding of patterns gives students more skills that also apply in other fields. Think of astronomers, for example, looking for minute variations in the movements of stellar objects light years away. All of this requires patience, toleration and acuity.

Concerts are key to celebrating mastery.

Concerts are key to celebrating mastery.

Music consequently faces its learners with many interrelated elements, different aspects as they relate to the whole. They have various notes, tempos, sounds, and numerals on their scores, what they are hearing from themselves and others in the ensemble, what the teachers are coaxing, improving their instrumental abilities, grasping and memorizing patterns. It is, in fact, a considerably greater cognitive demand than, say, learning to read. And yet it is precisely this complex challenge that is key to understanding why kids feel so good about themselves and their friends as they accomplish it.

More and more research focuses on the relation of kids to their instruments. They come to love their instruments, love playing them, want to play them in groups, and research into this opens thinking to the use of the youngsters’ hands, the relation of their hands to their instruments, and to their bodies and their minds. Hands carry increasing weight in the research. Shirley Brice Heath writes, “Advances in. . . technologies now permit neuroscientists to see what happens to internal visual images in the brain when individuals grip, hold or touch what they see. [This] hand-feedback that young musicians gain when they grip a bow, drum stick or neck of a violin, viola, or cello enhances the act of mentally visualizing, or envisioning what lies behind the current moment.”   This is called haptic learning, and it’s easy to see, amazing too, the enormous degree to which Juan Carlos has intentionally brought hands, arms, all of the kids’ movements, into this teaching.

Score for a piece the children perform without instruments.

Score for a piece the children perform without instruments.

I got to watch in Barranquilla a rehearsal of a wonderful piece they perform in concerts without any instruments. The kids click their fingers, clap, whistle, move their bodies. At the rehearsal there were three young girls practicing in front of us. One of them was not only showing one of the other three where they were in the score but also showing me. 

And it is a difficult score as you can see. When I asked Juan Carlos to send me a copy of the score for this presentation, he wrote that in these activities, the kids use “their body scheme, also they do sounds with their bodies and they create folkloric rhythms. These activities,” he said, “are fun for the students and teachers. And then if both teachers and students entertain, it [is] a fascinating music adventure that will remain in children’s souls and hearts. . . And leaning will be more pleasurable.”

Indeed all of this is profound and wonderful learning. It is simultaneously active and thoughtful—all students are gaining agency over what they master, their instruments, their music, their ability to follow the director along with other students in the ensemble—and they are thinking it through on the many levels I just went over. It is their own understanding, their performing, and their own accomplishment. They are actualizing themselves, their agency, intensity, and immersion in what they are doing, their purposefulness and connection. All of this with energy, reserve, and joy.

CI and El Sistema

It should be clear that learning experiences of this richness and depth do not take place in schools. There aren’t grade levels.  Youngsters of different ages, schools and grade levels are learning together.

Much research shows that kids consistently experience higher levels of motivation in this kind of environment than they do during school or in any other context in their lives. They learn more and at faster speeds, and I have to emphasize that in this particular combination, bringing El Sistema together with Children International, the results in children’s learning and their joy in doing so are truly incredible. 

Let me for a moment go back to the forum at USC with its neurologists and Yo-Yo Ma. Ma said“In order for El Sistema to get participation from the kids they had to build trust. Trust is absolutely crucial,” he emphasized, and, “The best way to create trust is to know someone has your back. . . The program lets kids know they belong to a group. They are going through the same things together.”

Nevertheless, El Sistema programs frequently do not have anywhere near the kind of backing CI brings about. CI centers are already deeply rooted in its communities.  ts staff, its center leaders, its teachers in a variety of other youth development programs, counselors, doctors, dentists and their assistants, these professionals have been working with children and youngsters since early infancy. Now the CI staff is supporting and assisting professional musicians. All of these adults take kids seriously; they care for them; they are invested in and applaud their successes. It is really only one team, CI and the musicians, everyone is so excited and involved in the students’ efforts they seem interchangeable.  This can only amplify the children’s trust.

Collaboration and peer-to-peer learning is another way El Sistema helps children succeed.

Collaboration and peer-to-peer learning is another way El Sistema helps children succeed.

In classrooms, keep in mind, kids are expected to compete against each other and condemned if they try to help each other out.  It’s cheating. Here students are working together in a unified effort.  Lesser skilled students try to imitate those who are more skilled, the latter only too willing to help them out, to show and explain how to do it, point out where they are in the score. It’s quite natural. The students gain a sense of tuning in to others, keeping up the togetherness the effort requires. They are being accepted by each other, sharing each other’s feelings, gaining empathy towards one another. This is all the more possible because teachers and staff give emotional support throughout. Learning at this depth cannot take place except in a caring environment that permits youth the safety of their own feelings, frustrations, sadness and anxiety.

This is the very opposite of the violence that takes place in so many of these youngsters’ neighborhoods. Sofia Betances, Director of CI Dominican Republic, stressed in a TV interview that El Sistema fights violence with music. This has been the aim of El Sistema since its founding.  Simon Rattle told The Guardian, “When I visited Caracas three years ago, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing:  crack addicts, child prostitutes and gang-fighters being given a violin or a clarinet.”  These issues, gangs, drugs and teen prostitution are no less problems in the suburbs of Santo Domingo that CI will face as it brings El Sistema programs there. Music is literally and figuratively a harmonious collaboration in which healing takes place. The fear, the trauma that exists outside, that can immobilize youngsters, that makes them feel isolated and hopeless, is here being healed. Kids can express themselves and feel accepted into a group, and that feelings and emotions are safe. Violence is replaced by peace.

As all of this is happening the youngster get to work with skilled adults. Their teachers model what it takes to become an expert.  Professor Guillermo Mota, who previously led the music programs in the Dominican Republic, is a concert violinist and conductor.  Students understand the practice it takes. Yet here the maestro is treating them with warmth and dignity.

Further the music itself, the compositions they are learning, embrace the whole range of human emotions. The director models and encourages a sweeping variety of expression. A gesture here, a particular look there, signals support of the musical feelings the kids are conveying. This builds strong relations between the kids and their teachers, relations that are key to youngsters feeling that how they are learning is OK, and it’s supported. Watching Juan Carlos teach, one feels that there is a direct bond between him and the children. His teaching is what they want to learn, his joy, theirs; their working together seems inseparable.

In these many ways, then, in Children International’s El Sistema programs, this community of creativity, where everyone is moving towards the same goals, there is an enthusiasm for learning I haven’t seen anywhere else. Last spring, at the CI retreat the kids were practicing so hard, the night before the performance, late that night, sometime after midnight, the youngsters woke up their teachers and demanded a final rehearsal!

Below is a short video that shows the first public concert by the Children International El Sistema Orchestra in Barranquilla, Colombia. Beautiful playing--Hand rhythms, musical instruments, under the energetic and inspirational guidance of music teacher Juan Carlos Natera.

Moving into the world

Let me again underline that the central goals of Children International and the El Sistema movement that began in a garage in the slums of Caracas, are the same:  they aim at social reform that breaks children out of the cycle of poverty. The sharing of these high ideals brings overriding inspiration to all participants.

Over and over again, musicians told us how meaningful it was to them to be able to bring music to the children in CI, how transformative this was for them and how much, as I have already said, the students motivated them as they did this. There is the shared hope that this effort will expand the skills and the opportunities of these economically poorest kids.

Performing in Barranquilla.

Performing in Barranquilla.

As we watch the parents coming to see their children on the stage, in professional theaters, places they know about but places where most of them had never been to, didn’t expect to be able to go to, and surely never expected to see their children perform in, these beautiful auditoriums with their youngsters meticulously dressed on stage and then performing so wonderfully, it’s clear how this is a civic effort. With the kids, CI staff, musicians, families coming together like this, it creates a sense of what it is like when everyone works together and shares in joyful accomplishment.

Recall that the youngsters had asked themselves, “how can I fit in?” “How can I be a part of the adult world?” And here they are playing central roles in a citywide project; they are the critical components of an explicitly democratic effort to improve their communities, to restore its social fabric in the face of poverty and violence. Their selves are important; they’re making a powerful contribution to their own culture.