El Sistema in Children International - A Closer Look


Covering a January 2015 concert of Children International’s Youth Orchestra in Santiago de los Caballeros, an excited TV reporter named Ruth Camille Santos exclaimed, “The El Sistema project began in Venezuela in the 1970s. Here, it is only 8 months old. But it’s incredible how music has changed the lives of these underprivileged children, teaching them discipline and perseverance.”

Indeed that concert, culminating a four-day retreat where the students had practiced morning, noon and night, was inspiring. I wrote right afterwards, “The events were amazing, sweeping all of us off our feet. . . . The retreat was unbelievable in its shared emotions, concepts, ideas, warmth and love of children. In the concert moms, dads, grandparents and siblings all the way down to tiny toddlers taking cell phone photos in front, cheered the concert on at every step.”

The same levels of enthusiasm, performance, parent involvement, warmth and love, are taking place in the CI Blizzard Band and Wind Orchestra in Barranquilla, Colombia. When one gets to watch Juan Carlos Natera Llanos, Barranquilla’s conductor, it’s hard to describe the emotions experienced. There is an uplifting unity of high endeavor on his and on the kids’ parts that rises way above what most kids get to experience. And this takes place as these youngsters are learning multiple and difficult approaches to music.

So how is such an amazing experience for kids actually put together? In brief, it takes incredible effort. I was able to catch a glimpse of that effort through the many reports and letters, so many of these letters from the youths themselves, which have been sent to our foundation.

It’s important, to begin with, that Children International’s agencies already have deep roots in their communities. Through CI, care for children has been provided for many years. In Santiago’s Cienfuegos, for example, it was reported that the CI program began in 1979 where nuns from the order of Teresa of Calcutta initially ran it. CI subsequently became nondenominational in its centers across the world, and, over the years, has gained deep respect for its long-term dedication to youngsters that grow up under extreme conditions of poverty. CI supports 8,816 children in its two Santiago centers in Cienfuegos and El Flumen, and 32,092 in the Dominican Republic as a whole. In Barranquilla’s seven centers, 25,859 youths are supported. You can see how the communities appreciate CI programming: large numbers of parents—and grandparents—volunteer to help.

In Barranquilla, the Blizzard Band under the direction of Juan Carlos, had been operating in Children International since 2002, and it had already accomplished wonderful results for kids. Some had since become professional musicians. Our foundation’s grant expanded the band and provided funding for the formation of a wind orchestra.

In the Dominican Republic there was an El Sistema orchestra in Santo Domingo supported by municipal funds, but there was not yet such an orchestra in Santiago. Support to CI made it possible to launch a youth orchestra there, headed up by Guillermo Mota Curiel, who already led the municipal El Sistema program in Santo Domingo.

Both in Santiago and in Barranquilla, a critical element in the decision to incorporate El Sistema centered on the violence that surrounds kids. A report from Barranquilla declared: "The communities where the participants are from present violence and lack of hope… The participation of children and youth in the music classes implies keeping individuals distant from violence, making them more peaceful and harmonious with themselves and others; besides making them know that if they have purposes in life, they can achieve them."

The report adds, “The greatest motivation to them is to show how talented they are and how important they are to Children International.”

Speaking to the TV interviewer before January’s concert, CI’s Agency Director in the Dominican Republic, Sofia Betances, said,

"We found ourselves with a challenge. And the challenge was that the children did not know how to behave, they were aggressive with each other because they brought into the cultural center where we work the violence they experience at home, in their school, in their neighborhoods… We work with them on discipline, posture, self-esteem, on valuing themselves. They can take this learning back home, back to their classrooms"

Confronting the violence of poverty-stricken neighborhoods with professional musicianship may not be the first idea that occurs to one, but it has always been central to El Sistema. "Teach the children the beauty of music and the music will teach them the beauty of life," Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, El Sistema’s founder, has said.

Children International is in a unique position because of its experience with youth. It is a safe place where children and their parents feel comfortable. Many were enthusiastic about the possibility of children learning to play musical instruments. El Sistema has also proven attractive to teaching artists worldwide, providing a chance to work in professional surrounding with kids . Many of the teaching artists have given up other opportunities to work in El Sistema programs.

Raymond Felix, a cello teacher in the CI centers in Santiago, shares his own experiences learning to play with the kids: “A mixture of emotions and feelings swell in me when I convey these to my students.” They initially come, he thinks, because they are curious about the cello. “Gradually a connection with the instrument has grown in them, and they have started to discover the happiness and desire for self-improvement they can achieve through the cello…. They are still just kids but they are more sensitive and have a more positive view of life.”

Juan Carlos Natera summarizes what learning music demands:

  • Team work: To make a musical piece requires working together and developing empathy among players.
  • Concentration: Music requires a high level of concentration and accuracy that help children and youths exercise memory and improve attention.
  • Discipline: Music learning demand discipline; it promotes learning and motivation to keep behavior rules.
  • Communication skills: Performing in a group develops oral and writing communication because the participants must follow gesture indications of the teacher while reading the score. The method used allows students to perform pieces orally and memorize then developing corporal and non-verbal communication.

This short glimpse of Juan Carlos’s pedagogy shows a level of expertise children don’t often get a chance to share. Seventeen-year-old Yoselin Andrea Avila Simonds, who became a tuba player under Juan Carlos, puts it this way: “I am interested in music because I think musicians are in another level of life… they are more educated, studious, and interesting.” Yoselin had found out about the music program at a CI center. Many other students find out about it the same way.

Yenny Martinez, a psychologist who works almost full time coordinating El Sistema in Santiago, has kept a diary of its activities from the beginning. As they started recruiting children to join the program in its second year in, she writes: "Most of them already knew about the project, since their friends are already participating. Children are happy to know that they will be part of this new group because they have seen other children playing… The students that started last year talk to their friends. They talk like they have been part of the project for a long time."

In fact, of course, it hadn’t been going for a long time! Children learn very quickly. Abel Sanders, a 17-year-old in Santiago, also found out about it a center: "I play the accordion, which I learned to play by ear, without learning how to read music. One day I was playing the accordion at the center at Cienfuegos and I met Yenny, the music coordinator. She spoke to me about the program and I thought ‘finally, I can learn real music; I finally have the opportunity to become a music professional.’"

Fifteen-year-old Wilfer Casteñeda Simonds: "One day, I came to the Community Center #3 [the location of El Sistema in Barranquilla] to pick up a benefit, I saw a group of young people giving a talk about the programs they offer and heard that music was one of the programs... I went back home very happy and told my mother about it and she took me to the next class after that."

Guillermo Mota had studied violin in El Sistema in Caracas. There he roomed with Gustavo Dudamel and Guillermo subsequently played with many other orchestras. Yenny recalls the Santiago program at the start.

"Guillermo Mota organized them the first day of classes… At the beginning of the rehearsals, the children were always quiet, they barely talked or expressed their opinions. Now they have a very dynamic relationship with the director. They laugh, ask questions, share ideas, the trust has grown little by little, without affecting the discipline that they have acquired and experimented with during the process."

“Music is becoming more meaningful to me,” says Yoselin Avila, the tuba player in Barranquilla. “Each class is delightful by the way the teacher makes us feel how important music is, we even learn culture…. I did not know about this instrument before. I am satisfied because this is a dream that’s coming true.”

Another Colombian student, Modesta Solano, writes: “The instrument I liked the most was the drums… I am inspired to play what I like best. My teacher has taught me about the folklore of the coast and more.”

Students often mention their own family’s involvement: “My family likes that I take part in the orchestra because they feel proud that I belong to it,” Juan Mateo Pereira writes. “I am giving them what I have learned in each class that I take.”

In Barranquilla a concert for parents was given. Sugey Montes reports, “We really had our debut as an orchestra not long ago and it was in honor of our families. The possibility to be in this place where I am now never crossed my mind and I have the opportunity to do what I love,”.

Appreciation of their own instruments echoes through the letters: “I loved music since I was a child, and now I have this opportunity, I couldn’t be any happier,” says Fabio Artega. “I chose the clarinet since I like it a lot. It is a little difficult to play, but we are here to learn every day.”

Abel Sanders, the young man who played the accordion when he heard about the program in Cienfuegos, praises his teacher Andri Cruz, Santiago City’s bandleader, who teaches winds and horns at CI:

"The first day of class I don’t know if I was nervous, but I guess I was, and then I stopped. I paid very close attention to what the teacher was saying. He told us how he likes to teach people who are truly interested in learning. Once I heard that, I paid even more attention. My heart told me to continue in that way, I was doing the right thing. Classes with professor Andri are like eating my favorite food – I eat everything up, and then want more and more. [Abel decided to play the flute.] What I really loved about the flute was the sound it makes. I feel inspired with the flute and that I have really found my place."

Another student, Wilfer Simonds, writes:

"I have learned to play the music in a wonderful instrument, the baritone saxophone. Something curious about these classes is that it is not only a music class, but a moment full of surprises, reflections and games that teach us how to be better people and teach us that results in life will depend on the way we act. We also learn about the importance of ethical values in our lives such as respect, tolerance and love towards people."

The noted American opera tenor James Valenti recently visited the CI centers in Barranquilla. Student Arley Diaz writes:

"I think [these classes] are more than a [music] class because they have helped to keep me out of trouble, especially to be with bad companies and spend the time outside. It has also helped me grow as a person in many ways. I want to tell that we had the visit of Mr. James Valenti. He was so humble when we showed him everything we do."

Little wonder the inspiration to teachers! Jailer Fontalvo became assistant percussion teacher in Barranquilla in February. He writes,

"In the end of this fourth month as teacher of these wonderful boys and girls dedicated to the music and values that are instilled in them through different activities, I want to thank [the Foundation] for such great support in the life of each one of them and also in ours for being their teachers. The musical quality they have and their vision makes me strengthen musical pedagogic strategies."

Raymond Felix, the cello teacher in Santiago, expressed it this way:

"I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be their teacher, friend, and guide towards a more human, real and dignified road in the existence of such wonderful beings as they are…. It truly fills me with happiness when I see my children overcoming and escaping their harsh reality even if it for a short time."

Juan Carlos writes, “It is a joy to look at the happiness of the youngsters and children when finishing their classes and in their concerts.”

During last December’s Christmas break, Yenny wrote in her diary, “This is the first time that the children take vacations. It feels weird not to have their gabble.” But preparations were already under way for the retreat and final concert to be held the final four days of January. Extra musicians had to be hired for the extra rehearsals. Sofia Betances gained permission from the schools for the release of the students. Meetings were held with parents. Excitement was building for all."

Hearing that there would be a retreat and that he could participate in it, Abel writes that the day it began “I went running to the Children International center where the bus was going to pick us up, since I didn’t want to miss it.” But,

"As I was running, my shoes fell apart and I was sad because I didn’t have others. However, Nuris, the Area 9 coordinator, gave me a pair of shoes and I was very happy. She cannot imagine how thankful I am. I thanked her then, but I still don’t know how I can ever repay her for that gesture."

Keep in mind the narrow and closed neighborhoods these children grow up in, their tiny corrugated metal shacks slapped together, sometimes without floors. They do not have access to any other extra-curricular activities. Teens hang around with little to do. Imagine going from these surroundings to the enormous center CI booked for the retreat, with accommodations for each youngster, three solid meals in the cafeteria a day, and their own instruments. “We arrived at the camp and I can’t help but remember the joy that the children expressed,” Yenny wrote. “They said that this place was beautiful and big, and that they would have their own bedroom and bathroom.”

The kids rehearsed with teachers two or three times a day and much of the rest of the time, on their own. I was watching a group of Andri’s kids practicing in one of the rooms. “The saxophones,” he said, “they mean everything to them. They never dreamed they could be doing this, actually doing it. No wonder they are so committed.” Andri’s daughter, who plays the clarinet, was often helping others to practice clarinet or other instruments. It was everywhere: children of all ages helping each other to get ready for the concert.

Two musicians from Los Angeles joined my wife and me for the retreat and concert: Myka Miller, the executive director of the Harmony Project, and Anne Rardin, its musical director. This is the largest agency in Los Angeles providing free El Sistema-inspired music instruction to children and youth. In Santiago, it is so much the spirit of El Sistema that Myka and Anne easily merged with and helped out the retreat. At one moment Myka would be talking with Guillermo about organizing and budgeting, Anne would be helping musicians rehearse the kids or sitting with them playing violin as Guillermo conducted. The night of the concert, as TV interviews and various other delays took place, including a drenching last-minute rain storm that thankfully ended in time for the concert to take place—otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to hear it—Anne was on stage tuning violins and setting up music stands.

During two lunch breaks , jam sessions almost spontaneously broke out. The first time a group of about 20 kids were sitting around chatting and trying to think of what to do. Anne suggested they dance. Pretty soon there was dancing; a few kids got out their instruments and started to play. That grew into a larger ensemble; Andri joined in to tap out the rhythm on an instrument case. It moved to a large hall and others joined in. Three ten-year-olds were blowing their lungs out on their horns. Myka played flute. There was dancing, clapping and singing. “The kids taught me to play Merengue and dance Bachata,” Anne Rardin wrote. “What a high!! Can’t wait for the concert tomorrow.”

One afternoon, though, there was a chance to visit one of the sponsored children’s homes, 12-year-old violinist, Yarissa Altagracia Castillo Muñoz. Yarissa’s older sister also plays violin in the orchestra and her mother had volunteered to help the retreat. Anne had never seen such a house, and she became emotionally distraught. There is poverty in Los Angeles and many of the kids in the Harmony Project are poor by U.S. standards. But that is not the same degree of poverty that stretches across so much of this world and where Children International works.

Yet the retreat was filled with magic. Anne writes:

“Just reflecting on the trip to the Dominican Republic, we had such an amazing time. In spite of the desperate conditions that so many live in there, it was just the same. The kids were learning like crazy, acting like kids, being beautiful, being a challenge. And we had the same problems and frustrations, the same hard work, the same joys and sorrow, the same musical train wrecks, the same musical highs. Just not the same insane rain storms! I’ve had such an interesting time telling my students here in the US about their counterparts in the DR."

Anne added, “It all goes to show music is the great equalizer. No matter what the socio-economic status, we’re all the same and capable of so very much. We can find inspiration and excitement in sharing music.”

As Friday evening approached, the kids were more excited and more apprehensive hour by hour. Abel paints the picture:

"When I arrived at the retreat, I felt right at home… I felt as if I was with my family, with people that I care about and who care about me, with fellow students who are now like my brothers and sisters… We practiced a lot to prepare for our first concert as best as possible. I was very anxious for the last day to arrive but that was because I wanted my mother to see me playing in the concert…

At the same time, I didn’t want the retreat to end because I was enjoying myself so much. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, met many different people… At the moment of the concert I got very nervous… I said to myself: ‘Go away nerves!’ When the concert was over, our director hugged us, and many of us were crying with joy.”

Yenny Martinez writes:

When I started writing these diaries, our children were a little shy, embarrassed, but now they are rich persons, rich of trust, rich of perseverance and joy. After the children finished playing the concert, they started crying, crying of emotion and joy. It was a unique night and it will always be remembered as such. It is an indelible stain that will remain in the hearts of all present."

I wrote at the outset that this could only result from hard work. Nevertheless, two ingredients undoubtedly account a great deal for its profound effects. The first is the depth of community support. Children International centers are already community hubs, long-time sources of medical, school, and tutoring support for children and places offering a variety of other activities for kids. Layered on this is the orchestral program with its gifted mentor/teachers. Their professionalism, not only as musicians, but also in building teamwork, companionship and ethical values among their kids, creates a community of musicians of its own. And there is the critical community support of parents. Music is no less a part of the parents’ culture than it is of the children’s and they are proud as they see their kids practicing and gaining expertise. The music of the country becomes the music at the center.

The second element is that kids do have the chance of getting to mastery in something important to them. They are learning music they want to learn. They are being encouraged and supported as they learn it. And they practice it with enthusiasm. Under these circumstances children learn incredibly fast; they speedily set aside any notions that youngsters do not want to learn. After all, these are not notions they feel about their own ability to gain expertise given the chance.

CI’s Agency Director in Barranquilla, Hermalinda Guarin R., sums it up:

"I have to tell you that I can’t help it that my eyes fill with tears every time I have the opportunity to see these kids playing these instruments. I cannot believe how much progress they have made in such a short time…. El Sistema is influencing our children and youths in a very positive way. They are not just learning how to play an instrument, but learning about life skills like teamwork, discipline, and creativity, among others. They are also learning that no matter how hard life is for some of them, they deserve to be happy, to enjoy life, to have a fun space where they can dream and make their dreams come true."