Connect, Adapt, Thrive: Lessons in Resiliency and Community from the 2021 El Sistema USA Symposium

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Connect, Adapt, Thrive: Lessons in Resiliency and Community from the 2021 El Sistema USA Symposium

Liz Moulthrop, Director, and Shanna Lin, Director of Education, Paterson Music Project


Pictured: Authors Shanna (left) and Liz (right). Credit Shanna Lin.

Over the course of a week in mid-February, members of El Sistema USA met for the annual El Sistema USA Symposium and Seminario. Permeating this year’s sessions were the twin pandemics our country has grappled with for the past year: COVID-19 and systemic racism. El Sistema programs have had to confront the impacts of these crises at the local community level, and they had a lot to share. The Symposium theme—“Connect, Adapt, Thrive!”—summed this up. Connect: We need our communities of support more than ever! Adapt: Let’s get creative and be flexible or we’re not going to make it. Thrive: It was apparent from the sessions that El Sistema is thriving now more than ever. Who else but artists, musicians, educators, and children could adapt and thrive with grace in these hard times? So we all logged onto our SwapCard accounts and dove into the week’s sessions, scattered across the country in the comfort of our homes. Here are some key takeaways.

Centering the Community

More than ever, the voices of our communities and students are our guiding light. Many sessions spoke to this fact. Kalamazoo Kids in Tune (KKIT) made a point of committing to Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education (CRSE), which “creates student-centered learning environments that affirm racial, linguistic, and cultural identities.” This goes beyond playing music that students can relate to; it means changing program culture by empowering the students and community to make those decisions and changes. The leaders of INTEMPO discussed how they keep their community centered by focusing on the music of the community, not just classical music. They are so committed to this belief that they sometimes plan their repertoire years in advance in order to research and ensure that they are giving their students as authentic an experience as possible.

The Equity-Centered Pedagogy Working Group focused on two major points: decentering ourselves as teachers, and decentering the dominant culture, while centering student voices and marginalized cultures. To do so, we must be aware of our own implicit biases and privileges. The presenters pointed out that, as teachers, we should be facilitating the learning process—not just focusing on filling our students with knowledge. Our students deserve to be provided a safe space where they are empowered to co-create curricular content and advocate for themselves.

Decentering Whiteness

Mid-week keynote speaker Dalanie Harris (Classically Black Podcast) urged us all to  de-compartmentalize musical genres and to actually perform music composed by Black composers. She discussed moving beyond the institutional Black Lives Matter unity statements and moving toward action. And while Vu Le (Nonprofit AF) provided some comic relief, asserting our ability to do “accounting sudoku” with our budgets and be the most creative and passionate people on Earth, he also very seriously challenged us to examine our fundraising practices. He called on us to trust the communities we serve, to decenter whiteness in our fundraising, to be advocates for changing systems instead of just treating symptoms, and to stop weaponizing data!


One of the greatest attributes of ESI (El Sistema–inspired) programs is their willingness to collaborate. During the Symposium, participants were given the opportunity to meet in regional groups and share ideas regarding repertoire, events, staffing, and much more. The groups also looked at other successful networks, like the Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth (PMAY) and the El Sistema New Jersey Alliance (ESNJA), for ideas related to programming and structure. During the networking session with the Suzuki Association of the Americas, participants discussed how their programs have adapted, or hope to adapt, Suzuki programs in a culturally relevant way. While ideas like regional events and collaboration aren’t necessarily new, participants agreed that virtual platforms have expanded the possibilities. And sessions by El Sistema Venezuela and Sistema Europe reminded us that we are connected to a global movement, through which collaboration and idea-sharing transcend regional and national boundaries.

Student Seminario

Young musicians perform Danielle Williams’ “What We Will Be.” Credit Shanna Lin and El Sistema USA.

The Symposium was not only an opportunity for teaching artists and program staff to meet and collaborate. Over 110 students from 35 programs across the nation (plus some from across the world) participated in a virtual Seminario throughout the week. To kick it off, students created a pre-recorded performance of “What We Will Be” by Danielle Williams, which was presented on the first evening of the Symposium. Each day, students were given the chance to get to know each other and collaborate through activities like trivia games and breakout room discussions. Students were tasked with figuring out what connected them despite their different backgrounds. They found that they were linked by more than just a passion for music, whether it be through a shared love of art or having cute pets.

Each day, the students had opportunities to meet different musicians—conductors, the Traveling Through Time String Quartet, WindSync, the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble—to talk with them about their experiences. Students received advice about following their passions and working hard to achieve their goals, and learned that it is never too late to follow their dreams. The Seminario was also sponsored by the Collective Conservatory, which provided students with the opportunity to flex their improvisation skills and weave together some of their own musical ideas. On the final day, students had the opportunity to join a jam session with composer Danielle Williams, a fitting conclusion to a week of creative fun.

Collective Impact

Finally, the Symposium offered a healthy dose of inspiration to re-energize each of us as we go back into the field and continue our work. Joseph Conyers (Project 440), in speaking about the “Butterfly Effect,” reminded us of our ability to change the trajectory of someone’s life through even a small interaction. Matthew Emerzian (Every Monday Matters) affirmed the power of small, simple acts, which have a compounding effect in creating larger collective change. And all of the attendees, in their own ways, shared stories of resilience and growth over the past year. More than ever, our field is committed to social change. To reach that end, we must employ our power as teachers and community leaders with more care and reverence than ever before.

For more information on Paterson Music Project, visit their website.


© Copyright 2022 Ensemble News