The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.
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El Sistema Greece: A Multiform Approach to Multiple Circumstances
Anis Barnat, Cofounder of El Sistema Greece, and José Ángel Salazar Marín, Artistic Director of El Sistema Greece
El Sistema Greece is a free music education program open to all children in Greece. Because our students come from more than 30 different countries, the impact of the work we do, both with refugee children and with the larger local community encompassing both migrants and natives, is twofold. The first “fold” is the wellbeing of the children and their development as active citizens through the transformative power of music. The second is the importance of understanding and dissecting the complex, unique, and nuanced realities at play for every child, and effectively adapting to those realities. Through music, our students are given a platform for dialogue and togetherness across diverse communities.
Because our students represent multiple communities, we always approach our work in multiple ways, using activities that fit the variety of skills and needs we encounter in our students. In view of our refugee and migrant communities, each class is always conducted with the understanding that for some of the students, this might be the first class—or the last class. Therefore, our teachers cultivate the skills to make every class immediately engaging; inclusive of physical movement, body awareness, and physical expression; and safe for collective music-making. We want every child to fall in love with music and feel an immediate positive impact. On the other hand, in view of our hope that many students will be with us for long periods of time, we also have to make sure that over the long term, our classes provide varied repertoire that respects multiple cultural heritages, reflective questions for thinking, and activities to foster teamwork, mutual respect, solidarity, and dialogue—all in the context of high musical aspiration.
Consequently, our curriculum supports both a short- and a long-term expectation. Our short-term goal is for students to participate fully from the outset, in a safe space; our long-term goal is for students to progress not only in their performing capacities but also in their eagerness, curiosity, and active contributions to the learning process.
Our lessons are conducted in multiple languages at the same time, using music as a powerful vehicle that connects us all. At the refugee camps, our teachers support our students through English and Greek; the former is a necessity for those students who will be leaving to go to other countries, and the latter is crucial for those who want to settle in Greece. Also, we always hire a community mediator, someone who is a respected member of the refugee community, to be present during classes at the camp and to support the teachers with translation if necessary.
Our classes welcome new and innovative methods, and our teachers are always vigilant about the needs of our students, constantly shape-shifting and refining our practices. Whether we are carrying out our activities at a refugee accommodation or at a regular school, we take a holistic approach, always focusing on the same goal: to build and foster social values through music education and artistic development of the highest possible quality.
And our classes, no matter where they occur, provide our students with a place for dialogue and understanding. Our Music Space in Skaramagkas Refugee Camp, for example, is a meeting point for students coming from contrasting and sometimes conflicted communities. Through music, they put aside their cultural differences and rely on each other to play better, thus creating a strong bond that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
As these different cultures integrate within the refugee camps, we also focus on integrating the refugee community with the host community, thereby providing the same learning opportunities for everyone. A notable example of this is our El Sistema Greece Youth Orchestra, an open ensemble not only for students from our centers but also for students coming from all strata of the Greek community, including private conservatoires and music schools. Moreover, all our classes, wherever we are, aim to be open to everyone, with no exclusion whatsoever.
At El Sistema Greece, we recognize the many challenges in adopting the method of using music education for social development. But amidst those challenges, we are also presented with opportunities to learn through trial and error. We monitor, we improve, we refine, and we experiment. We are not looking for a “holy grail” method; instead, we are becoming adept at constantly learning, unlearning, and relearning best practices in the best interests of our students. We learn from the children, and we sincerely hope that they learn from us as well.