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



I am lucky enough to have been able to go to Venezuela and see El Sistema in action, during those golden years when the Sistema threw its doors open wide to an international multitude of visiting musicians and Maestro Abreu dreamed of Caracas becoming the Vienna of the 21st century. Sadly, it’s hard to visit Venezuela at all now, and El Sistema struggles with the same desperate economic and political crisis that grips everyone in that beautiful and beleaguered country. For the global Sistema community, the poignant silver lining of the crisis is the evolution of a kind of Sistema diaspora, with many Venezeulan master teachers, teaching artists and conductors working with programs around the world.

One of the most venerated of these master teachers is Roberto Zambrano, who came to the El Sistema USA Symposium in Detroit last month. I helped Roberto put together a session at the symposium in which he and his longtime mentee Aristides Rivas worked with a children’s string ensemble, in front of a group of attendees. The players were very young; their piece, by Vivaldi, was hard. Roberto and Aristides dove into the work. After 40 minutes of their sunny, tenacious energy, the Vivaldi sounded noticeably better, and I asked the attendees to distill some core elements of teaching excellence, on the basis of what they had just seen. With the help of Roberto and Aristides – and the kids – we came up with a list.

No, I haven’t forgotten what our Venezuelan friends always said when we asked them for a list. “Maybe someday we’ll write down how we do things,” they told us, “but as soon as we do, something will change. Sistema never stands still.”

But we make lists anyway. It’s how we endeavor to get our minds around the complex, elusive task of effective music teaching in the context of social engagement. Here’s the list we made on a frozen day in Detroit, in January 2019. I offer it in the hope that you will be inspired by it, utilize it – and maybe change it too.

  1. High expectations of young people.
  2. Insistence on musical excellence.
  3. Balance between individual and ensemble work
  4. Attention to the physicality of playing.
  5. Prioritizing musical understanding.
  6. High energy, high engagement.
  7. Collegiality and teamwork between teachers.
  8. Play without fear!

Tricia Tunstall


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