In Alliance: More than the Sum of Their Parts

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

In Alliance: More than the Sum of Their Parts

Karen Deschere, Executive Director, Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts


“Hey, did you hear that other group playing our song? I wonder how they knew it?” said one incredulous young cellist to another, after hearing another El Sistema group play “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” at the Fiddle and FaLaLa Fest.

With that one simple question, a child’s world opened up. If he had never heard “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” before he learned it as part of his journey with the Paterson Music Project, how could he guess that anyone else could play it?

This is the beauty of the El Sistema New Jersey Alliance, a network of seven Sistema-inspired programs throughout New Jersey. Not only are children’s lives opened wider; the Alliance also opens opportunities for teaching artists and administrators to share music, curricula, ideas, and best practices. Starting out in 2014 with five programs, the Alliance quickly developed a culture of sharing that embraced two newer programs and helped them launch smoothly.

New Jersey is ideal for this kind of collaboration because of its small size and high population density. Also, it happens to be the home state of El Sistema expert (and editor of this publication) Tricia Tunstall, whose knowledge and connections have been invaluable. Our program partners currently include the Union City Music Project; CHAMPS, a program of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (Newark); Keys 2 Success (Newark); Paterson Music Project (PMP); Sister Cities Girlchoir (Camden), Sonic Expressions (Orange); and Trenton Music Makers.

For the past three years, the Alliance has offered our students the chance to see and experience a larger world, by creating ways for them to come together and make music – most prominently the aforementioned Fiddle and FaLaLa Fest, which includes several hundred children and their families, and a three-day summer camp, which involves about 100 children. They’ve played in exciting venues they’ve never seen before, attended NJ Symphony concerts, celebrated Martin Luther King Day together, and forged connections with students from across the state. The Alliance has also enabled program leaders and teachers to visit one another and share guest artist appearances.

Creating a new collaboration isn’t easy, and we quickly realized that we needed more resources. So with the encouragement of the program director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, one of New Jersey’s largest arts education funders, we applied to Dodge for support. Writing a grant proposal with five partners isn’t all that easy either, but we did it! The first grant enabled us to hire a very part-time administrator at a very modest salary. We were lucky that the Associate Program Director at PMP, Shanna Lin, wanted to add these duties to her already full plate. Working mostly through committee conference calls and at least two in-person general meetings a year, we have been able to provide more every year to our ever-growing number of students. Teachers, conductors, and other staff members from each program coordinate logistics, music and curriculum.

Since we are not incorporated, we need a fiscal sponsor. As Executive Director of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts (sponsor of PMP), I arranged with our Board of Trustees for Wharton to be the fiscal sponsor. Wharton receives the grant award, pays the bills, and provides insurance and some financial staff. The Alliance has now received three annual grants from the Dodge Foundation.

Last spring, a daylong facilitated retreat gave us the impetus to reach even further. Goals beyond joint programming were brought to the forefront – especially, providing professional development for our teachers and creating the capacity to advocate for Sistema-inspired programs with our local and state leaders. That’s a lot for a group of already overworked arts professionals to accomplish, and it won’t happen all at once, but we are all committed to making this Alliance work. We have acquired some volunteer help; a now-retired ED has been working on finding additional funding, and a PR professional has offered her services. Our paramount reason for being has remained constant: the desire to provide the best music and social education for our students, and to continue to open their world.


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