Music Therapy & Sistema

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

Music Therapy & Sistema

Virginia Eulacio Cierniak, Director of Education and Creative Arts Therapies, Union City Music Project


I’ve worked as a teaching artist at Union City Music Project (UCMP) for a number of years, while also finishing graduate school and certification for music therapy. I decided to focus my thesis on Community Music Therapy (CoMT), and to try to integrate music therapy services into our program.

There are a number of parallels between El Sistema and CoMT. Both address goals beyond the musical, working toward social, emotional and communal as well as musical outcomes. Both are flexible and adaptable in structure. Social justice is a primary goal for both; the emphasis is on access and community.

Last year, UCMP secured a contract with a local Care Management Organization, and we began to get referrals. The children who come to UCMP for music therapy services face a number of difficulties, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, depression, and anxiety. Our first step is a formal assessment of a child’s abilities, areas of need, and interactions with different kinds of musical stimuli. During this process, we learn the child’s preferences in music and sound, as well as preferred ways and style of interacting with the world. The assessment leads to the formulation of a treatment plan to address specific non-musical goals, such as socialization, communications skills, impulse control, emotional regulation and expression, coping skills, and fine and gross motor skills. Musical goals are also a focus at times. Additionally, there is an emphasis on forming a strong therapeutic relationship, which is essential for successfully working together. Therapy involves using four main types of interventions to address our goals: songwriting, improvisation, recreation/orchestration, and receptive experiences.

The positive responses from the children and their parents have been both humbling and empowering. My vision is to expand to include all modalities of creative arts therapies, including dance/movement and drama. That will take time, but every day the children inspire me to keep moving forward.


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