Opening Doors at Sistema Cyprus

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

Opening Doors at Sistema Cyprus

Marios Antoniou, Grants and Educational Programs Officer, Sistema Cyprus


Sistema Cyprus Conductor and Artistic Director Mr. Santiago Ossa Alzate leading the orchestra. Santiago was once a student in a Sistema program in his native country, Colombia. Photo: Sistema Cyprus.

A few years ago, a music educator with a can-do attitude and a passion to promote social equity through music decided to form an orchestra for young people with fewer opportunities to learn. The rest is…our history.

Inspired by the origin story of Venezuela’s El Sistema, Founder Nikoletta Polydorou had long dreamt about creating Sistema Cyprus, where local kids could learn music and be encouraged to dream big. After sharing her vision with close friends and like-minded educators, she found the allies she needed to get started. She formally registering the organization and set out to find a place to host the program. This was essential; you can’t announce that “we’ve opened our doors” if you don’t have doors to open. Fortunately, a beautiful room—with doors—was offered to us by the municipality of Nicosia, which has supported us every step of the way.

Doors opened, and the children came running. It was obvious that there was a high demand for a program like this. A team of passionate music teachers crossed through the doors as well, set on making this dream a reality. From moment one, the children were eager to hold an instrument in their hands and make their first attempts at producing sound. Before long, we needed more space to hold multiple lessons concurrently. That need led us outside; our cellists took to the streets for their lessons. Passersby were fascinated to see these local kids playing beautifully right in front of them and began asking about the music project. We found another room to host lessons soon enough, but our time rehearsing outside led us to an important realization: maybe we should keep the doors open more often.

Not always, of course—that extra room proved critical when winter arrived. But when the time came for our first concert, we took to the streets once more. Our students’ first-ever performance for an audience happened right outside the school’s gates, in an open urban space in both the heart of the city and the epicenter of their neighborhood.

The tallest kids get the double basses and their teacher, Anastasia Nikolaidou, introduces them to the instrument. Photo: Sistema Cyprus.

Since that first concert in 2018, Sistema Cyprus has operated through local activities. As of September 2018, it operates in two núcleos in the centers of Nicosia and Larnaca, as well as at shelters for unaccompanied refugee minors across the island. The program involves local children and young people from low-income families, most of whom have an immigrant or refugee background. Thus, several different ethnic backgrounds comprise our intercultural family, as our children come from Cyprus, Greece, India, Syria, Romania, Poland, Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Nigeria, Albania, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other countries.

What does it take to start a program like this with almost no funding? Most program leaders know: hard work, persuasiveness, grassroots support, luck, and someone who has the means to hear you out and follow your vision. A campaign to collect instruments brought in our first 25 violins; a donation by the Yianis Christodoulou Foundation made it possible to buy the rest of the instruments. Still, nothing would have happened without the support of the entire community for these students. Through one concert after another, our students grew musically and academically. Beyond the music lessons, we witnessed our students bond with their musical family, buoyed by a strong sense of belonging and support. And as our students grew, so too did their fanbase; our social media accounts gained a larger following, and attendance increased at our concerts.

Perhaps our proudest achievement was establishing collaborative relationships with three leading local universities—The University of Nicosia, The European University of Cyprus, and Frederick University—all of whom have committed to supporting students who have participated in the Sistema Cyprus Orchestra. In fact, we have just sent our first student to university since forming these agreements; she is studying music at the University of Nicosia on a scholarship that covers 75% of her tuition. Our hope is that participation in our program will indeed be life-changing for our students, providing them with the tools to prosper with dignity in their careers and personal lives.

Sistema Cyprus intends to keep the doors open for our young people. Like other music for social change programs, our goal will always be to help them develop through music, to build healthier communities by investing in our young people, and to promote them as ambassadors of peace, hope, and understanding between people of diverse cultures.