Principles of Scale for Growing a Sistema System

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

Principles of Scale for Growing a Sistema System

Dalouge Smith, CEO of The Lewis Prize for Music


In the early days of the U.S. El Sistema movement, Maestro Abreu regularly spoke at national conferences. Often during these events, he would state, “El Sistema is not a system.” Yet we all marvelled at the interconnected structure of neighborhood núcleos, regional seminarios, state youth orchestras, and the multiple levels of youth orchestras based at Caracas’s national conservatory.

Since then, we’ve spent immense energy and resources building local programs modeled on the núcleo design. We now have over 100 programs across the country utilizing El Sistema’s mix of musical, social, and community principles. However, we have not given similar energy to studying why Maestro Abreu created his nationally connected system and what lessons it has for us.

When he started, Maestro Abreu had the original Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra members teach, recruit, hunt up instruments, start núcleos, and organize seminarios. They developed instrument making and repair workshops, compiled a library of orchestral music, and created a media library of guest artist master classes. They did all of this in order to grow El Sistema across all of Venezuela.

There is little doubt that we are awash in resources compared to the circumstances in Venezuela. We’ve not had to undertake the same grassroots effort because the U.S. has a mature music education industry comprised of certified music educators, university music departments, instrument manufacturers, music publishers, youth orchestras, and summer opportunities.

Yet our existing ecosystem struggles to meet the needs of today’s diverse communities. National arts education data confirms that the lowest income students receive the least music and arts education in school. According to the Yale School of Music, “today’s music teachers do not statistically reflect the diversity of their students: while 50 percent of U.S. students are non-white, only around 10 percent of music educators are teachers of color.” Seeing these realities in our own communities has inspired many people to be part of the U.S. El Sistema movement.

However, to fully address the institutionalized barriers that have created this disparity, we need to learn lessons of scale from Maestro Abreu, just as we’ve learned program implementation. These new principles of scale will be a complement to the program principles we now recognize as fundamental to El Sistema work. The following preliminary principles of scale are inspired by my understanding of El Sistema’s evolution and the opportunities that exist here. I welcome additions and refinements.

  1. Aspire to influence public systems. Maestro Abreu did this by embedding El Sistema within the Ministry of Health. Our greatest opportunity is to work for the restoration of music education in schools with the inclusion of El Sistema principles.
  2. Support and champion diverse music educators. Venezuelans were excluded from their country’s musical life before El Sistema. With so few music educators of color in the U.S., it is clear the same is true within the communities we serve. Sharing El Sistema practices with diverse music educators has the potential to give them new skills and relationships that are more relevant to the communities where they work than are the ones they get via traditional training.
  3. Prioritize equitable inclusion. El Sistema’s White Hands Choir demonstrates the importance of including every child. Our U.S. movement has yet to dedicate itself to serving differently-abled children with as much energy as do the Venezuelans. Developing this practice will strengthen our ability to scale. Also, we must prioritize early childhood music.
  4. Put young people in the lead. Maestro Abreu named Gustavo Dudamel the Music Director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra when he was 17. From the beginning, El Sistema expected its young participants to teach. This grew capacity exponentially. We must do the same, so the young people in our programs begin to see themselves as teachers and leaders upon whom their younger peers rely, well before they undertake collegiate musical studies.
  5. Be a knowledge creator and disseminator. The El Sistema movement has been creating and sharing knowledge since its inception. The openness with which that knowledge has been shared with us and others around the world affirms that knowledge is an essential characteristic of scaling.

We already have early-stage examples of these proposed principles in the U.S. What we don’t have is a framework that articulates their essential place in our movement. I believe that pursuing these principles with intention will result in the El Sistema movement becoming an essential resource for all music education across the country, to the benefit of all children


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