Sistema as School: WHIN’s Ways of Being

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

Sistema as School: WHIN’s Ways of Being

Charles Ortiz, Executive Director, WHIN Music Community Charter School


As the world has seen El Sistema stretch far beyond the barrios of Venezuela, musicians, educators and citizen artists around the globe have been experimenting with how to use the principles and ideologies of Maestro Abreu in new and exciting ways. In northern Manhattan, that experiment takes the form of the WHIN (Washington Heights & Inwood) Music Community Charter School, an inclusive full-day charter founded on the principles of El Sistema.

At WHIN, all students (currently K-3, growing to K-5 in 2021) have two periods of music instruction every day, alongside English Language Arts (ELA), Math, Science, Social Studies, and Physical Education. There is no “General Music” at WHIN. Rather, each student has two music ensemble classes a day, one choral and one orchestral ensemble. The focus on ensembles allows students to develop their musicianship while reinforcing the three WHIN Ways of Being:

  • We are lifelong and life-wide effective learners.
  • We are empathic and compassionate community members.
  • We are agents of social change.

At WHIN, we often reflect on the uniqueness of our model and on our responsibility to further the work that has reached the lives of so many. As a fully inclusive school, we are proud not to audition or screen students. We accept students from a public lottery as long as seats are available. The Washington Heights communities are largely Dominican; to help support our English Language Learners, we have a flexible model of push-in and pull-out services provided by six English as a New Language (ENL) teachers and one ENL Interventionist. Most of our families live in poverty, and 22% of our students have special needs. We offer a wide array of counseling and therapeutic services, both in-house and through partnerships with outside agencies, to meet the needs of each of our students and families.

WHIN’s goal is not necessarily to create great musicians, but rather to create citizen artists who use their skills to make the world around them a better place. This spirit stretches beyond music into all classes, as we work to achieve a cross-content approach to learning. Our school-wide lesson plan template is guided by Enduring Understandings (teacher-facing) and Essential Questions (student-facing), inviting students to make connections across subject areas and to develop both the skills and the knowledge necessary for mastery. For example, articulation can change the perceived intent of the user. Imagine kindergarten students learning the phonetic skills necessary to articulate a short vowel sound as compared to a long vowel sound in their English Language Arts (ELA) lesson. In their vocal music class, they are learning the skills necessary to articulate a staccato passage or a legato passage. Now, imagine both the ELA teacher and the music teacher using an Enduring Understanding like, “Language is an ever-changing way of interacting with ourselves and the world around us,” as well as Essential Questions like, “How does the way I speak and play help others to understand me?”

We haven’t fully realized our goal of a cross-content curriculum; this is still in process. A big challenge of this work is that it requires a complex skill set on the part of all staff, so we are always in the process of training ourselves. We are constantly asking: Does this higher-level, knowledge-based learning impact the student? How can the Essential Questions help students understand the complexity of language, whether English, Spanish or musical, in an ever-evolving social construct?

These ideas are extended through our WHIN Ways of Being—three big habits of character with many observable practices: responsibility, listening, integrity, service, self-control, collaboration, resource-seeking and growth mindset. We put these habits of character front and center. We state the specific WHIN Ways of Being that are actively developed in each and every lesson. In a third-grade orchestra rehearsal, how does a student playing the melody on viola need to show up for herself and her ensemble? Moments later, when she is playing a supporting part, and it is the cello’s turn to play the melody, how does she—and the entire ensemble—need to adjust? What active listening skills are necessary for every citizen artist? What are the necessary skills of responsibility, collaboration, self-control and service? And when the ensemble transitions to its math class, how do they practice those same skills while working together to solve a complex math problem?

By giving a name to these skills and focusing on them through lesson planning and instruction, WHIN strives to support students as they learn what it means to be a good ensemble member, classmate, family member, friend—and, ultimately, an engaged citizen of the world who uses art, math, science, words and music to make the world a better place.


© Copyright 2022 Ensemble News