Sistemang Pilipino: A Decade of Continuous Learning

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

Sistemang Pilipino: A Decade of Continuous Learning

Lianne Sala, Founder and Executive Director, Sistemang Pilipino


Big band, orchestra, and chorus concert in 2019. Photo: Dang de Larrazabal.

The story of the El Sistema-inspired program Sistemang Pilipino began quietly in April 2013 at an orphanage in Cebu City, Philippines. A mixed group of 21 music teachers, students, and musicians all began together with a teacher training workshop led by Graciela Briceno, a Sistema Fellow based in Boston, MA, in the United States.

By the end of that year, about 50 children from the orphanage and from one of our partner foundations were ready to perform at the culminating summer performance and at a cultural event called Gabii sa Kabilin (Night of Heritage), organized by a local foundation, the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation.

Between then and 2019, we grew steadily, focusing on orchestral and choir training, artistic and cultural workshops and events, values formation workshops, and at least two public performances each year. Students have come mainly from public schools in Cebu City; a few come from private schools and surrounding towns or municipalities within Cebu province. One of the children from the orphanage remains under our guidance and support, while we keep in touch with the orphanage, in general, to invite them to concerts and organize occasional outreach activities at their site. Since 2013, visiting teaching artists from around the Philippines and around the world have come to teach, observe, and perform.

Teacher training workshop with Graciela Briceno. Photo: Aurelio Maria Rodriguez.

By the summer of 2019, we were ready to perform our biggest event ever: our “Big Band, Orchestra, and Chorus Concert.” Approximately 70 students, alongside 40 musicians and teaching artists, performed for about 800 people at the largest mall in Cebu, SM Seaside.

The pandemic followed soon after and hit us hard. We continued the program online, but our student population dropped to four violin and viola students. Aside from having to keep our costs at a minimum given the significant decrease in donations to our program, our own students did not have sufficient internet connections or gadgets to allocate to music learning. Nonetheless, the four students who could continue were motivated and disciplined; one of them became the first Sistemang Pilipino student to pursue a college degree in music. He is now in his second year of studies at the University of the Philippines in Manila, our country’s capital. Four of our intermediate string students receive academic tuition support from our network.

During the pandemic, Sistemang Pilipino took the opportunity to strengthen its organizational capacities. We pursued our registration and license with the Department of Social Welfare and Development. To meet one of the requirements for licensing, we hired a social worker and interns to visit the families of our students and to profile students on record from the year 2017 onward. This process gave us a clearer picture of the situations of our students within their families, and it enabled us to better understand how they perceived our program, and what their expectations of us were.

Our first performance following the pandemic was by our string quartet, at an advocacy event addressing malnutrition in the city. By May 2022, we were able to build back up to 21 students, who performed at a children’s festival in August and at the annual Christmas concert last year, 2022.

Choir training, 2019. Photo: LIanne Sala.

Today we have an intermediate string ensemble, beginning string students, and a choir. Our 11th year of programming will begin this month, April, and we are preparing for two main programs built around culture and heritage: one is an hour-long all-Cebuano concert, and the other is a locally written theater production, Rosas Pangdan, made possible through the assistance of a private foundation, our local city government, and Friends of Sistemang Pilipino.

Our partner organizations, the Arts Council of Cebu and the Guitar Foundation of the Philippines, have provided us with performance opportunities and with invitations to their events since 2014, to widen our students’ cultural experiences. We have also had the privilege of two visits by a luthier from Italy and a visit by members of an orchestra from Japan.

We have commissioned team-building and organizational development activities for our directors and staff members, run by a company that has long supported us as well as other experienced practitioners in the field. We have also been the focus of an organizational development workshop by the Center for Organizational Research and Development within the Ateneo de Manila University, one of the top universities in the country, who gifted us with a three-month course, “Introduction to Organizational Development.” This year, I am attending the Global Leaders Institute, pursuing an MBA in Arts Innovation that focuses on social entrepreneurship, cultural management, sustainable impact, and community development.

Throughout this difficult but exciting journey building and sustaining our organization, our main learning has been in three areas: importance of keeping in touch with the families of our students, to address concerns in real time; the importance of growing and developing our membership for greater support and resources; and the importance of lifelong learning.

Paper violin workshop with Pope Dalisay. Credit: Aurelio Maria Rodriguez.

What’s next for Sistemang Pilipino? We are working to produce at least one locally written play every year, beginning this August. We are working to expand the number of our students receiving academic tuition assistance from our partner organizations. We also plan to enter into collaborative community development with two of our partner organizations who have begun the groundwork of supporting 150 families to grow their own food, venture into livelihood programs, and receive academic tuition assistance. We are also developing our theory of change, in partnership with a design company headquartered in Singapore, and will continue supporting the development of performing artists by linking them to benefactors for their higher studies, and by featuring them at our productions or events.

Looking back, I can see that in the decade since our quiet beginning, we’ve learned a great deal about persevering in taking a stand for quality music education in our community—but even more important, we’ve learned a great deal about how to sustain holistic relationships with students, teachers, partners, and families. It takes both kinds of work to create a true musical program for social impact.


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