Social Justice, Social Curriculum at El Sistema Aeolian

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

Social Justice, Social Curriculum at El Sistema Aeolian

Clark Bryan, Founder and Artistic/Executive Director, The Aeolian Performing Arts Centre


ALS Benefit Concert with special guest and Honorary Patron Yuri Pool. Photo: Jason Plant.

Today, we’re inundated with words like mindfulness, inclusion, leadership, social-emotional intelligence, and empathy. Do we really know what they mean? If we do, are we able to actualize them? Is having a diversity statement an authentic way of making positive change in an organization? Does saying “I empathize with you” serve as genuine support? These are some of the questions I’ve been asking for more than a decade since launching El Sistema Aeolian.

In 2016, I was fortunate to attend the first conference for the International Positive Education Network, where I met Dr. Martin Seligman. Seligman has proposed a model for wellbeing embraced by UNESCO in their 2016 report, “Happy Schools: A Framework for Learner Well-being in the Asia-Pacific.” This model is easily remembered through the acronym “PERMA”: nurturing Positive emotions, maintaining a level of Engagement in something, cultivating positive Relationships, finding Meaning in life, and experiencing Accomplishments. Per Seligman, research has shown that we experience a sense of wellbeing when we cultivate these five footprints into our learning practices. Many schools and programs around the world now use Seligman’s model as a foundation for “Positive Education,” which puts the learner’s wellbeing ahead of academic outcomes. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it became clear to me that we must be considering it in musical contexts. How do we hold the tension between social and music educations, binding them together in a pedagogical double helix?

My first experiment with Positive Education Curriculum was to add a “Social Learning” column to my lesson planning. I was already focusing on the usual aspects of music education, like technique, music literacy, music history, and musicianship. It’s easy to fill those columns as musicians; we’re trained to do it. Much harder was encouraging teachers to fill that Social Learning column. I’ve been told: “I instinctually use social lessons in my curriculum all the time, so why would I need to plan it?” My response is always: “Could you do better in this area? Could you build a curriculum that tackles all the important areas of social development in order to nurture wellbeing in all your learners?”

Student Sebastian Torres Prado is ready for a performance. Photo: John Wiebe.

To that end, I launched a leadership class at El Sistema Aeolian a few years back, hoping to take our Peer Mentorship Program to the next level. Participants already had experience with modeling in the classroom, teaching one-on-one both in and outside the class, and leading in performance; I wondered if offering a broader look at leadership might help them flourish. In this class, we start with mindfulness exercises and explore many topics chosen to help them recognize and develop character traits. Each participant then takes turns leading the ensemble. We study the different approaches participants take to lead, focusing on body language and tone of voice, and then explore their results.

Along with music exercises, we talk about how students are processing current issues, building an atmosphere of trust and honesty that spills into the other classrooms. A fascinating comment I hear regularly is “we never get to have these conversations anywhere else.” The class is so impactful that participants become enthusiastic to help with the operation and development of El Sistema Aeolian. In this way, they become co-creators of the program.

Another area of focus is “Social Fluency.” I define social fluency as the ability to confidently engage with people from all walks of life. El Sistema Aeolian operates as part of a larger organization (Aeolian Hall) that provides many other music education programs. Because of these programs, I’m able to invite artists to perform and interact with El Sistema Aeolian participants regularly. Our participants not only get to perform with these artists but also begin to learn in different ways. Last November, the Academy Award- and Grammy- winning artist Buffy Sainte-Marie spent a few hours with our leadership class, teaching a masterclass on life and leadership. Buffy is currently on a Canadian postage stamp; in her life, she has been a fantastic advocate for many Indigenous, environmental, and social issues. Her lessons provided students with a heightened awareness of many human challenges they had never considered, and ideas to overcome them. And of course, students also benefited from hearing her music! Meeting and engaging with remarkable people builds self-esteem and social fluency.

Senior Phrygian Orchestra and leadership class participant Leon Gray. Photo: Jason Plant.

Even the more rote aspects of our teaching can be bolstered with social learning, especially for younger students. Take scales, for instance—a teacher might try asking their student to play a scale “sad” or “happy,” listening for the differences in tone and tempo and paying attention to the student’s body language. Using colors can also evoke emotions: “Play that scale red.” Eventually, one can introduce more complex emotional states, like “melancholy” or “serenity.” Define these terms; find a piece of music that demonstrates what they feel like.

We sometimes think of the El Sistema movement as social justice because it’s free and about community. That may be true, but it isn’t self-evident. Many professional orchestras have historically functioned as dictatorships. Many free music programs focused on excellence lose participants who need to learn differently or don’t achieve quickly enough. It is my belief and experience that if we bind positive education with music education, we can ensure inclusion and equity. We can offer transferable skills that have a profound impact on the quality of our students’ lives. And we can leave behind a legacy of leadership, community, and social action.