Stronger Together: The Longy Sistema Side By Side

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

Stronger Together: The Longy Sistema Side By Side

Ann Welch, COO, and Cara Kinney, Program Manager, Longy School of Music


At a Celtics game in Boston’s TD Garden this past January, the national anthem was played by an ensemble making their arena debut: the Longy Sistema Side By Side Orchestra, made up of graduate students at the Longy Conservatory and students from El Sistema-inspired programs in the Boston area and in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For the young Sistema players, it was an unforgettable moment. For Longy, it was a milestone in its mission to support connections between music education and social justice.

When administration and faculty at Longy first learned about El Sistema some years ago, it seemed like something we had to join – but we weren’t sure how. We started by asking, “What does the El Sistema field need, and what could be our role to address that?” In response, we heard two resounding needs: funding and teachers. As a school with a deep belief that musicians should also be good teachers, we created scholarships to place our students in teaching positions in El Sistema-inspired programs. Creating the Sistema Side by Side orchestra was a natural next step. Sistema Side By Side launched with a seed gift of just $5,000, with 35 graduate students and Sistema students playing together in one orchestra. Today, the program, directed by Venezuelan Jorge Soto, has over 100 participants from the Boston area and Pittsfield. Our three instrumental ensembles and choir make music together year-round in academic-year programs and in the intensive Summer Academy.

Sistema Side By Side addresses the pressing need for high-quality, accessible music education for children in under-resourced communities, in several ways. First, since rehearsals are at Longy, students travel outside their neighborhoods to a college campus, and they begin to be able to picture themselves in such an environment. Second, because our program brings together wind, percussion, and string players as well as a choir, students learn symphonic repertoire that they would not necessarily experience otherwise. Exposure to this complex repertoire inspires them to play better. Third, the program promotes community-building; students make friends with people from different backgrounds and become more flexible as musicians. Finally, our graduate students help to meet the Sistema demand for more teachers.

Can Sistema Side By Side be done elsewhere? Let’s examine the essential elements:

1. A regional density of music programs. Longy students travel to program sites to teach, and families come to Longy for rehearsals, so it helps that most programs are concentrated in the Boston area.

2. A conservatory or music department that values teaching. A vital part of the Sistema Side By Side program is the impact it has on our graduate students. To supplement their pedagogy classes, Longy students can observe and evaluate how trained teachers explain concepts, teach in group settings, and demonstrate passion in their lessons. They learn by doing as they teach in El Sistema classrooms.

3. Funding: Funders are often attracted by the opportunity to support collective impact. Sistema Side By Side has become a meaningful way to engage donors and friends, as it demonstrates one of the signature ways Longy pursues its social justice mission.

4. Stakeholder Alignment. Sistema Side By Side relies on all its stakeholders. The families, students, teachers and directors of Sistema programs, together with the Longy faculty, graduate students, and staff, must collaborate to ensure success day after day and year after year. Longy could not be a hub for these programs without their ongoing, generous commitment, and they could not benefit if not for our genuine interest in providing service to the field.

We hope that Sistema Side By Side can be used as a model to make a difference across the country – and even the world. Conservatories and El Sistema-inspired programs have a profound opportunity to increase the their collective impact by partnering. If more music schools can adapt the Sistema Side By Side program model for their communities, music students will grow as teachers, programs will have more teaching artists to lead their classes, and together we will create greater social change through music.


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