Summer Camps for Young Sistema Musicians

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

Summer Camps for Young Sistema Musicians

Kerrigan Dougherty, Artistic and Program Operations Coordinator, OrchKids, Baltimore


In the vast network of Sistema-inspired programs across the U.S., there is nearly as vast an array of summer programs. Each summer camp has distinguishing features, but all are united around a common purpose: preventing “summer learning loss.” Every executive director and program director surveyed for this article told me that summer programs are important bridges of learning between one year and the next.

At the three programs interviewed and the additional four programs researched, summer sessions range from one to eight weeks in length. Sessions can include lunch, breakfast, or both, as well as snack. Programs meet three, four, or five days a week. Offerings include group classes, ensembles, and performance opportunities; some programs offer individual lessons.

Preventing summer learning loss is a significant reason, if not the reason, that programs take on this work, but each program tailors also its offerings to its constituent community. This creates a fascinating variety among programs. BRAVO Youth Orchestras of Portland, OR, uses the idea of a theme to govern each summer session. Having a fun theme creates a cohesive and memorable experience for students, and ties together all the different components of the summer program. Executive Director Seth Truby described particular success during the “Animal”-themed summer, where all the repertoire, for the most experienced ensembles as well as for the beginners, was about animals. There was also a theme-related fieldtrip.

Soundscapes, of Newport News, VA, offers two separate program tracks. The first track encompasses returning instrumental students in ensembles and group classes, and is split between the end of school and the end of summer. The second track is for beginner students in an “Extended Learning Initiative” program called SPARK, where students take bucket band, recorder, and note-reading classes. Program Director Rey Ramirez described “seeing each individual as an important contributing member to the project.” It’s important, he said, to remember not only what Sistema programs can offer to students, but also (and equally importantly) what students can offer programs.

Miami Music Project, in Miami, FL, makes the most of hot summers by infusing fun into every aspect of its summer camp. Executive Director Anna Pietraszko listed many offerings that make the summer special: students participate in creative composition projects, play contemporary and student-driven repertoire, have the chance to travel to Interlochen, MI to attend camp, and – not least – often get to eat lunch from local food truck vendors! The summer music camp is a great recruiting tool; fully one-third of the students each summer are new to the program.

OrchKids, in Baltimore, MD, focuses on summer as a chance to explore beyond one’s own community. For younger students, this means opportunities to play music, eat meals, and do activities with students from other neighborhoods. Senior Site Manager Camille Delaney-McNeill noted how special it is for older OrchKids to travel to Los Angeles for Take a Stand, Michigan for Interlochen, upstate New York for a program in Ithaca, and even as far as Europe. In addition to exploring places, OrchKids of all ages are encouraged to explore new disciplines – from nutrition, dance, and art classes to field trips to baseball games and the zoo. A similar horizon-expanding focus occurs among programs in New Jersey, which come together as the El Sistema New Jersey Alliance to offer a three-day nature camp for students from all seven programs in the state; kids hike, swim, enjoy campfires and games, and also rehearse intensively for a culminating concert.

A thread that emerged in research and interviews was the importance of not only what is being prevented – summer learning loss – but also of what is being created. Summer sessions provide students with experiences that blend the known with the unknown. Without the constraints of a busy school-year schedule, students can stretch into new kinds of musical and social learning, individually and together.


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