Reflections on Our Shared Lineage

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

Reflections on Our Shared Lineage

Mark Churchill, Founder, El Sistema USA; Dean Emeritus, Preparatory and Continuing Education, New England Conservatory


Sharing the joy of music and friendship after a performance in Caracas, 2003.

In October of 2008, sitting alongside Maestro José Antonio Abreu, I experienced a moment of clarity. We were visiting the state of Trujillo in the far-northwest corner of Venezuela, where the state’s six major núcleos had formed a special orchestra to put on a command performance for the Maestro. A group 200 strong, all between 10–25 years old. A breathtaking interpretation of the first movement of Mahler’s First Symphony ensued, the type of concert I had experienced so many times with awe. But then Maestro Abreu addressed the orchestra. He set out his vision for each of their lives, full of contribution, artistry, and joy. At one point he asked, “Who of you wants to be a teacher?” Every hand shot up; every face was shining. My first thought was: “What a beautiful tribute to the community of educators nurturing these young people.” I came away with the profound understanding that teaching was at the core of it all.

We all have a good sense of what makes a great music teacher: knowledge of subject, a passion for helping their students learn and grow, highly effective communication skills, a sincere interest in the development of the whole person; passion for both music and life, and knowledge of their interconnectedness. From my perch at New England Conservatory in the late ’90s, I believed that my colleagues and I held all of those traits. But while I had already dedicated much of my career to increasing access to ensemble music education, creating numerous programs and partnerships both nationally and locally, these programs all struggled to achieve deep musical understanding and excellence in performance—something I saw as attainable and of the greatest significance in young lives from every background. Hope for finding practical ways to meet that goal was waning until I saw in El Sistema an expression of all our dreams, shining forth from every state, city, and town of our South American neighbor, Venezuela.

What I witnessed during my 30-plus trips to Venezuela helped me re-examine the work. I saw all the “good teacher traits” in every teacher of El Sistema, each in his or her individual personality and methodology. But there was something else, so difficult to define. There was full belief in their common mission: that although their movement was a social program first and a music program second, the social change was achieved through highly focused, excellence-driven music education and performance. There was a conviction that every child could achieve at the highest level, no matter their circumstances, and a willingness to do everything possible to demonstrate that belief in their students.

Perhaps the most imaginative aspect of the El Sistema methodology is group learning, motivating students to learn in order to become more active members of their music ensemble “society.” Led by highly trained teachers and conductors, nearly all learning happened alongside others, creating ideal conditions for peer teaching against the uplifting backdrop of shared musical expression. And there is an uncanny inventiveness, calling on every resource at hand—creating them when they didn’t exist—to provide the best for their students, families, and communities. Simply put, there is a deep devotion to, in the words of Eric Booth, “loving children into wholeness.”

How, then, are teachers trained and prepared for their roles as nurturing educators? Training in education is hardly thought of as “subject”; there is no music education major at the Simón Bolívar Conservatory. Great teachers simply emerge out of the system because they teach from the very beginning. Hence the adage: “When a child learns the second note, they teach the first one to a new member of their group.” This continues throughout their participation in the program. Teaching and learning become a social experience, all about relationships and team spirit. (When I led cello masterclasses in Venezuela, members of the class would immediately text each new concept to their colleagues across the country.) This is true even at the national instrument academies. Accomplished professors guide the most accomplished students, who share their knowledge freely with their classmates and communities with the ultimate goal of offering new possibilities for young people to make change. Most El Sistema students do not become professional musicians, but they carry the values from these creative social experiences down whatever paths their lives take.

It is profoundly gratifying to observe the increasing belief in excellence-driven arts learning around the world. Many programs began long before El Sistema exploded onto the scene, others were inspired by the El Sistema example, and still others have emerged from a growing global consciousness much bigger than El Sistema itself. It’s thrilling to see! As we strive to reach more young people in our work, let us not forget to support our teachers in every way. They are on the front lines. We must work to provide more ways for teachers to share and connect, for their students’ achievements to be fully recognized, for them to acquire new knowledge and be inspired by great examples, and for their adequate compensation. We continue to learn how to do this from our Venezuelan friends, yes, but we also learn from each other, from our students, and, most of all, from our own devoted and nurturing educators.

El Sistema USA has recently launched the Mark Churchill Teacher of the Year Award. Learn more about the honor on the ESUSA website.