The Power of Many: Collaborative Research Findings

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

The Power of Many: Collaborative Research Findings

Dennie Palmer Wolf, Steven Holochwost, and Judith Hill Bose, WolfBrown Associates


The news is in! Three years, twelve sites, 764 3rd- to 5th-graders, a research team from WolfBrown and the Longy School of Music, and hours of collaboration have yielded robust findings – and big questions – for the field of El Sistema-inspired teaching and learning: Here are some of the most significant findings.

• Students exhibited significant growth in their ability to play their instruments. We measured musical growth using internationally accepted standards, with established inter-rater reliability on familiar and new excerpts. Young musicians show the steepest rates of growth during their first two years. By the third year of study, students are still exhibiting growth, but at a much slower rate.

While it is important to be able to show that our students are growing as individual musicians (as well as ensemble players), and to reach beyond anecdotal reports of musical progress, the findings also raise important questions for the field. For instance, is a steep incline followed by more gradual growth a to-be-expected pattern of acquiring a complex skill, or should programs think differently about how to challenge and engage older players?

• Students in El Sistema-inspired programs for 2 to 3 years report higher levels of growth mindset than their peers who do not participate in an El Sistema program. After only one year of participation, El Sistema students report rising levels of growth mindset when they describe how they take on challenges as musicians. By their second year in the program, young musicians also report higher levels of growth mindset for themselves in school (as compared with their peers who are not participating). Growth mindset is the belief that one’s basic qualities – such as intelligence or musical ability – are due to one’s actions and efforts rather than to a fixed trait or talent. This is an important finding, as there is increasing evidence that growth mindset may be a vital ingredient in both school and life success.

Based on this evidence, it is well worth asking if the field can identify and share the daily practices that produce these growth mindset gains. Would students experience even more benefits of adopting a growth mindset if it were more consciously nurtured in their musical studies? If it takes 2-3 years for children to experience the deepest benefits – those that seem to transfer beyond music – how does that change our thinking about program retention? What can programs do to help students persist, so that they are able to reach the full potential of this development?

• Boys in El Sistema-inspired programs exhibit higher rates of growth in cooperation, perseverance, and academic self-concept than their peers who are not enrolled. This correlates with findings of a recent study completed in Venezuela, and also speaks to how many classrooms struggle to engage boys.

Does this finding ensue because demanding music programs provide an unusually active and embodied setting where boys can take up these skills? Or is it because current measures are particularly sensitive to detecting changes in young males, while not equally well attuned to changes in young female students? Where should we be looking, and with what tools, to discern possible changes in girls and young women?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is the following: When unequal access to arts learning cuts some children off from sustained arts education, they lose more than the chance to play an instrument (or act, or draw). Those inequalities also exclude them from settings where they can flourish emotionally and socially, developing engagement, growth mindset, and self-regulation – skills that will matter throughout their lives.

The study has yielded more than research findings. By working together as a collective effort, sites and researchers have developed a set of measures that can be effectively and authentically embedded in El Sistema-inspired programs and administered by program staff. These measures can be used in a wide range of settings to investigate the effects of early orchestral experiences for elementary-age children. You can now access all of these measures, as well as detailed descriptions, instructions for implementation, and reference materials, at:

Colleagues at 12 different sites across the country have paved the way for all of us to join together in a continued effort at a national evaluation of El Sistema-inspired learning in this country. For the first time, this allows us to understand not only the variety of development at our individual sites, but also the growth and challenges of our national movement.


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