El Sistema: Music Lessons to Rebuild the World

We’re going back to 4th grade this hour to experience the El Sistema way of learning to make music – as I wish I had! While we’re at it, we’re getting a lesson in how to humanize a school and a community space. At the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Massachusetts, we’d have started in Pre-K with a paper instrument and a fake bow, but we’d be playing the real thing in a real orchestra by second grade, making music with classmates three and a half hours every school day.

In Venezuela the experiment has enrolled more than a million kids over nearly 40 years. El Sistema is not an instruction method so much as a shared conviction: that every child wants to make music, and can. It has big social implications, too: that a child with an instrument and a teacher is no longer poor or excluded; that a poor family with a child in an orchestra has a path to the future. Simon Rattle, the European conductor, says El Sistema is the best thing happening in music in the world, and some say it’s not just in music.

So we’re catching a global wave in El Sistema, this gift of the Venezuelan economist and maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, this proving ground of the celebrated young conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel. The writer Eric Booth has blogged three sparkling essays on his inspection of El Sistema in Venezuela in 2008, 2010 and 2013. And the two maestros, Abreu and his protégé Dudamel, took the stage at Berkeley a year ago to reflect on their creation.

El Sistema is applied now in a dozen schools in New England, in hundreds around the world. At the public charter school behind St. Columbkille’s Church on Market Street in Brighton, we’ve been hanging out with the most advanced of several orchestras at the Conservatory Lab Charter School. You can hear the violinist and conductor Adrian Anantawan leading 60 children (4th and 5th graders) through rehearsals of John Williams’s movie theme, “Indiana Jones.”

In the studio our guests are Kathleen Jara, violinist and resident El Sistema artist at the Lab Charter School; Lawrence Scripp, co-founder of the school, long an education specialist at the New England Conservatory of Music; and the prolific Harvard Ed School Professor Howard Gardner, best known for his work on “multiple intelligences.”


Guest List
Kathleen Jara
violinist and resident El Sistema artist at the Lab Charter School.
Lawrence Scripp
co-founder of the Lab Charter School, long an education specialist at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Howard Gardner
prolific Harvard Ed School professor, best known for his work on "multiple intelligences".

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  • Mark Aisenberg

    Is this where we can post questions for the live show? I’d like to understand:

    1) I’ve read back-and-forth claims about the payoff of music study in IQ, grades, etc. Has there been any reliable data analysis along these lines regarding El Sistema?

    2) Is there any info on how long the students stick with music after it is no longer required? And whether students also get together to form bands outside of the formal program?

    3) Is there any thought to extending some of the lessons of El Sistema to the rest of us, perhaps in some sort of MOOC coursework?

    4) How essential is the type of music (classical for El Sistema as I understand it) to the working of the program? Would it work (or is anyone trying it) with jazz or popular music?


    • Larry Scripp

      I regret that we did not open up the lines for live questions such as yours. Perhaps Chris Lydon will consider a redux discussion in the future that will allow for much more interactive discussion about the El Sistema experiment at the Conservatory Lab Charter School — a school I proposed in 1998 to serve as a model both as an intensive and diverse education in music and its integration with other kinds of learning in K-5 schools.

  • Congratulations on return to the airwaves +bitstreams! I enjoyed catching a bit of the show live.
    However, if the feed has a link on this page, I couldn’t see it while using an android phone. How about including it here &/or tweeting it at showtime? http://www.wbur.org/listen/live

  • Jim Sullivan

    Chris, You mentioned liking that “culture” was taken away/back from the elites… This speaks to the “old” (pre-modern) definition of culture which derived from; “to cultivate.” If you want to see what any specific groups’ culture is, look at what they cultivate. At this school, the El Sistema program actively, deeply cultivates the children, their whole brain & their education. Later you intently ask; why are the children so happy? Once again think about being a child and being genuinely cultivated – it is joyous on so many deep levels…

  • Glen S.

    It’s great to hear your (always) thought provoking voice again, Chris. Especially in this subject — I’m a professional musician and former music education student who has struggled with finding a place in the contemporary school paradigm so I think about these things a lot.

    What’s somewhat disappointing to me is that after reading the links you provided, as well as other sites and publications, and listening to this piece — I still don’t know what El Sistema really is! What differentiates this system from the original vision of school music education, going all the way back to the John Philip Sousa times? I think we all know that music education, along with sports and other competitive (especially team-based) games, are very effective tools for educating young people…but what is it about this particular model that is more effective than others?

    It’s obvious that these particular educators you talked to in this episode are extraordinary. I can tell immediately by their enthusiasm and passion that they bring a positive energy into their teaching that is sorely missed in most school music programs — where the vast majority of teachers struggle to even muster the energy to get out of bed in the morning. The fact is that most music programs in the US are failures, not because of flaws in their pedagogy but because of an overall negative work environment (for teachers and students alike).

    The few basic essentials of El Sistema that I gleaned from this conversation support my own personal ideas about what is going on. Firstly, that all who wish to join are accepted. And as an extension of that principle, they are evaluated by their levels of participation and engagement, not by the quality of their playing. This is nothing new in music programs, I personally have not seen many kids who fail music class because they don’t play good enough. If this does happen that’s a terrible shame, but usually it’s whether kids show up and don’t disrupt class that determines their grades.

    This is the crux of the overall problem, in my opinion. There should be a safe space, a sacred circle if you will, that gives kids the security to set goals, to fail and succeed, to strive to be better than they are. Unfortunately, the safety of this space has eroded considerably, failure is not met with a shrug of the shoulders and a chance to try again. For most kids, especially in school settings, there is an immense pressure that raises the stakes to an unfathomable level — meet the standards on your first shot or you’ll be punished, not temporarily but permanently. Why are the kids in the Conservatory Lab school so happy? Probably because they’re driven by a nurturing, supportive program…not by the threats, bribes, and hypocrisy found in the “feudal dungeon” (thanks again, McLuhan) of most contemporary schools.

    So again, back to my criticism — what is it that El Sistema has that other well funded, successful music programs headed by passionate, caring, and respected teachers don’t have? Why is it that education programs need to buy into “new models” (literally purchase, hopefully not the case here) to gain any traction in the US? Why is it more effective to claim that this program originates in Venezuela, than to say it’s simply an effectively run program that actually attains most of the pedagogical ideals we’ve had for over a century?

    • Larry Scripp


      I suggest you get a copy of Tricia Tunstall’s book Changing Lives, available at Amazon, etc. to get a sense of how El Sistema started in Venezuela. I have also published an article in Arts Education Policy Review that goes into some depth on the implications of an intensive music education that is free and inclusive in Venezuela and is just beginning to take root in the U.S.
      All best to you, Larry

  • I especially appreciate the emphasis on the spiritual and community-building aspects of music education and its effect on the overall development of children. The trio of guests brought three distinct perspectives and appreciations for El Sistema at the Lab Charter School; the principal talking about the daily and real-life positive consequences and challenges to the students; the founder expanding on the underlying principles that make music education extremely advantageous to all children; and the education pedagog reminding us that the benefits being experienced at the Lab can be attained in other educational disciplines as well.

    An entertaining and informative discussion. Thank you for airing this program, and thank you to your three panelists for their passion and intelligences regarding education and music.

  • Sam

    It’s so great to have Christopher and his intellect back. I’m sure many folks–myself included–thank BUR for responding to our requests. He’s always great listening and stimulating thinking. A wonderful way to celebrate the new year and BUR.

  • Potter

    The finale brought me to tears. I could feel the joy, the sense of accomplishment, the young musicians felt at the end. This music, this experience they will take with them regardless of whatever else they do. The focus ( this discussion) on what music education does and means is so sorely needed to educate and help those who would cut arts education in the schools. I’d like to hear how in the world we ever came to this notion that the arts are frivolous. How did this happen? We know better- we have known better for years too.

    Wonderful guests!

  • Potter

    Exhibit A (for me anyway) For years I have had this report on my shelf- a book. I remember ordering at the time it came out 1977. “Coming to Our Senses; the significance of the Arts for American Education” a panel report. David Rockefeller was chairman of a distinguished group that met.The panel itself was founded in 1959 ( as American Council for Arts in Education) but it took 15 years to produce this study. As the title indicates, what caused the gathering was the feeling that the arts and arts education were in crises. The report was financed by the National Endowment for the Arts and the US Office of Education.

    This report asserts that American education exaggerates the importance of words as transmitters of information. The fact is we send and receive a torrent of other information through our eyes, our ears, our skin and our palate. We use all our senses to interpret and convey complexities of daily life….

    So this was 1977.

    Here’s a current report:

    • nother

      *Great Report, Potter! “American education exaggerates the importance of words as transmitters of information.” So true!

  • Potter
  • nother

    “Teamwork to make beauty!” Having the ROS Team of Chris and Mary and others back on WBUR is as sweet as molasses!

    Great subject, interview, and video! I hope the takeaway for these students is the takeaway I had when unexpectedly and incomprehensible, a piece of instrumental music made me cry. It was my first taste of the unexplainable, and ever since I’ve been ravenous for more…a search that ensures I’ll never be bored again! And neither will they…

    And here’s hoping they’ll embrace this outlet as safe space to meet their moods head on…to no longer be a passive passenger on that train, but to be a conductor!

    “You will ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot tell you with
    certainty; they come unsummoned, directly, indirectly,–I could
    seize them with my hands,–out in the open air; in the woods;
    while walking; in the silence of the nights; early in the morning;
    incited by moods, which are translated by the poet into words, by
    me into tones that sound, and roar and storm about me until I have
    set them down in notes.”

  • nother

    On closer review, the quote above was actually attributed to Beethoven by an acquaintance, Louis Schlosser, who claimed in “Recollections of Ludwig van Beethoven” to have taken down verbatim the lines above.

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  • Potter

    We were privileged to hear Golijov’s the Pasion of St Mark at the Boston Symphony last night- and so glad we went in the pouring rain to Boston from out here in central Ma. The chorus was Venezuelan and simply outstanding. There is something going on there musically in Venezuela no doubt. The composer specifically chose this chorus and no wonder. And so coming after this discussion I wondered the connection. Golijov was there too and it was thrilling.