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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