NPR

The Road To An American 'El Sistema'

Abreu Fellow alumna Rebecca Levi now works in a nucleo in Boston, bringing free music education to kids. (Andrew Hurlbut)

Where in the world do you find more kids playing in orchestras than on soccer teams? In Venezuela, where a national program called "El Sistema" provides music education for hundreds of thousands of at-risk youth. Now like-minded programs are springing up across the United States. On Friday, El Sistema USA, the service organization that hopes to lead a U.S. orchestral movement, announced plans for its independence.

Alvaro Rodas is the founder and executive director of the Corona Youth Music Project in Queens, N.Y., a free program inspired by the El Sistema model. He's gotten around 100 restless kids together for a choir camp. Little do they know that their choir is just the beginning — a seed that could grow into an orchestra one day.

At least, that's Rodas' hope. "I started working for El Sistema back in Guatemala," he says. "I was teaching percussion in a little village, a Maya village."

El Sistema began 1,600 miles to the southeast in 1975, with 11 kids in a Caracas parking garage. By the 1990s, the program had grown to the point where Venezuela was introducing it to its Latin American neighbors. When El Sistema's teachers arrived in Guatemala, Rodas was skeptical. They claimed they'd start a youth orchestra with whoever had an instrument.

"We were very pessimistic about the idea, and they kept pushing it. They told us, 'Don't give us excuses. Just bring the kids.' It was a lot of pressure. But after 10 days we had a 100-piece youth orchestra playing Beethoven's Fifth."

Today, programs based on the El Sistema model — they're referred to as nucleos — can be found as far away as Australia, India, Scotland and South Korea.

The international growth owes a lot to the visibility of Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. It has toured internationally under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema's prize pupil.

The energetic, curly headed maestro became the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic two years ago at the age of 28. Since then, three-dozen nucleos have popped up across the U.S. Many more are on the way, thanks in part to an award honoring El Sistema's founder, Jose Antonio Abreu. In accepting the TED Prize in 2009, Abreu said he wanted the award money to fund a training program for leaders who will start their own nucleos in the U.S.

Some of those 50 young musicians have already completed a graduate fellowship under the auspices of El Sistema USA and its host and fiscal sponsor, the New England Conservatory. Rodas became the first in the initial class of 10 to get his nucleo off the ground.

Looking For A New Home

With such a promising start, many were surprised to learn in January that El Sistema USA was looking for a new home. Conflicts had developed over El Sistema's proposed expansion and fundraising. The conservatory, after all, is about to begin its own fundraising initiative for capital improvements. Word came March 11 that the two organizations had apparently resolved their differences. NEC President Tony Woodcock says the Abreu Fellows won't have to move.

"We are recommitting to our Abreu Fellows Program, of which we are extremely proud; and Mark Churchill, who has been a force here at NEC for a long time, is going to develop El Sistema USA as a service organization."

Freeing the organization to focus its attention on the emerging nucleos sounds like a positive outcome, yet the dust-up with NEC can only be the first of many bumps in the road for an American El Sistema. Some music educators think the prospect of building orchestras to help at-risk youth is simply too good to be true.

"El Sistema as it is in Venezuela will never happen in the United States. It's not possible," says Richard Kessler, the executive director of New York City's Center for Arts Education.

"It's not possible for the program to be embraced by the social service and child welfare agencies, and be connected to a national health care system that we don't have. Our government does not fund the arts on that kind of level, on that sort of basis. So what happens is El Sistema has to be translated into something that's American and I think in the translation, generally speaking, it doesn't look very different than many very good youth orchestra programs."

Such training is already administered by schools, music conservatories, and nonprofits, a crowded field — even if hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren lack ready access to music education in New York City alone. Many music schools have extensive fee-based pre-college divisions that offer training that El Sistema nucleos will be giving away free, says Rebecca Levi, one of last year's Abreu Fellows.

"If we achieve anything close to what they've done in Venezuela, we will be a threat, a very real threat, to conservatories."

Levi now co-directs the music program at the Boston Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Mass.

"El Sistema in Venezuela has made the same music relevant to millions of young people, that same music that conservatories here are struggling to get people to pay thousands of dollars go and learn."

Luckily, back in Queens, the kids at the Louis Armstrong Community Center remain blissfully unaware of any behind-the-scenes politicking about their orchestral futures.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Arts education is one target as budgets get downsized around the country. A fledgling music program is promising to take up some of the slack.

It's based on an internationally recognized organization in Venezuela called El Sistema. Through the program in Latin America, hundreds of thousands of at-risk youth have learned to play instruments and participate in orchestras. But as we hear from Lara Pellegrinelli, El Sistema may not be so easy to implement in the U.S.

Unidentified Children: (Singing in foreign language)

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Around a hundred restless kids have gathered at the Louis Armstrong Community Center in Corona, Queens. They think they're here for a choir camp.

Unidentified Children: (Singing in foreign language)

PELLEGRINELLI: Little do they know that their choir is just the beginning, a seed that could grow into an orchestra one day. At least that's the hope of Alvaro Rodas. He's the founder and executive director of the Corona Youth Music Project, a free program inspired by the El Sistema model.

Mr. ALVARO RODAS (Founder, Executive Director, Corona Youth Music Project): I'm originally from Guatemala. I started working with El Sistema back in Guatemala. I was teaching percussion in a little village, in a Mayan village about an hour and a half from Guatemala City.

PELLEGRINELLI: El Sistema began 1,600 miles away to the southeast in 1975, with 11 kids in a Caracas parking garage. By the 1990s, the program had grown to the point where Venezuela was introducing it to its Latin American neighbors.

When El Sistema's teachers arrived in Guatemala, Rodas was skeptical. They claimed they'd start a youth orchestra with whoever had an instrument.

Mr. RODAS: We were very, very pessimistic about the idea, and they keep pushing it. They just told us, don't give us excuses; just bring the kids. And it was a lot of pressure. But after 10, days we had an orchestra, a hundred-piece orchestra, youth orchestra playing Beethoven's Fifth.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINELLI: Today, programs based on the El Sistema model - they're called nucleos - can be found as far away as Australia, India, Scotland and South Korea.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINELLI: The international growth owes a lot to the visibility of Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. It's toured the world under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema's prized pupil.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINELLI: The energetic, curly-headed maestro became the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic two years ago, at the age of 28. Since then, three-dozen nucleos have popped up across the U.S. Many more are on the way, thanks in part to an award honoring El Sistema's founder, Jos� Antonio Abreu.

In accepting the TED Prize in 2009, Abreau said he wanted the award money to fund a training program for educators interested in starting their own nucleos in the U.S.

Mr. ABREU: I wish that you help to create and document a special training program for 50 gifted, young musicians passionate about their art and social justice...

PELLEGRINELLI: Some of those 50 young musicians have already completed a graduate fellowship under the auspices of El Sistema USA and its host and fiscal sponsor, the New England Conservatory - or NEC.

Alvaro Rodas became the first in the initial class of 10 to get his nucleo off the ground.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language).

PELLEGRINELLI: With such a promising start, many were surprised to learn in January that El Sistema USA was looking for a new home. Conflicts had developed with NEC over El Sistema USA's proposed expansion. The conservatory is about to begin its own fundraising initiative.

But word came last Friday that the two organizations had apparently resolved their differences. NEC President Tony Woodcock explains that the Abreu Fellows won't have to move.

Mr. TONY WOODCOCK (President, New England Conservatory): We are recommitting to our Abreu Fellows Program, and to develop El Sistema USA as a service organization.

PELLEGRINELLI: An organization free to focus its attention on the emerging nucleos sounds like a positive outcome, yet the dust-up with NEC can only be the first of many bumps in the road for an American El Sistema.

Some music educators think the prospect of building orchestras to help at-risk youth is simply too good to be true.

Mr. RICHARD KESSLER (Executive Director, New York City Center for Arts Education): El Sistema, as it is in Venezuela, will never happen in the United States. It's not possible.

PELLEGRINELLI: Richard Kessler is the executive director of New York City's Center for Arts Education.

Mr. KESSLER: It's not possible for the program to be embraced by the social service and the child-welfare agencies, and be connected to a national health-care system that we don't have.

So what happens is El Sistema has to be translated into something that's American. I think in the translation, generally speaking, it doesn't look all that different from many very good youth orchestra programs.

PELLEGRINELLI: The kind already administered by schools, music conservatories and nonprofits - a crowded field even though hundreds of thousands of school children lack ready access to music education in New York City alone.

Many music schools have extensive, fee-based, pre-college divisions - training the El Sistema nucleos will be giving away for free, says Rebecca Levi, one of last year's Abreu Fellows.

Ms. REBECCA LEVI (Co-director, Music Program, Boston Conservatory Lab Charter School): If we're able to achieve anything close to what they've achieved in Venezuela, we will be a threat, very real threat to conservatories.

PELLEGRINELLI: Levi now co-directs the music program at the Boston Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Massachusetts.

Ms. LEVI: El Sistema in Venezuela has made the same music relevant to millions of young people, that same music that conservatories here are struggling to get people to pay thousands of dollars to go and learn.

PELLEGRINELLI: Luckily, back in Queens, the kids at the Louis Armstrong Community Center remain blissfully unaware of any behind-the-scenes politicking about their orchestral futures.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Children: (Singing) I see skies of blue...

PELLEGRINELLI: For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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