Since its founding in 1975, Venezuela’s National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs, called “El Sistema” has used music education as a vehicle for social change. It cultivates an ‘affluence of spirit’ which today brings hope, joy and positive social impact to 400,000 children and their families and communities throughout the country. Its founding principles include a team-based approach to collective, cooperative education characterized by trust, discipline, empathy, commitment, structure, and support for self-esteem.
This unprecedented success has inspired hundreds of similar programs which serve an estimated one million children in at least sixty countries around the world. It is a rapidly growing global movement, which we call Sistema Global.
Sistema teachers, leaders and volunteers support children’s musical, cognitive, social, and creative development. Their positive impact includes musical excellence, social and emotional development, raised aspirations, academic attainment and community engagement which are being documented in a growing body of formal evaluation and research.
El Sistema is an extraordinary cultural, educational, and social program that pursues the goals of social engagement and youth empowerment through ensemble music education. Founded in Venezuela in 1975 by the visionary musician and economist José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema has been growing for decades in the form of “núcleos,” or music learning centers, where children living in impoverished or otherwise challenged circumstances gather daily to play and sing together in orchestral and choral ensembles. Unlike other youth music programs, El Sistema’s mission is fundamentally social in nature: at its core is Abreu’s conviction that the experience of immersive, ambitious and joyful music-making together can help young people develop not only musical mastery but also self-esteem, mutual respect and cooperative skills, qualities that can change their lives and the lives of their families and communities.
This vision has been amply realized for hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan children and youth, who have been able to transcend their circumstances and become empowered and productive citizens. During the 1990s, awareness of El Sistema spread across Latin America, and a number of countries, most prominently Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico, began to develop their own Sistema-inspired programs. However, El Sistema remained under the radar in the rest of the world until the first decade of the 21st orchestra, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, began to tour internationally under the baton of the brilliant young conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
Within the past decade there has been an exponential rise in worldwide awareness of El Sistema’s transformative work in Venezuela and throughout Latin America, and of its potential importance for societies everywhere. José Antonio Abreu has been widely honored as a true visionary of our time, receiving prizes and testimonials from countries including Sweden, Spain, Germany, Holland, Italy, Austria, South Korea, Turkey, Canada, and the United States. In addition, programs inspired by El Sistema’s ideals and emulating its principles have been launched in almost sixty countries across the world, on every continent except Antarctica. These programs range from large government-sponsored endeavors, such as South Korea’s “Orchestras of Dreams,” to small, sparsely funded projects often in isolated areas like Srebenica, Bosnia; Whangerei, New Zealand; and Goa, India.