El Sistema is a tested model of how a music programme can positively affect a country by both creating great musicians and dramatically changing the lives of thousands of children. El Sistema’s approach to music education emphasises intensive ensemble participation from the earliest stages, group learning, peer teaching and a commitment to maintaining the joy and fun of music learning and music making.
“Passion first – refinement second,” the El Sistema methodology is significantly different to much of the music education training methodology. The backbone of El Sistema student training is preparation for participation in orchestral ensembles, which is at the heart of the Núcleo community and culture. Of equal importance are choral singing and various other ensembles, which adapt well to a diversity of musical genres and origins.
Kids of preschool age begin with body expressiveness and rhythm work. Encouraging children to keep their bodies active while playing an instrument (without compromising on technique) is a key feature of the programme in later years. At the age of five, children pick up their first instrument, starting with the recorder and percussion. They also join a choir in order to build a community through ensemble work. By the age of seven, all students can pick their first string or wind instrument. Kids can change instruments but are not encouraged to do so frivolously.
Early lessons include singing and playing with instruments, often focusing on a single note within a group song; this helps to develop a feeling for sound quality. Learning how to use full standard notation often takes many years and is incorporated into their lessons organically. There are three levels of practice every week: full ensemble work, section work and private lessons. Students often encounter the same teacher in both their group and personal lessons. This allows students to progress quickly, as bad habits are quickly corrected and good habits are regularly enforced.
Learning by performing
Students play in front of audiences as much as possible. This reduces the pressure of a formal performance and allows performing to become a natural part of their musical life. Students frequently watch their fellow students perform, allowing them to both see and be inspired by the accomplishments of their peers.
El Sistema’s primary focus is to create a daily haven of safety, joy and fun that builds every child’s self-esteem and sense of value. Discipline is relaxed but enforced. Hard work and true achievements are crucial to the success of El Sistema. However the importance of fun is never forgotten.
The majority of El Sistema teachers and Núcleo leaders are former students of the programme. They understand both the social and musical mission of the programme — they nurture both the individual and musical needs of a person at the same time. Teachers are able to pay individual attention to each student. If they notice a child has missed two days, without prior notice, they personally go to the home of that child to enquire about their absence.
El Sistema has a national curriculum, including an established musical sequence. However, local leaders can customise their programme. The entire musical curriculum starts with simple arrangements of big pieces with big sounds. These masterworks are often reintroduced as the children progresses through the programme. As Gustavo Dudamel said, “We have lived our whole lives inside these pieces. When we play Beethoven’s Fifth, it is the most important thing happening in the world.”
Work with parents
El Sistema makes a considerable effort in working with the students’ parents. For a child aged two or three, teachers make home visits to ensure that the family understands the level of commitment required of them. As students begin to learn their instruments, teachers instruct parents on how best to support their child’s practice schedule at home, giving feedback and encouragement.