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El Sistema

To explain the work of El Sistema, the Venezuelan young people’s music programme, and to encourage students to be involved in group and community projects (SEAL theme: Social skills).

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explain the work of El Sistema, the Venezuelan young people’s music programme, and to encourage students to be involved in group and community projects (SEAL theme: Social skills).

Preparation and materials


  1.  How do you feel about classical music?

    Some of you immediately pull a face. It’s not your choice. Why, I wonder.

    Perhaps it’s because of the instruments. There are no electric guitars or basses, drum machines or synthesizers.

    Perhaps it’s because it’s mostly instrumental. Even when there are lyrics, they’re often in Italian or Latin.

    Perhaps it’s because it’s associated with older rather than younger people.

    Perhaps it’s because classical music is associated with the elite. It’s not something everyone can get involved in because it’s too expensive and too complicated.
  2. José Antonio Abreu believes that a classical orchestra actually represents the ideal society in which there exist not just harmony but also team spirit and solidarity, mutual sympathy and understanding. He points out that a classical orchestra is able to express the most sublime feelings and he believes that young people can experience the truth of this. What’s more, he has the evidence to prove it.

    José is a Venezuelan economist and musician. His country is not one of the most affluent in South America. And it has its share of teenage social problems, with drug abuse, crime and school drop-out rates high in the poverty-stricken urban communities.

    More than thirty years ago José piloted what has become known as El Sistema (the System) in order to address these issues.
  3. El Sistema is a music tuition programme operating across the country. From the age of two or three participants take part in group sessions based on simple percussion, recorder and singing activities. By the age of seven they’ve developed skills of rhythm and melody, so are ready to choose a stringed or wind instrument. They receive expert tuition, and also develop their ability by teaching one another.

    This may sound familiar to many of you who have instrumental lessons in school, but there are some key differences.

    First, El Sistema is absolutely free, paid for by the Government, so it’s not elitist. Anyone who wants to can take part.

    Second, everyone performs most of the time. There’s no opportunity to get nervous about playing in front of others. Performance is normal. The music is created for both the players and the audience.

    Third, group sessions take place a number of times each week so there’s less likelihood of forgetting what was learned last time.

    Finally, attendance is not compulsory. Participants choose whether or not to take part, rather than being forced by pushy parents. In fact, for many members, parental interest is minimal.

    The result is a very high attendance rate and large numbers of participants. They enjoy being there. What’s more, where El Sistema groups exist, social workers and politicians point to a marked reduction in youth crime and antisocial behaviour, and the building of strong community links.
  4. What does this say to us? Am I suggesting that you all get involved in the school orchestra? Maybe you could, but that’s only one example.

    What I’m actually suggesting is that you get involved in something, and that you take a wide-ranging look at what might be on offer.

    Getting involved addresses what I think may be the main cause of the problems some young people find themselves involved in: boredom. If young people have nothing to do, they more easily drift into the grey areas.

    You may not be good at certain activities, you may not even be immediately attracted to them. That needn’t prevent you from taking a look, having a go, be it a musical instrument, Air Cadets, synchronized swimming, jogging, glee club (add other examples from your local community).
  5. What’s in it for you? You stand a good chance of making new friends, learning a set of skills, experiencing the satisfaction of group performances or achievements, filling your time, steering clear of those involvements you don’t really want to be part of and, finally, gaining confidence.

Time for reflection

Think of an activity, or several activities, or a community project that you could take a look at.

How can you find out more?

Some members of El Sistema have become international performers. Just imagine what might happen for you.

Dear Lord,
thank you for the opportunities for involvement that exist in this school and community.
May I be imaginative in the choices I make.
Help me fill my time with enjoyment and purpose.


Use the piece of classical music chosen to play as students enter.

Publication date: December 2012   (Vol.14 No.12)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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