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“Cult” of El Sistema Plays On In Different Key

Anne Midgette of the Washington Post wrote a sobering review of Eric Booth and Tricia Tunstall’s recent book “Playing for Their Lives”. As the Executive Director of the El Sistema inspired program Play On Philly and founding Board Chairman of El Sistema USA, I would offer a few answers to the questions that are at the heart of her critique: What is El Sistema and what is it actually accomplishing?

I define poor from the pre-Latin word pau-paros, which means “producing little; getting little”. My travels around the world have taught me that where some lack in material things, they make up for it ten-fold with compassion and love for their environment, family and health. With that in mind, teaching poor children to play classical music does not stamp out poverty, but helps them produce much and receive what they need to balance out the absence of material things.

You wouldn’t want your pilot to have just 200 hours of flying time, and I promise that you wouldn’t want to listen to a musician with a similarly low number of hours of experience in a practice room. Any vocation requires “rote drill work” for mastery and the discipline learned through that experience directly translates to one’s life. The scientific community calls the skills gained through such practice – skills like impulse control and working memory — executive functioning skills.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has recently partnered with Stanford University to measure the effects of their El Sistema inspired program. Play On Philly has some of the most promising executive functioning research in the country and WolfBrown has expanded its work to measure similar outcomes in a dozen programs in the United States. The Scottish government continues to fund the Big Noise program, which has the most impressive outcomes of any El Sistema inspired program in the world. These are simply three examples of the dozens of research studies currently underway. As the authors of “Playing for Their Lives” suggest, it is too early to claim definitive evidence of all of the social benefits these programs provide, but intense and dedicated study of music builds executive functioning skills and that is a fact. Every day, our students’ practice with instruments helps them practice these skills: the regulation of complex cognitive processes like working memory, reasoning, flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution. We know that those who posses these skills will out-perform those who don’t have them and we are confident that learning to play music is the best way for our young people to acquire them.

No one working on the ground thinks the El Sistema philosophy is a magic bullet. I have yet to meet a parent, student or teacher who believes that a music program alone will provide everything that they need to overcome all of the many, systemic challenges that underserved families in our communities face. However, everyone on the ground knows that forward progress in life is made through a lot of hard work, dedication and persistence.

These children, with the enormous amount of effort they give to their musical endeavors, are producing much, and getting the barest fraction of what they deserve. With all this said, I wonder, would you still call them “poor”? Each day, as I watch them earn the support of a community of music educators who have united with them and their families to build these critical skills, as they tackle the next measure of music, the next recital, the next concert, I hope they feel like the richest kids in Philadelphia, playing for their lives each and every day.

*Originally published as an ArtsJournal blog

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