Educators gather in LA to take a stand on El Sistema

An upbeat spirit permeated a recent education symposium held in Los Angeles that took the pulse of El Sistema–inspired programs in the United States. The fourth annual Take a Stand Symposium—a partnership of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Longy School of Music, and Bard College supporting social change through music—featured three days of inspiring speeches, serious learning, and hands-on mentoring from experts, all amid the launch of the LA Phil’s Gustavo Dudamel–led Tchaikovsky Fest at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Symposium participants from 28 states and 13 countries, alongside 26 students representing 14 US El Sistema programs in eight states and the District of Columbia, met February 20–22 at Walt Disney Concert Hall and other venues to explore empowering students to take control of their futures. The programs are based on a network of youth orchestras founded 38 years ago in a parking garage by Dr. José Antonio Abreu and funded by the Venezuelan government.

Those in attendance at the LA symposium represented a broad range of professional educational and cultural workers, many of them young and eager to create something new, and whose work and commitment makes the arts in education possible.

Participants were entertained and informed by a provocative mix of movers and shakers in the El Sistema movement, and interested observers, which included LA Phil president and CEO Deborah Borda, Bard College president and American Symphony Orchestra conductor Leon Botstein, “TED Radio Hour” host Guy Raz, League of American Orchestras president and CEO Jesse Rosen, and USC Neurosciences professor Antonio Damasio speaking on the positive effects of El Sistema activities on the brain.

Botstein provided an inspiring overview and identified a key challenge.“The principals of El Sistema,” he said, “the reaching of neglected and poor populations with ensembles in which there is a lot of collaborative teaching between older and younger students and a sense of performing for the community, and the use of music as a motivational tool to build hope, ambition, and self-confidence, are not so easy to adapt into the US, especially in the absence of public funding. But given that caveat, there is a lot of enthusiasm and progress being made, and so we hope that El Sistema will be an inspiration for a new wave of American investment in effective arts education.”

The investment angle was a point emphasized by El Sistema consultant Eric Booth who urged the audience “to commit to spending 50 percent of organizational time on national projects.”

Booth later explained that data from 63 programs in the newly published 2012–13 Census Report Summary shows “it to be a strong young movement, but that the metrics demonstrating its public value do not yet make a strong enough case to command the public monies that will be necessary for longterm sustainability. Our resources are growing,” Booth said, “and the number of students we serve is over 10,000 now. We are finding new funders, not yet on a national scale, but certainly on the local level.”

One of the great stateside El Sistema–inspired program success stories is the LA Phil’s Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA) program, which is designed, like the Venezuelan program that spawned Dudamel, to create musicians and to foster self-esteem through what Borda describes as “cultural awareness and the opportunity to create a community.

“It empowers students to become vital citizens and leaders.”

Propitiously, this marks the year that the first students who started YOLA when they were 11 or 12 years old also are becoming the first students in their families to graduate from high school. Two of them won prestigious Posse Foundation scholarships recognizing “extraordinary academic and leadership potential,” which means a great deal to Borda
personally.

“I’ve watched them since they joined YOLA and am incredibly proud of what they have achieved in such a short time,” she said. “They have impressed me with their depth of understanding of music, of the social implications of YOLA, and their own role. They will become incredible ambassadors for social change in this world.”

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