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National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela
FounderJosé Antonio Abreu
PurposeMusic education
WebsiteFESNOJIV official site

El Sistema (which translates to The System) is a publicly financed, voluntary sector, music-education program, founded in Venezuela in 1975 by Venezuelan educator, musician, and activist José Antonio Abreu.[1] It later adopted the motto "Music for Social Change." El Sistema-inspired programs provide what the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies describes as "free classical music education that promotes human opportunity and development for impoverished children."[2] By 2015, according to official figures, El Sistema included more than 400 music centers and 700,000 young musicians. The original program in Venezuela involves four after-school hours of musical training and rehearsal each week, plus additional work on the weekends.[1] Most El Sistema-inspired programs in the United States provide seven or more hours of instruction per week, as well as free use of an instrument.

Origin and history

El Sistema began under the leadership of José Antonio Abreu (May 7, 1939 – March 24, 2018) with 11 students in an underground parking garage.[1] For many years, its official name was Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, (FESNOJIV), which is sometimes translated into English as "National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela." The organizations has recently changed its name to Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar (FMSB), but is still widely known by the FESNOJIV acronym.[3]

Abreu's vision

Abreu has said that "music has to be recognized as an agent of social development in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values — solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion," crediting it with the ability to "unite an entire community and express sublime feelings."[4]

Abreu led the program for nearly four decades with the backing and material support of seven consecutive Venezuelan governments, ranging across the political spectrum from center-right to the current leftist presidency installed by Hugo Chávez although Abreu has been "careful to keep El Sistema separate from partisan politics."[5]

Play and fight

"Play and Fight" was the title of the El Nacional news story about the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela that appeared on February 2, 1976. The organization soon adopted that phrase as its motto, expressing its members' determination and commitment to El Sistema as a vital and critical project, both orchestrally and socially.

Success stories

Gustavo Dudamel, current musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had his musical beginnings in El Sistema. According to Dudamel, "music saved my life and has saved the lives of thousands of at-risk children in food, like health care, like education, music has to be a right for every citizen."[6] Among other El Sistema alumni with careers in music, Rafael Payare was hired as music director of San Diego Symphony and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Christian Vasquez became Chief Conductor of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Dos Santos is the Music Director of the Orchestra of the Filipino Youth, Alexis Cardenas is violin concert master of L'Orchestre national d'Île-de-France in París, Edward Pulgar is Principal Second Violin of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra; Giovanni Guzzo teaches violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London and is principal guest leader of the Budapest Festival Orchestra; Jaime Martínez [es] is principal oboe of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Medellín; Sergio Rosales conducted orchestras in Colombia, Belgium, Japan, and United States; double-bass player Edicson Ruiz became the youngest musician ever to join the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Tulio Cremisini is the Principal Timpanist with Miami Symphony Orchestra; and Pedro Eustache is a multidirectional soloist flautist, and world-class reed and woodwind player. Alcides Rodriguez, a clarinetist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, has said that "the System was an open door to another dimension, a different world that I probably could have never seen."[7] On 4 September 2016 Paul Desenne's work Hipnosis mariposa was premiered at The BBC Proms[8][9] by Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

Venezuelan government involvement

The program has a reputation for rescuing young people in impoverished circumstances, directing them away from lives of drug abuse and crime, into which they would likely otherwise be drawn.

The Venezuelan government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez began fully financing Abreu's orchestra after its success, in 1976, at the "International Festival of Youth Orchestras" in Aberdeen, Scotland. From the beginning, El Sistema came not under the ministry of culture, but under the umbrella of social-services ministries, which has strategically helped it survive. The current Chavez administration has been El Sistema's most generous patron so far, covering almost its entire annual operating budget, as well as additional capital projects.[10] Abreu received the National Music Prize for his work in 1979 and became Minister of Culture in 1983.[11] In 1995, Abreu was appointed Special Ambassador for the Development of a Global Network of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choirs by UNESCO. He also became a special representative for the development of orchestras within the framework of UNESCO's "World Movement of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choirs."

At the time, its network of 102 youth and 55 children's orchestras (including approximately 100,000 youngsters) came under the supervision of the Ministry of Family, Health and Sports. A goal of El Sistema is to use music for the protection of children through training, rehabilitation, and prevention of criminal behavior.[12][13]

In September 2007, with Abreu present on the television talk-show, Aló Presidente, the president Hugo Chávez announced a new government program, Misión Música, designed to provide tuition and music instruments to Venezuelan children.[14] It has been noted that "various ministries oversaw El Sistema until two years ago, when the president's office took direct control. El Sistema's mission runs parallel to Mr. Chávez's program to provide subsidies and services to the poor."[15] There have been objections, however, to Chavez's involvement from those who oppose the policies of the present government.

Spread of regional centres in Venezuela

On 6 June 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank announced the granting of a US$150 million loan for the construction of seven regional centers of El Sistema throughout Venezuela. Many bankers within the IDB originally objected to the loan on the grounds that classical music is for the elite. But then the bank has conducted studies on the more than 2,000,000 young people, educated in El Sistema, linking participation in the program to improvements in school attendance and reduction in juvenile delinquency and crime rates. Weighing such benefits, the bank calculated that every dollar invested in El Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends.[10] Supported by the government, El Sistema started introducing its music program into the public-school curriculum, aiming to be in every school and to support 500,000 children by 2015.[16]

The project has also been extended to the penal system. On 25 May 2008, Leidys Asuaje wrote for Venezuelan daily El Nacional: "The plan to humanize jails through music began 11 months ago under the tutelage of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice and FESNOJIV...."[17]


In November 2014, British music scholar Geoffrey Baker published a newspaper article[18] and a book[19] that disputed many of the claims made by and about El Sistema and suggested that much of the publicly circulating information about the program was hyperbolic or simply false. The book's allegations included a culture of authoritarianism, hyper-discipline, exploitation, competition, and gender discrimination. It argued that the program was deeply conservative beneath its progressive exterior and that its claims of social transformation were unproven and exaggerated. For example, Baker's work alleges that the IADB's claim that El Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends for each $1 invested was based on dubious calculations and had been withdrawn by the bank itself. Considerable controversy ensued, with furious denunciations by Sistema advocates and enthusiastic responses from music education experts. In his review of Baker's book, Damian Thompson, arts editor for The Spectator highlighted Baker's contention that the rampant sexual abuse of young musicians in El Sistema is part of "classical music's dirty little secret."[20]

Simon Bolivar Orchestra

Main article: Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar

Simon Bolivar Children Orchestra in Maracaibo, Zulia State
Simon Bolivar Children Orchestra in Maracaibo, Zulia State

An important product of El Sistema is the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. In the mid-1990s, Abreu formed the National Children's Youth Orchestra, and many young musicians graduated from it to the Simón Bolívar which grew considerably in size. This became an opportunity to re-create the ensemble as two separate performing entities. The first generation of members was designated the Simón Bolívar A; the younger, newer members, who had recently been brought in from the new National Children's Orchestra, now constituted the Simón Bolívar B"[21] The Simón Bolívar B is now the touring orchestra and, in 2007, made its debut at the BBC Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall and later at Carnegie Hall under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, receiving enthusiastic reviews.[22][23] 2009 saw the orchestra touring in the US, but also in Europe as well.

In the spring of 2010, however, a tour to the Lucerne Easter Festival drew comments from reviewers, such as Tom Service of London's The Guardian, that the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra was "youthful no longer."[24] This struck home, and Abreu decided, as he put it, "the time is once again ripe for new, younger national orchestras."[21] And so, he set about creating new ensembles. The Teresa Carreño Symphony Youth Orchestra, named for the famous Venezuelan pianist, started international touring in the autumn of 2010 with appearances at the Beethoven Fest in Bonn, followed by Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, Madrid, and London.[25] Other new youth orchestras include the Caracas Symphony Youth Orchestra and a newly constituted National Children's Orchestra consisting of 358 musicians.[26]

In other countries

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United States

El Sistema USA is a membership organization, which supports and encourages more than 80 El Sistema-inspired programs throughout the United States, a number which are growing rapidly. Its philosophy and aspirations are expressed on its website:

A visionary global movement that transforms the lives of children through music. A new model for social change.[27]

Abreu appeared in a public symposium on El Sistema on 7 November 2007 in Boston, Massachusetts, where he gave the keynote speech of the public symposium on El Sistema on the WGBH Forum Network. A significant panel of speakers was present.[28]

At the November 2007 symposium, Abreu expressed delight at the prospect of joining with the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston and other musical institutions in the United States to create a Pan-American movement. "The New World," he said, "is nothing less than all three Americas. And so what we are in the process of creating is really an expression of a new, transcontinental social and musical culture."[29] The Conservatory Lab school is associated with the New England Conservatory of Music,[30] and was the first El Sistema-infused charter school in Massachusetts.[citation needed]

It has been estimated that there were five or six El Sistema-based programs in the US in early 2009, but "by mid-2011, there were at least 50 such programs — and list is increasing by the week..."[31][32] In addition, many of the original Abreu Fellows who came together at the New England Conservatory as a result of Abreu's TED Prize, have gone into their local communities to start new programs or to expand upon or within existing ones. These cover a wide geographical area ranging from Kidznotes in North Carolina, JAMM (Juneau Alaska Music Matters) in that state, and ICAN (Incredible Children's Art Network) in Santa Barbara, California. In 2011, Longy School of Music of Bard College, Bard College, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic formed Take a Stand to promote and support the El Sistema-inspired music education movement in the United States.[33] Based in Los Angeles, it also offers a graduate-level degree program based on the tenets of El Sistema, including Master of Arts in Teaching in Music degree.

First Notes in Vail Valley, Colorado; CityMusic in Cleveland, Ohio; Club O in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Kid Ovation program in Des Moines, Iowa; and Orchestrating Diversity in Saint Louis, Missouri are also inspired by El Sistema.[34]

Other El Sistema-inspired programs in the US include:


El Sistema-based programs exist in almost every province of Canada, with over 20 programs in existence and more being started each year.[63]

El Sistema Aeolian (London, Ontario) was established in November 2011 and grew out of The Aeolian Performing Arts Centre, in London, Ontario.[64] It serves approximately 75 students attracted from the greater London area. Currently, the program runs 4 days per week and includes youth string orchestra, choir, an adult orchestra, a full meal/snack, Indonesian gamelan, free donated pianos/lessons and gives between 15 and 20 performances per year.

El Sistema South London (ESSL)[65] (London, Ontario and St. Thomas, Ontario) was established in 2012 serving students at two South London schools. In 2018, the program expanded to serve schools in St. Thomas, Ontario. Also in 2018, a new program entitled Ability Through Drumming was established to provide drumming lessons to children in London with physical and developmental disabilities.

OrKidstra[66] (Ottawa, Ontario) was established in October 2007. It serves 400 students from Centretown inner-city schools through in-school programming (150 students) and after school programming (250 students). The program is made possible through its many partnerships with local community supporters like: OCDSB,[67] and the National Arts Centre.

Saint James Music Academy[68] (Vancouver, British Columbia) Canada's first El-sistema program, was established in September 2007 .[69] It serves 480 students from Downtown Eastside inner-city schools through its outreach (280 students) and after school program (200 students). The program is an official community partner of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Sistema Kingston is a program based at Molly Brant Elementary School in Kingston, Ontario. The program's partnership includes The Dan School of Drama & Music at Queen's University and the Joe Chithalen Memorial Music Instrument Lending Library (Joe's MILL).

Sistema Toronto[70] was founded in 2011 by businessman and community activist Robert Eisenberg. Sistema Toronto's first centre opened at Parkdale Junior and Senior Public School; the second opened in 2013 at Jane/Finch’s Yorkwoods Public School. Sistema Toronto has since opened two centres at Military Trail Public School and St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Scarborough's Kingston-Galloway-Orton Park neighbourhood. As of 2017, enrollment is 240 children aged 6–13.

Sistema Winnipeg was started in 2011 as a partnership between the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Winnipeg School Division, and Sevenoaks School Division.[71][72][73] The programme runs every day after school for approximately 130 students, and includes a meal, choir, orchestra, and social programming. Sistema Winnipeg performs regularly with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra [74] and is led by Music Director Naomi Woo, also Assistant Conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.[75]

YONA-Sistema (Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta – Sistema) (Edmonton, Alberta) was established in September 2013.[76] It serves students at Delton School and Mother Teresa Elementary School in Edmonton, Alberta and is offered through a partnership between the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Edmonton Catholic School District, the Edmonton Public School Board, and the Inner City Children's Program.

United Kingdom

In Harmony is a British government-led music education and community development project which is based on El Sistema[77][78] It was begun in 2009 with Julian Lloyd Webber appointed chairman of its steering group. The project receives funding from the Department for Education and Arts Council England. On 22 November 2007, Julian Lloyd Webber noted the following in regard to the UK government's announcement of an infusion of £332 million dedicated to music education:

We also have an impoverished South American nation to thank.[79] Last August, in the midst of school holidays, when an uncomfortable number of British children seemed even more disaffected than usual, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra arrived from Venezuela to deliver performances at the Edinburgh Festival and the London Proms that were, quite simply, miraculous"[80]

Lloyd Webber visited Venezuela in late 2009 and reported on what he saw there.[81] the project has centers in Lambeth (led by Lambeth Council's Children and Young People's Service), Leeds, (led by Opera North), Liverpool (led by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), Newcastle Gateshead, (led by The Sage Gateshead), Nottingham, (led by Nottingham City Council), Norwich, (led by NORCA and Sistema in Norwich, and Telford and Stoke-on-Trent (led by Telford and Wrekin Music)[82][83]

The Nucleo Project was founded by Lucy Maguire in February 2013, in a basement in Notting Hill. It is a social action programme in North Kensington that uses the pursuit of musical excellence as a way to enrich the lives of children, young people and their families. Beginning with five children, the project grew rapidly, with over 200 children of ages 2–18 in six different orchestras.[citation needed]

Sistema Scotland was established with a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, as a result of an initiative by its chairman Richard Holloway in the economically depressed area of Raploch, in Stirling[84][85]


Orquestra Geração (Generation Orchestra)

This name used to describe the 16 centres currently using it to reference activities throughout the country. It was started in 2005 in a small way in Amadora on the northern outskirts of Lisbon. It is now a solid project ready to expand and to influence Portuguese social inclusion methodology and government policy. Some 850 young people are now involved, in 16 schools in 11 towns: Loures, Oeiras, Sintra, Amadora, Sesimbra, Vila Franca de Xira, Lisboa, Coimbra, Amarante and Gondomar.


Inspired by El Sistema, the Orchestra of the Filipino Youth, is the main arm of Ang Misyon Inc., an institution that supports and provide free music education to the less privilege and talented children in the Philippines.

Sistemang Pilipino in Cebu City began in spirit in October 2009, when the documentary film, Tocar Y Luchar was shown to a group of violin teachers. The organization was registered in January 2013 as a Non-Stock, Non-Profit organization, providing music instruction and values formation to children and youth from underserved communities in the Philippines, starting with Cebu in the Central Visayas Region. It has served five communities since summer of 2013, with an estimate of 500 students who have passed through its choir and string training programs. Website:


The Fundación Nacional Batuta was founded in 1991, modelled on Venezuela's El Sistema. By 2020 over 500,000 children and young people had taken part in Batuta’s musical programmes since its launch in 1991.[86] After Venezuela, it is the largest such programme in the world.[87]

International recognition of El Sistema

The Glenn Gould Prize was awarded to El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu on 14 February 2008.[88][89] Brian Levine, Managing Director of the Glenn Gould Foundation, in an account of his 2008 visit to Caracas wrote: "El Sistema has demonstrated conclusively that music education is the gateway to lifelong learning and a better future."

The Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts was awarded to El Sistema on 28 May 2008.[90]

The National Performing Arts Convention 2008, held in Denver, Colorado, featured Abreu as a guest speaker on 13 June 2008.[91]

The TED Prize was awarded to José Antonio Abreu on 5 February 2009 for his work on El Sistema. A pre-recorded speech was played at the ceremony in which he explained his philosophy.[92] The prize allowed for the creation of the Abreu Fellows.

The Polar Music Prize from Sweden was awarded to El Sistema and Maestro Abreu in 2009.

The Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame awarded Abreu the Notre Dame Prize for Distinguished Public Service in Latin America on September 22, 2014.[93]

The Institute of Education, University of London awarded Abreu an honorary degree in 2013

In the media

See also



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Cited sources