El Sistema is a new Goshen College music course that explores a system of music education that sets out to bring about social change in communities.
The El Sistema class is taught by Elsje Kibler-Vermaas and Dr. Jose Rocha, the former being a professor at Longy School of Music, a Cambridge-based conservatory whose mission includes a social imperative to bring music to underserved audiences and has been a leading proponent in the United States of El Sistema, which was founded in Venezuela. Goshen has been taking a cue from Longy, with emerging music programs at local schools and now this class that teaches music education majors the philosophy of this global initiative.
El Sistema states their mission as “a set of inspiring ideals which inform an intensive youth music program that seeks to effect social change through the ambitious pursuit of musical excellence…focusing primarily on children with the fewest resources and greatest need.”
This intent is met with high musical standards, placing great emphasis on the teachers of these courses to meet the community where it is and to elevate their passion and commitment to music. In Venezuela, this program comprises one of the only after-school programs for youth and has therefore had a huge impact on the children there.
“El Sistema isn’t just about developing children, though,” Katie Shank, a sophomore enrolled in El Sistema, explains. “Orchestras and choirs are incredibly advanced because of high expectations and intensity. Musical excellence is very important so the children feel they have accomplished something.”
The class uses the text “Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music” by Tricia Tunstall, coming together on Thursday nights to discuss their readings with their on-screen professor, Kibler-Vermaas. Students are encouraged to question and challenge the system they are learning about as well as to find applications for El Sistema within their own community.
“I like having the chance to discuss the passion and verve that seems to be a constant in El Sistema music programs,” Ramona Whittaker, a sophomore enrolled in the class, said. “I enjoy trying to understand how to use El Sistema as a program that emphasizes and tries to better both the social and the musical aspects of itself, but my favorite part of the class is listening to recordings of children in El Sistema. There is a lot of passion and a lot of impressive music, and I really like good music.”
El Sistema provides a connection from Goshen to other music in the United States, including Longy and Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, but also to programs abroad, as that is where the heart of this program takes place. Since Venezuela’s success, other countries have adopted programs like El Sistema, and training teachers in this philosophy is one way of working on getting this kind of program installed in the United States.
“All El Sistema-inspired programs are transformative in the lives of the children who participate in them, and that is also true in the U.S.,” Shank said. “Teachers in El Sistema classrooms have told our class that the entire environment feels magical. El Sistema isn’t really magical, it just draws on the magic of a few ordinary things: community, hard work, and musical excellence.”