t the heart of El Sistema is a simple idea: using the ensemble experience to promote positive social change in participants.

It works because in a musical ensemble, there is diversity of role yet unanimity of purpose and direction. In an ensemble, there is no success for one without success for all. And unlike sports, an ensemble’s success is measured only against its potential; its victories are not contingent on others being vanquished.

The idea behind el Sistema is powerful, it is inspirational, and it bears investigation from many different angles because its implications and effects are multidimensional. Its potential touches infants in arms and yet reaches to multi-billion dollar industries at the same time.


F R E Q U E N T L Y   A S K E D   Q U E S T I O N S

1.   What is El Sistema?
2.   What does the word Sistema mean?
3.   Where did the name el Sistema come from?
4.   How is El Sistema different from music education in other countries?
5.   What is the music education method that they use?
6.   If there’s no “method,” how are activities coordinated nationally?
7.   Is it orchestra only?
8.   Is it only classical music?
9.   How is it funded?
10.Is it an initiative of the Chavez Administration?
11.Does el Sistema report to a particular government department?
12.Does it work?
13.Where can I learn more?


1. What is El Sistema?

It is the Venezuelan music ensemble network founded by Maestro José Antonio Abreu in 1975. In 2013 the organizational constitution was amended to reflect a desire towards “shaping a positive future” for the youth of the nation. In late 2014 it declared a specific social objective of providing access to one million Venezuelan young people. Its programming is offered without discrimination in terms of their prior musical training, or their ability to pay. As a national network it encompasses roughly 300 different schools or núcleos, as they are called in Venezuela, and approximately 350,000 current participants.

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2. What does the word Sistema mean?

Sistema simply means “system” and the word in this context is synonymous with “network.” The Venezuelans used the word Sistema much in the way we talk about a health care or judicial system, not referring to one procedure or process, but a coordinated network of services or programs.

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3. Where did the name el Sistema come from?

El Sistema is the shortened form of the old government name for the Venezuelan national youth orchestra network. The new official name is La Fundamusical Símon Bolívar, after the South American revolutionary hero.

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4. How is El Sistema different from music education in other countries?

As of 2013, the primary objective of el Sistema is positive social change, effected through expansion of access to music education. The program is almost entirely performance-based, with the focus on the ensemble, rather than the individual, and is immersive in its frequency.

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5. What is the music education method that they use?

Pedagogically it’s almost entirely decentralized, with the individual núcleos having large authority to develop programming that is adaptive to local needs and resources. Curricula, teaching methods, or the specifics of what happens on a day to day basis at the many núcleos can vary considerably.

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6. If there’s no “method,” how are activities coordinated nationally?

All núcleos in Venezuela adhere to Five Fundamental characteristics. They effect social change through the pursuit of musical excellence. The primary format is the ensemble. The groups meet often – as much as six times a week. No one is denied access based on prior training or ability to pay, and all the núcleos are connected to share human or physical resources and provide an expanded network of opportunities for program participants. For a more detailed discussion, please see this article.

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7. Is it orchestra only?

El Sistema started out as an orchestral program, but has since branched out into choral, big band, and indigenous instrumental ensembles as well.

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8. Is it only classical music, that is to say, music from the Western European tradition?

No. Although that repertoire still constitutes the majority of the music performed in Venezuela, El Sistema has embraced many other musical traditions as well.

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9. How is it funded?

The vast majority of the budget comes from the Venezuelan federal government. Financing for certain major capital projects has been provided by the InterAmerican Development Bank.

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10. Is it an initiative of the Chavez Administration?

No. The program was founded in 1975 and has existed and grown through six different administrations, eight if you count interim, included the current one led by President Nicolas Maduro.

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11. Does el Sistema report to a particular government department?

Not any more. As of early 2011, oversight of the Fundación shifted from the office of the Vice President to that of the President. It was previously housed by different social service departments such as Community Development, given its explicit social mandate.

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12. Does it work?

Numerous programs modeled on el Sistema around the world have conducted evaluations demonstrating positive emotional and cognitive benefits to participation in music education. As the program’s social mechanisms are more clearly understood, the social benefits and social return on investment will be more clearly established.

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13.Where can I learn more?

Start right here. This website is devoted to the exploration of both the theory and practice of creating lasting social transformation through music, from fundraising and mundane operational issues all the way to educational and social policy. There are many previously published print articles available in full text online, including the only deconstruction of el Sistema endorsed by its founder Maestro Abreu, and video resources offering windows into the day-to-day practice in Venezuela. This site is also host to the longest running and most widely read blog on issues of social change through music, with tens of thousands of visitors from hundreds of countries. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Contact me here.

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