El Sistema visit: Key things to take away

I found the experience of visiting the El Sistema programme in Venezuela to be quite overwhelming. I had gone with a certain amount of cynicism about the programme, perhaps expecting to find a fixed ‘system’ with a heavy amount of spin that was not borne out by the reality. However, as the week went by it was impossible not to be impressed and in many ways overawed by the sheer scale of the national programme, its integration, the very high musical standards at all levels and the commitment of all involved. I was also encouraged by the fact that it was much more reflective and developmental than I had expected, and quite taken aback by the generosity and willingness to share of our Venezuelan hosts.

Thoughts and key learning points for Nottingham

1. It’s “not a system but a network.” Being part of such a network seems to be a key factor in building aspiration, and reinforces the importance of building a network of programmes across In Harmony in the UK and El Sistema internationally.

2. The role of young leaders is of real importance. In Venezuela some students become support teachers from age 14, like section leaders, and are paid a small amount too. We need to think about making much more use of structured pupil mentors and young leaders: Liverpool and Lambeth already do this

3. In Nottingham, we should think about moving our area band network towards something more like the Venezuelan nucleos: ensembles with some sectionals, and then small group/1-1 support as appropriate to enable young people to access the ensembles. This could form a serious WCE follow on strategy.

4. Much of the El Sistema methodology (especially at the early stages) is very close to good WCE practice (it feels very much as though El Sistema is a root of the early Wider Opportunities programmes). There is very strong emphasis on singing pieces first, then learning practically to play phrases (they call this technical learning) then finally seeing what it looks like in notation. It’s also interesting that they have had to face the same criticism about this approach that we have in the UK.

5. Singing is very important throughout, both as a key part of learning instruments and in excellent choirs.

6. There is a strong emphasis even at the highest levels on playing by ear (the call it ‘by heart’ – a nice phrase) as well as from notation. Many ensembles seem to play the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, and this seems to be always played ‘by heart’. Even when pieces are learned from notation, what often happens is they play a piece, then conductor says, let's do it again by ear.

7. Some of the teaching methodology is very traditional and old fashioned. However, the ‘by rote’ approach does seem to work for them, mainly because of the very large amount of time available.... every day, four hours a day (almost certainly unreplicable in the UK). Even though old-fashioned, the result is clearly enabling and aspirational for the young people. They believe that they can do things themselves.

8. There appears to be relatively little emphasis on creativity/improvisation (apart from in the SEN rhythm groups and some student compositions heard). This is an area where I feel the UK is stronger.

9. A key thing is the integration of the whole system. On the smaller scale all sessions support each other, with early years and ‘induction’ classes seeding skills needed later. There are no unrelated games or activities just because teachers feel like doing it.

10. On the wider level, the whole country has agreed repertoire, arranged in order of difficulty, so orchestras meet for spectacular come-together events that quickly give funders a good impression. They are very happy to have a ‘gargantuan’ sound with more wind and brass than the orchestration requires (involving as many young people as possible even if it overwhelms a bit). However, this is balanced by the fact that the strings are really strong and confident too. Another advantage is that it enables rehearsing all the strings (for example) from three orchestras together with one tutor - very cost and time effective.

11. The students I heard were playing with real passion and, usually, genuine musical understanding. They were really ‘going for it’ and got what the music was about. It may not always be subtle (but that can come later) but excellent at capturing the excitement of music. I heard some extraordinary performances, some polished, some pretty rough in places, but utterly musically involving and exciting.

12. The programme is not inclusive in the UK sense, because it's opt-in, and parental support must be there to take part. To be part of El Sistema you have to commit to 4 hours a day, 5 days a week. This ‘all-or-nothing’ approach makes me somewhat uncomfortable, but for many of the young people the alternatives are being out on the streets. However, it attracts very large numbers from the barrios, and it is based directly in the local community. There is no sense of the programme being for all-in-one-school, as with the UK In Harmony. Where did this come from?

13. Here is the key principle.... The ensemble is the centre of everything. This is meant literally, and it is supported by sectionals and then by one to one support as needed. Young people are taken out from the sectionals to get the individual differentiated support they need to be in the ensemble. 1-1 teaching is as a small part of the whole, and totally focused on enabling access to the ensemble.

14. It is very much about aspiration through high musical achievement (supported by the role models from within and a network that demonstrates high standards are possible for all students). It is not at all about just having a good time, playing (unlinked) games, or an attitude of “didn’t they do well considering”. Having said that, I saw some very happy students!

15. The SEN provision seen was exceptional, featuring genuine integration with mainstream students and very good differentiation around student skills and needs. Two examples that we should look at as models:

a. A mixed SEN/mainstream signing choir, with white gloves, so that the visuals become an absolute key part of the performance.
b. A rhythm band.... basically a Latin American band with grooves, tunes, and solos.

16. Although there is a large emphasis on classical repertoire, there are lots of routes, and not just orchestral. Even the orchestral routes make much use of Venezuelan traditional music. Many El Sistema ensembles do other styles with the same rigour: eg movement, singing, Latin, pop, jazz etc. Much of this has developed in more recent years, and so some routes are not as developed yet. An example is an Afro-Venezuelan orchestration class - arranging Venezuelan music for programmes.

Thoughts for the UK

El Sistema clearly works for the society that it was developed for. There is much for us to learn, but it seems to me that we need to identify the core elements that make it a success and then rethink how this can work in UK society.

There are indeed some key differences between the El Sistema programme and the UK In Harmony prospectus: in particular the UK involvement of a professional orchestra that may be partially or fully unrelated to the community, and the UK emphasis on intensive engagement with a single or small number of schools. The UK programme is arguably more fully inclusive (because involving all young people in a school) - but only for a small number of schools as yet.

Three key UK-wide questions for the future

(1) A major strength of El Sistema is the progressive network of children’s, youth and professional orchestras that have grown out of the same system...they are from within, and therefore a massive confidence boost to aspiration. Many of the teachers are from the same community and were El Sistema students themselves. Young people regularly see high quality music making from people from their own or similar communities. How can we match this in the UK?

(2) Can we, over time, integrate Whole Class Ensemble (WCE) work and In Harmony, so that WCE provides the universal first access and In Harmony then provides a proper, sustained and intensive progression route in inner city and other deprived areas?

(3) Are we able, in the UK, to get some agreement on agreed ensemble repertoire, to enable the coming together of young people from across the country as a major tool for aspiration?

Ian Burton is the head of In Harmony Nottingham.